Cinnamon and Blood Sugar

Cinnamon sticksCinnamon is one of my favorite spices so you can imagine how glad I was to find increasing evidence of its health benefits.

To cut to the bottom line, relatively small amounts of cinnamon (a half teaspoon or so) lower blood sugar and improve a person’s lipid profile.

The story I heard but haven’t been able to confirm is that a USDA research group got interested in cinnamon when they were testing the effect of various foods on blood sugar levels.

Most cakes and pies sent the blood sugar sky-high but apple pie apple pieseasoned with cinnamon didn’t. That led the researchers to wonder why that was and they considered the possibility that it might be the cinnamon.

Of course cinnamon has been a folk remedy for years. It has a mild ability to suppress bacterial growth, which is probably why it was part of the Egyptian embalming process.

It also soothes an upset stomach. And it just plain smells good.

Aromatherapy enthusiasts know that the scent of cinnamon elevates mood. There is reason Cinnabun franchises are always placed close to the entrance of malls and real estate agents suggest boiling some cinnamon sticks and water prior to showing a home to potential buyers.

But current research suggests that the benefits may go well beyond what was previously suspected.

Initial research was done in the laboratory on fat-forming cells. This work suggested that cinnamon, and in particular a compound in it called methylhydroxychalcone polymer (MHCP), has effects similar to insulin.

Not only that, it improves insulin sensitivity. That is, it makes whatever insulin is around work better.

Those studies were in cells growing in tissue culture. The benefits appear to hold up in real life.

The first clinical trial that I’m aware of was done in Pakistan in cooperation with American researchers on a group of patients with type 2 diabetes.

The researchers gave the diabetic patients either various doses of cinnamon or a placebo for 40 days. They didn’t change any other treatment. They then compared the patients’ fasting glucose taken prior to the study with measurements done at 20 days, 40 days, and 60 days (20 days after the last dose of cinnamon or placebo).

The results were dramatic.

Glucose levels were reduced by 18 to 29%,!  And there was a sustained response even after the cinnamon was stopped.

It is of interest that while the higher doses seem to work more quickly, the lower dose was ultimately as effective and sustained response was even better than the higher doses.

Other studies haven’t been quite as conclusive and, as the saying goes, “more research needs to be done.”

However low doses of cinnamon are very safe as well as tasty so I think is something we should probably all include in our diet regularly.

As with anything else, it’s important not to go overboard with it. Very high doses of cinnamon taken regularly might affect blood clotting.

Other than that I’m not aware of any side effects.

The cinnamon should be as fresh as possible. MHCP is water soluble so you can get its benefits from brewing a cinnamon tea. Other essential oils, including the one that might affect blood clotting, aren’t water soluble so they won’t be extracted in a tea.

Cinnamon supplements are available and are probably fine as long as you don’t go overboard with. My usual approach is to use supplements as just that: supplements. I find it easy to add cinnamon to my diet by sprinkling it on my breakfast cereal or add it to a smoothie so I don’t supplement with it.

Many of my diabetic patients report an easier time controlling their blood sugar once they add cinnamon to their diet.

And just as an antidotal report, one my patients swears that her diabetic neuropathy improved greatly after she started supplementing with cinnamon.

The benefits of supplementing cinnamon go beyond improved insulin function and glucose control. It also lowers total cholesterol levels, LDL cholesterol levels and triglycerides. Not a bad combination at all, so consider adding cinnamon regularly to your diet.

But, as I tell my patients, just don’t take it in the form of a cinnamon bun.

1. Broadhurst CL, Polansky MM, Anderson RA. Insulin-like biological activity of culinary and medicinal plant aqueous extracts in vitro. J Agric Food Chem 2000 Mar;48(3):849-52.
2. Jarvill-Taylor KJ, Anderson RA, Graves DJ. A hydroxychalcone derived from cinnamon functions as a mimetic for insulin in 3T3-L1 adipocytes. J Am Coll Nutr 2001 Aug;20(4):327-36.
3. Khan A, Safdar M, Khan MMA, Khattak KN, Anderson RA. Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 2003 Dec;26(12):3215-8.
4. Qin B, Nagasaki M, Ren M, Bajotto G, Oshida Y, Sato Y. Cinnamon extract (traditional herb) potentiates in vivo insulin-regulated glucose utilization via enhancing insulin signaling in rats. Diabetes Res Clin Pract 2003;62:139-48.

Fish Oil and Telomeres

salmon is a good source of omega 3 fatCould fish oil really be the fountain of youth?

While it certainly isn’t the whole answer, a recent study strongly suggests that fish oil supplementation may well be able to help us live longer as well as better.

It all has to do with telomeres.

Telomeres are part of the DNA molecule. The telomere is a stretch of DNA at the very end of a chromosome. The telomeres protect the chromosome ends. They keep the genetic information from getting scrambled.

Some metaphors used to describe a telomere compare it to the whipping at the end of a braided rope or the plastic end on a shoelace.

But there’s a big difference.

Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. When the telomeres get too short, the cell can no longer divide. It dies.

Because of this, telomeres have been implicated in the aging process.

At birth, most chromosomes have about 8000 telomeres. By age 65, that number is down to about 1500!

Although we by no means know the exact relationship between telomeres and aging, it is true that shorter telomeres are associated with a shorter life span.

