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You know it as inspiration for launching your face at a warm, fresh-baked spiral of sugar and carbs. The cinnamon roll! To some, this invention surpasses that of the wheel, not least because they are both round. The fact is cinnamon — in the form of cinnamon bark — has been in use as a healing agent for a long time—since well before the ritual sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar on a toasted slice of buttery Wonder Bread, for instance.
Cinnamon and Silk and Pharmacological Gratitude
As a matter of culinary archaeology, cinnamon seems to have been in use for around 4,718 years (don’t bother searching for a pencil—that comes to around 2700 BC. I think). Chinese culture discovered the wonders of ground cinnamon bark right around the time they began perfecting the nutty and exacting art of making fine garments out of the thread a silkworm produces.
this inelegant creature on a bare forearm inspires screaming -- though we delight in silk pajamas
It may be more than coincidence that silk and cinnamon both captured the ancient Chinese imagination during this period, since it’s known that as soon as they figured out how to weave silk, they also started using cinnamon and other “found colors" to dye the stuff.
Where they got the idea of trying to ingest cinnamon bark is anybody’s guess, but once you accept ancient folk eating the parasitic cordyceps fungus…well, let’s just say that humans appear willing to try anything.
In fact, we should be grateful that for millennia, traditional cultures have field tested just about anything they could pop into their mouths, dutifully recording outcomes and handing that info down through the ages.
Cinnamon Bark and its Healing Bite
Once the intrepid Chinese tried sampling the powdered cinnamon bark, they discovered its delightful properties as a flavor-enhancer, and over time learned it could work wonders with the fickle and largely mysterious human body. They used it to treat menstrual issues, fever, diarrhea, and as a ”warming” stimulus and aid to digestion.
The kidney, heart and spleen were also targets of the healing this newfound spice offered. In ancient China—and indeed in modern Chinese pharmacopeia—cinnamon’s essentially spicy character is thought to banish “cold” from the body, and to help expunge those ailments associated with inner coldness and disorder.
Needless to say, word gets around when something wonderful is discovered, even in an ancient world bereft of Instagram. It just takes a little longer.
Ayurvedic healers in India soon began studying and perfecting the uses of cinnamon, and by around 500 BC, the Egyptians were sprinkling cinnamon over their mummies, as both preservative and precious offerings to the hereafter.
A stumbling, grasping mummy with the aroma of a welcoming breakfast spice could be confusing in a horror movie setting. Be we digress.
By the 1800’s even dowdy American doctors with pocket watches and untamed frontier mustaches were prescribing cinnamon for their patients complaining of stomach cramps, colic, nausea, and stool problems.
Science, Cinnamon Toast, Asthma, and Lipstick
Today the secret is out on cinnamon. On the commercial front, cinnamon’s aromatic and flavorful qualities have won the affections of our consumer army, the delectable spice making itself indispensable across a crazy range of products, from toothpaste to lipstick. Meanwhile, self-evident traditional wisdom marches on.
nobody likes tummy trouble
Modern herbalists continue to prescribe cinnamon bark as a remedy for nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, indigestion, and general “anti-aging” (cellular self-preservation) due to the oxidative stress relief cinnamon offers.
Chinese herbalists use it to help with asthma—specifically the asthma that is brought on by cold temperatures—as well as for tummy trouble and menstrual pain.
4,700 years of common usage means, among other things, cinnamon has had plenty of time to earn its reputation through consumer adoption, to use product marketing lingo.
Cinnamon is Antioxidant and Pro-Cognition
As is always the case, science has shown up late to the party with their measuring instruments and search for empirical evidence—and that’s all good. We’re a race of heartfelt, curious do-gooders. We want to know HOW stuff works. And why not? None of this is magic, after all.
The natural machine is a wonder, the more so for being explicable. The stuff in cinnamon has antibacterial, antiviral, antiseptic, anti-fungal, and, notably, antioxidant properties. Big time. They are figuring out how exactly cinnamon achieves these effects..
Cognition itself even gets a break from cinnamon, our neurons benefitting from some of the same stuff that powers a cinnamon roll: not to suggest cinnamon rolls increase mental acuity.
But in a published study from 2014, the Nat’l Institutes of Health found that a “… natural compound isolated from cinnamon extract (CEppt) significantly reduces the formation of toxic β-amyloid polypeptide (Aβ) oligomers and prevents its toxicity on neuronal pheochromocytoma (PC12) cells!” This speaks to cinnamon’s seeming ability to reduce neuronal plaque – a main driver of Alzheimer’s.
Spice of Life
So, from Mummies to Mental acuity, cinnamon is where it’s at. (Apologies for having ended that sentence with a preposition). You wanna talk about the Spice of Life? Look no further. True, the beta testing has only been going on for a scant 4,700 years. But ask any kid on a sunny Saturday morning what she wants sprinkled on her toast? You’ll find that cinnamon has successfully passed its first real round of tests.