When I get moved, often out of the blue, to write a blog post on a certain subject related to cancer, I’ll either actively search for information on the internet or I’ll be attracted to one of the many articles in health-related newsletters that simply drop into my mail box. Earlier this week, I received an article from a highly reputable privately owned provider of health information on the benefits of cinnamon and remembered how it’s a great aid to type 2 diabetics by, for one thing, mimicking the function of insulin. How does it do this? When non-diabetics consume carbohydrates which metabolise into glucose (sugar), the pancreas secretes the hormone, insulin, which binds to receptors on the surface of cells. This activates the cell’s glucose transporter molecules to form a doorway in the cell membrane so that glucose can enter the cell. However, type 2 diabetics suffer from Insulin Resistance (IR), in which there’s a reduced response to the insulin signals and so a great deal of glucose continues to circulate in the blood, leading to elevated sugar levels. Cinnamon, on the other hand, improves sensitivity to insulin, allowing the glucose to enter the cells so that it can be metabolised to produce energy. Cinnamon has also recorded positive health benefits in a number of other medical conditions. For instance, a daily dose of the spice reduces levels of the so-called “bad” LDL cholesterol by as much as 9mg/dl. Similarly, levels of triglycerides (the main constituents of body fat) see an almost 30mg/dl reduction after daily doses of cinnamon. Both lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels help cut down the risk of heart disease. However, in this post, I want to talk specifically about the health benefits of cinnamon for those people suffering from cancer.
Cinnamon is a tasty spice, made from the inner bark of the Cinnamomum tree. When it dries, it forms strips that curl into rolls, called cinnamon sticks which can then be ground into a powder or made into an extract. Cinnamon has been prized for its medicinal properties for thousands of years dating back as far as Ancient Egypt, but these days, cinnamon is very cheap, available in almost every supermarket in powder or stick form and found as an ingredient in various sweet and savoury foods. There are two main types of cinnamon: Ceylon cinnamon also known as ‘true’ cinnamon and Cassia cinnamon, called ‘regular’ cinnamon, which is the more common variety used today. The distinct smell and flavour of cinnamon are due to the compound cinnamaldehyde which scientists believe is responsible for most of cinnamon’s powerful health benefits. But how can cinnamon assist the cancer sufferer in their quest to regain good health?
Firstly, cinnamon is packed with antioxidants in the form of polyphenols: a group of over 500 phytochemicals which are naturally occurring micronutrients in plants that protect our bodies from oxidative damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are unstable and harmful molecules which arise from both inside our bodies in normal physiological processes like aerobic respiration and metabolism, and outside our bodies from, amongst other things, smoking and alcohol consumption. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry compared the antioxidant activity of 26 spices and cinnamon emerged as the clear winner, even outranking some of the so-called ‘superfoods’ like garlic and oregano. Another study published in the Arabian Journal of Chemistry in January 2017 concluded that the essential oil from the bark of Cinnamomum altissimum “… showed high total phenolic with good antioxidant activity”. Just 500mg of cinnamon extract daily for 12 weeks was able to decrease a marker of oxidative stress by 14% in adults with pre-diabetes. This is an important finding because there have been clear links between oxidative stress and the development of almost every chronic disease, including type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Inflammation plays an important role in assisting the body to fight infections and repair tissue damage but when that inflammation is directed against your body’s own tissues and so becomes chronic, it’s a real health concern. The National Foundation for Cancer Research lists some of the infectious disease agents that cause chronic inflammation which leads to cancer. These include bacterial and viral infections as well as parasites. Furthermore, synthetic trans fats, common in foods that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, weaken the immune system and can lead to inflammation throughout the body. The main culprits are crackers, chips, most store-bought baked goods and fried foods. A study by a research team from Taipei Medical University on the anti-inflammatory effects of the constituents of Cinnamomum cassia, including cinnamaldehyde, published in ‘Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine’ in March 2012 found that “… cinnamic aldehyde has excellent anti-inflammatory activities and thus has great potential to be used as a source for natural health products”.