For this reason, the results of a recent study on fish oil are very interesting.

The study in question began in 2002 and continued until early 2009. Researchers measured the length of telomeres in all participants at the beginning and end of the study.

Then they compared the rate of telomere shortening to the person’s level of omega-3 fatty acids.

There was a clear relationship between a person’s omega-3 fatty acid level and their rate of telomere shortening.

Those with the highest levels of omega-3 fats had the slowest rate of shortening, while those with the lowest levels had the most rapid rate.

While this study doesn’t absolutely prove that supplementing with omega-3 fats maintains telomere length, it certainly is suggestive.

There’s already a long list of other benefits associated with a healthy amount of omega-3 fat in your diet so I take this as simply one more reason to be sure I get adequate amounts of omega-3 fats.  

My recommendation? As always, the starting point is a healthy diet. Fatty fish such as salmon are the best dietary sources.

In addition, I believe virtually everyone should supplement with marine sources of omega-3 fats. I suggest you take 1 or 2 g of fish oil twice a day with meals.

Plant sources of omega-3s have a different fatty acid profile so they don’t have all the same effects. Even so, they’re worth including in your diet.

Flax seed is the best plant omega-3 fats.  However, I don’t recommend taking the oil itself. Once the oil is extracted, it easily goes rancid. Plus, you miss all the other nutritional benefits of flaxseed.

Instead, grind up whole seed fresh and take it that way (sprinkle it on cereal, use it in a smoothie, mix it with yogurt or just stirred in water and drink it as a slurry).

Two tablespoons of flaxseed per day is a good amount.

If you’re interested in reading the study I mention here, it was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association January 2010. Here’s the reference:

Association of Marine Omega-3 Fatty Acid Levels With Telomeric Aging in Patients With Coronary Heart Disease
Ramin Farzaneh-Far, MD; Jue Lin, PhD; Elissa S. Epel, PhD; William S. Harris, PhD; Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD; Mary A. Whooley, MD
JAMA. Jan 3 2010;303(3):250-257.

An Easy Healthy Way to Eat Less

Want an easy way to reduce your appetite, eat less and at the same time improve your skin and reduce your risk of cancer?

Of course you do. Here’s how:

==>  Add flaxseed to your diet

Flaxseed in a bowlFlaxseed has always been high on my list of good foods for number of reasons. It’s a good plant source of omega-3 fats it’s high in fiber and, very significantly it contains lignans.

Lignans are important because multiple studies suggest they suppress many forms of cancer.

Now a  study suggests that flax fiber helps with weight loss.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen enrolled 24 men and woman in a study of the effects of flax fiber on appetite and food intake.

Here’s how it worked.

The participants fasted overnight. When they woke up in the morning they were given either drink containing 2.5 g of soluble or a similar drink without the fiber. Then they were asked to rate their degree of hunger every 30 minutes for two hours.

After the two hours they could eat. How much they ate was up to them.

The researchers kept track of this voluntary calorie intake over the day and then compared the difference between the two groups. The results were impressive.

The participants who had a drink with the flax fiber reported significantly less hunger than the people who got the placebo drink.

More importantly, the flax people also consumed 9% fewer calories than the placebo even though both groups were free to eat as much as they like.

These findings are consistent with other studies showing that eating something high in fiber or taking a fiber supplement 15 minutes to half an hour or so before a meal decreases hunger when you sit down to eat.

Given the number of us that have weight issues, increasing our fiber intake in this way may be a good idea

And really, most Americans get entirely too little fiber of any form in their diet. The standard recommendation is 25 g of fiber per day. I believe that 40 g per day or even more may be better. The average American intake is 4 – 8 g. Clearly there is room for improvement.

Remember that a high fiber diet has a lot of other benefits aside from reducing appetite.

It improves bowel function and can prevent intestinal problems such as diverticulosis. A high fiber diet improves a person’s lipid profile. It also evens out out swings in blood sugar and can help improve metabolic syndrome.

When you use flaxseed to help you increase the amount of fiber in your diet you also get all the benefits of increased omega-3 fats in along with the benefits of those lignans that I mentioned. Win-win-win.

I generally recommend 2 tablespoons of flax seeds ground freshly each day. This contains about 75 total calories, 3 g omega-3 fat and roughly 4 g of fiber.

Whole flaxseeds need to be ground before using in order for the nutrients to be absorbed. I recommend grinding them in a coffee mill type grinder just before use. Once ground, flaxseeds have a relatively short shelf life before they start to go rancid.

I don’t recommend it, but for convenience you can buy flaxseeds pre-ground or grind a few day’s worth yourself. If you go this route be sure to keep the ground flaxseed in an airtight container and store it in your refrigerator.

You can have the flaxseed on top of cereal, mix it in with yogurt or blend it in a smoothie.

I often just mix the ground flaxseed with a glass of water and drink it as a slurry. (I realize that won’t appeal to most people.)

At first, it may seem cumbersome and time-consuming to add flaxseed to your diet. For one thing, you have to remember to do it and then you have to find ways that work for you.

Stay with it though and it will very quickly become an automatic routine. And you be better off for it.

If you’re interested, the study I just described was published in the January 11, 2012 issue of the journal Appetite