You know the saying, “Cinnamon and spice, and all things nice.”
Well, maybe there is actually some truth to this children’s nursery rhyme, after all.
As it turns out, cinnamon is much more than a vibrant spice for grandma’s apple pie or your hot rum toddy on those cold winter nights. For years, researchers have been touting this truly ancient spice as a powerful medicinal that dates back centuries.
But now, new studies show that cinnamon might even make you smarter—or at least help you learn better. Now that is certainly something nice!
Scientists at Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago have determined that eating cinnamon can improve performance in poor learners—at least in mice, according to the lead researcher, Dr. Kalipada Pahan. The study, published in the July issue of the Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology, is exciting because it opens the door to new and safe alternatives for helping people who have difficulty learning.
“Understanding brain mechanisms that lead to poor learning is important to developing effective strategies to improve memory and learning ability,” says Pahan.
How Does Cinnamon Work?
The value of cinnamon as a spice and a medicinal remedy dates back to at least Ancient Greece some 2000 years before Christ. This sweet, yet hot spice was so highly esteemed among the ancient peoples that it was thought to be fit for kings and Queens and even their gods. One record shows that a gift of cinnamon was offered at the temple of Apollo at Miletus. While these ancient people would not have known the scientific reasons for cinnamon’s healing powers, they did understand that it was special—even more precious than gold in some cases. Cinnamon oil was used as an anointing oil, an embalming spice, an aphrodisiac, a digestive aid, a remedy for colds and flus and even as an exotic perfume.
Today, cinnamon is probably most highly valued for its ability to control blood sugar levels in people with diabetes mellitus or Type 2 diabetes. It has also been shown to have a key anti-inflammatory properties, as well as antimicrobial, anti-cancer and even an agent for preventing Alzheimer’s disease. Now, this new study reveals that cinnamon may have a more profound impact on the brain.
While researchers are not entirely sure why some people are more naturally inclined to be good learners and others find it harder to learn, even with effort, they do know that the key to gaining this understanding lies within the hippocampus, a small part in your brain that generates, organizes and stores your memories. Studies to date show that the hippocampus of poor learners has, “…less CREB [a protein involved in memory and learning] and more alpha5, a subunit of GABAA receptor or GABRA5 [a protein that generates tonic inhibitory conductance in the brain] than good learners.”
When researchers fed mice that were determined to be “poor learners” ground cinnamon, they were able to metabolize the spice into sodium benzoate, a chemical approved by the FDA that is used to successfully treat brain damage. The sodium benzoate was then responsible for essentially increasing CREB, decreasing GABRA5, and allowing the hippocampal neurons to become more pliable, which in turn, according to the study, led to improved memory and learning in the mice. According to Pahan, he and his team “… successfully used cinnamon to reverse biochemical, cellular and anatomical changes that occur in the brains of mice with poor learning.”
Human Implications of Cinnamon
While this study was successful with respect to increasing the learning ability of mice, the next step is to see if it will have the same applications in humans. “Individual difference in learning and educational performance is a global issue,” Pahan says, adding, “We need to further test this approach in poor learners. If these results are replicated in poor learning students, it would be a remarkable advance.”
Other possible uses for cinnamon may be in cases of Parkinson’s disease (PD). Researchers already agree the spice has the ability to help with other brain-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Now, Pahan and his research team have further revealed that cinnamon can reverse changes in the brains of mice with Parkinson’s disease.
“Understanding how the disease works is important to developing effective drugs that protect the brain and stop the progression of PD,” says Pahan, further stating. “…it is known that some important proteins like Parkin and DJ-1 decrease in the brain of PD patients.” As in his study to determine cinnamon’s ability to increase learning ability in mice, Pahan determined the sodium benzoate that results from feeding ground cinnamon to mice, halts the loss of Parkin and DJ-1. It further protects the neurons, normalizes neurotransmitter levels, and improves motor functions in mice with PD.
According to Pahan, the issue now is that they need to be able to replicate the results in people with PD. If they can, “…it would be a remarkable advance in the treatment of this devastating neurodegenerative disease.”
Types of Cinnamon
Traditionally, there were four types of cinnamon:
- True cinnamon— Ceylon cinnamon, which comes from the bark of verum (also called C. zeylanicum). This type of cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka.
- Malabathrumor malobathrum (meaning “dark-tree leaves” in Sanskrit). There are several species including tamala which come from north India.
- Serichatum, cassia from China
- Cassia, which comes from the bark of Cinnamomum iners and typically originates in Arabia and
Typically, today, you can find both Chinese cinnamon and true Ceylon cinnamon in the US. According to Pahan, Ceylon cinnamon is a much purer cinnamon. While both types are metabolized into sodium benzoate in the brain, he has determined through testing that the Ceylon cinnamon is better assimilated and that the Chinese cinnamon actually contains coumarin, a chemical that can damage your liver.
So, if you are looking to use cinnamon for its healing properties, you should check where it comes from. Look for Ceylon cinnamon, which is actually slightly sweeter and more refined than its Chinese counterpart. While it is more difficult to find, your local health food store or specialty market should carry it.
Cinnamon Stick Tea
- 5 cups water in a metal pot or glass kettle
- 1 cinnamon stick (3 inch length)
- Bring water to a boil.
- Set heat to low. (Cinnamon sticks need to be boiled slowly.)
- Add one cinnamon stick into the pan.
- Let it boil and cook for 15-25 minutes.
- Let it steep/rest for 15 minutes.