Be sure to include plenty of cinnamon in your holiday cooking: A new study found it may help counteract the overload of seasonal calories.
Researchers at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute found that cinnamaldehyde, the essential oil that gives the common holiday spice its flavor, revs up metabolism to burn fat.
Previous research found that cinnamaldehyde appeared to protect mice against obesity and hyperglycemia, but scientists didn't understand how it worked. Researcher Jun Wu wanted to know if cinnamaldehyde might also be protective in humans.
"Scientists were finding that this compound affected metabolism," said Wu. "So, we wanted to figure out how — what pathway might be involved, what it looked like in mice and what it looked like in human cells."
Wu and her colleagues tested human adipocytes — cells that store fat — from volunteers representing a range of ages, ethnicities and body mass indices.
Their findings, which appear in the December issue of the journal Metabolism, indicated that cinnamaldehyde improves metabolic health by acting directly on fat cells, or adipocytes, inducing them to start burning energy through a process called thermogenesis.
Wu and her colleagues tested human adipocytes from volunteers representing a range of ages, ethnicities and body mass indices. When the cells were treated with cinnamaldehyde, the researchers noticed increased expression of several genes and enzymes that enhance lipid metabolism. They also observed an increase in Ucp1 and Fgf21, which are important metabolic regulatory proteins involved in thermogenesis — the production of heat through metabolism.
Adipocytes normally store energy in the form of lipids. This long-term storage was beneficial to our distant ancestors, who had much less access to high-fat foods and thus a much greater need to store fat. That fat could then be used by the body in times of scarcity or in cold temperatures, which induce adipocytes to convert stored energy into heat.
"It's only been relatively recently that energy surplus has become a problem," Wu said. "Throughout evolution, the opposite — energy deficiency — has been the problem. So, any energy-consuming process usually turns off the moment the body doesn't need it."
With the rising obesity epidemic, researchers have been looking for ways to spur fat cells to activate thermogenesis, turning those fat-burning processes back on.
Wu believes that cinnamaldehyde may be one such activation method. "Cinnamon has been part of our diets for thousands of years, and people generally enjoy it," Wu said. "So, if it can help protect against obesity, too, it may offer an approach to metabolic health that is easier for patients to adhere to."
Cinnamon has been found to be beneficial in treating other conditions. A study at Rush Medical Center suggests that cinnamon can reverse changes in the brain seen in Parkinson's patients. Researchers found that when cinnamon was consumed, it was metabolized into sodium benzoate, which reversed biochemical, cellular, and anatomical changes in the brain.
Other studies show that cinnamon is a safe, effective way to reduce blood sugar levels. One such study published in Diabetes Care found that consuming cinnamon over a 40-day period reduced blood glucose levels up to 29 percent. Participants were given amounts of 1, 3, or 6 grams a day, and all doses were equally effective at reducing glucose levels. A study conducted at Ball State published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that when healthy adults — those of average weight as well as those who were obese — ate a breakfast cereal with 6 grams of cinnamon added, their blood sugar levels dropped by 25 percent during the following two hours.
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