Chances are that you have cinnamon in your spice cabinet right now. After salt and pepper, it’s one of the most common kitchen spices used in cooking—right up there with bay leaves, vanilla extract, curry powder and cumin. But beyond being a spice that you put into your zucchini bread or apple crisp, there are a number of things you may not know about this versatile spice.
- There are actually various types and subtypes of cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon is known as true cinnamon, and is grown primarily in Sri Lanka. It has a delicate flavor and lower amounts of the essential oil called cinnamaldehyde. However, the most common kind of cinnamon sold in North America and much of the world is called Cassia cinnamon, which is grown in China and throughout Southeast Asia. Cassia cinnamon tends to be less expensive than Ceylon cinnamon, but contains higher levels of cinnamaldehyde and has a stronger flavor.
- Cinnamon comes from the bark of cinnamon trees, and has been used for thousands of years as a spice. Sometimes other parts of the tree are used, including the flowers, fruits, leaves and even the roots. The chemical composition of the spice is different, depending on the species of tree and the part of the tree that is used.
- Cinnamon is also an herb, and is commonly used in Chinese medicine. Actually, there are two herbs in the Chinese formulary derived from the cinnamon tree. One is cinnamon twig, or Gui Zhi, and the other is the bark from the cinnamon tree, called Rou Gui. Both herbs come from the Cassia cinnamon tree.
- While both Gui Zhi and Rou Gui come from the same tree, they have different actions and medicinal uses. Gui Zhi, or cinnamon twig, is helpful in fighting off colds and the flu, especially those where chills and achiness predominate. That’s because Gui Zhi is warming. It also helps relieve joint pain that’s worse in the cold weather. Rou Gui, or the bark of the cinnamon tree, is considered to be a much warmer herb. It’s used to warm you up from the inside, and is often used in formulas to treat deep cold that causes pain and stagnation, as well as to treat amenorrhea and menstrual cramps. In addition, both Gui Zhi and Rou Gui have antibiotic effects.
- There have been a number of studies on the role of cinnamon in treating diabetes. Scientists have found that cinnamon can increase and insulin sensitivity and help reduce blood sugar, but whether or not it can reduce blood sugar in the long run or affect A1C levels is unclear. One reason is that some studies fail to identify which species of cinnamon was used, which makes it difficult to draw clear conclusions.
- A good smelling bug repellent? Pest control experts suggest using cinnamon in your home to repel pests, such as carpenter ants and other insects that may be found in your kitchen. That’s because they don’t like the smell of cinnamon—so much so, that many natural bug repellant products also contain cinnamon oil. In addition, agricultural researchers have discovered that cinnamon oil can kill mosquito larvae as well as or better than DEET.
- Supplementing with cinnamon is safe when you use amounts that are commonly found in foods or as prescribed by a doctor of Chinese medicine. However, using large amounts of Cassia cinnamon for a long period of time may cause gastrointestinal problems or an allergic reaction. That’s because it contains high levels of coumarin, which in large doses also may increase the risk for liver problems in people who are sensitive to it or who have liver disease.
- How to get more cinnamon in your life? Sprinkle it on your oatmeal, yogurt, toast, granola or pancakes at breakfast. You can bake with cinnamon, adding it to muffins and breads. Also, cinnamon pairs well with sweet potatoes and is a natural with apples—raw or cooked.
The bottom line is that cinnamon is versatile. It can be used as a cooking spice, to repel insect pests, and as a medicinal herb. At BodaHealth, our practitioners of acupuncture and Chinese medicine are well-versed in the nuances of prescribing Chinese herbs. If you’d like to know more about cinnamon, acupuncture, Chinese medicine or the use of herbs to improve your health, give us a call—we’d love to tell you more!
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.