Secondly, cinnamon functions as an anti-angiogenic and so helps to halt the process of developing the new blood vessels necessary for cancer spread (metastasis). A tumour needs nutrients and oxygen to grow and spread, and so sends chemical signals in the form of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) to stimulate the formation of blood vessels. Conventional medicine uses angiogenesis inhibitors in some types of cancer to block this process because preventing nutrients and oxygen from a tumour can, essentially, starve it of what it needs to metastasise. Examples of drugs to inhibit angiogenesis include Axitinib for kidney cancer, Bevacizumab for colorectal, kidney and lung cancer, and Vandetanib for medullary thyroid cancer. However, an article published in the journal, Carcinogenesis, in March 2010 on cinnamon as an anti-angiogenic stated that their laboratory data “… revealed a novel activity in cinnamon and identified a natural VEGF inhibitor that could potentially be useful in cancer prevention and/or treatment”. Furthermore, data from testing cinnamon extract (CE) on mice also led the research team to conclude that “CE is an angiogenesis inhibitor in vivo” (i.e. in a living organism).
The advantage of cinnamon, of course, is that as long as it’s used in the correct dosage, it doesn’t come with any side effects, but the angiogenesis inhibitors used in conventional medicine do. These include high blood pressure, diarrhoea, fatigue, low blood count, and problems with wound-healing or cuts re-opening. As you can read about in my blog, ’10 Questions You Should Ask Your Oncologist If Diagnosed with Cancer’, not only would you have to contend with the side effects from these angiogenesis inhibitors, but also from the multitude of side effects that chemotherapy brings with it which, amongst others, include brain, heart, liver, lung, kidney, bladder and intestinal damage, hearing loss, internal bleeding, peripheral neuropathy and weakening of the immune system which can lead to the life-threatening illness, Sepsis.
Finally, cinnamon helps to promote apoptosis (cell death) in cancer cells. Apoptosis is programmed cell death, but if it can be induced in cancer cells which, by definition, are fast-growing, then tumour development can be arrested. A laboratory study on the impact of cinnamaldehyde on leukemia cells published in the peer-reviewed medical journal, Cancer Letters, in July 2003 concluded that “cinnamaldehyde is a potent inducer of apoptosis.” Another study in mice with colon cancer revealed that cinnamon activates detoxifying enzymes in the colon, protecting against further cancer growth. Test-tube experiments supported these findings, concluding that cinnamon also activates protective antioxidant responses in human colon cells. Although there certainly needs to be human clinical trials on the effectiveness of cinnamon as an anti-cancer agent, there is at least some evidence in animal and laboratory testing that cinnamon may indeed provide some healing properties for sufferers of cancer.
When buying your cinnamon, you need to be aware of the two major types. The first variety is Cassia cinnamon, also known as ‘regular’ cinnamon, derived from a few different species of Cinnamomum trees. It’s the least expensive variety and is found in most food products containing cinnamon sold in your local supermarket. The second variety is Ceylon cinnamon which is specifically derived from the Cinnamomum verum tree. It’s also known as ‘true’ cinnamon and is the most expensive type. You should note that Cassia cinnamon contains the compound, coumarin, which is believed to be toxic in large doses, possibly damaging the liver and increasing the risk of cancer. The European Food Safety Authority has set the tolerable daily intake for coumarin at 0.045mg per pound (0.1mg/kg), so using average coumarin levels for Cassia cinnamon, this would be equivalent to about a half teaspoon (2g) per day for a 165-pound (75kg) individual. However, studies have shown that Ceylon cinnamon contains as much as 60 times less coumarin than Cassia cinnamon and so 1-1.5 teaspoons (4-6g) daily should be safe as far as coumarin content is concerned.
On Cassia’s side though is that 95% of its oil is comprised of cinnamaldehyde as opposed to 50%-60% in Ceylon cinnamon. Concentrated cinnamaldehyde is toxic in large doses, but no agencies suspect the compound is a carcinogen or poses a long-term health hazard. Ceylon cinnamon is also much higher in beneficial antioxidants than the Cassia variety. I take a teaspoon of organic Ceylon cinnamon each day in a cup of my non-dairy oat beverage which I heat up to make the cinnamon easier to dissolve. Sometimes, I’ll chew on an organic Ceylon cinnamon stick during the day which has a lovely taste but leaves me with a bit of numbness on my lower lip although that does disappear in a few hours. On a final note, diabetics who take medication or insulin should be careful when adding cinnamon to their daily diet as it may put them at risk of low blood sugar, otherwise known as hypoglycaemia. Like all supplements, you should check with your physician before taking cinnamon just in case it might complicate an existing condition or interfere with your medication.