Faculty Guides Research Team to Understand the Effect of Cinnamon on Blood Glucose
Cinnamon has been used medicinally for more than 5,000 years to target ailments such as diarrhea, upset stomach, bad breath, poor appetite, nausea, cramps, gas and other digestive problems. In more recent history, cinnamon has been suggested to decrease blood-sugar levels and could play a role in managing type-2 (non-insulin dependent) diabetes. At ONU, Dr. Amy Stockert and her research team focused on this use of the tasty spice to try to take the “sweetness” out of diabetes.
Stockert conducted a clinical study in human volunteers with untreated type-2 diabetes to determine the effects of extra cinnamon taken every day on blood-sugar concentrations. The study also included volunteers who received a placebo instead of cinnamon. The study was conducted for 12 weeks, and the volunteers’ blood-sugar concentrations were recorded each morning and after meals. Stockert found that blood-sugar concentrations were lower in persons taking the cinnamon when compared to those taking the placebo. In fact, the magnitude of blood-sugar decrease observed was similar to the decrease that would be expected in patients treated with metformin, the drug of choice to treat type-2 diabetes (Hoehn and Stockert. Nutrition and Metabolic Insights 2012; 5: 77-83).
Approximately one year later, the same volunteers were again invited to participate in a similar study of the effect of cinnamon on blood sugar. Many had not sought treatment for their diabetes during the previous year, and Stockert found that those persons who had previously been treated with cinnamon had maintained lower blood-sugar concentrations despite the lack of treatment. In effect, she found that cinnamon had a long-lasting effect on blood-sugar concentrations in persons with type-2 diabetes. This observation led Stockert and her research team on a journey into the chemically complex world of cinnamon.
Although long-lasting effects on blood sugar may seem too good to be true, it is not unheard of, as many food products, dietary supplements and medicinal herbs have been found recently to produce changes in certain body proteins that may regulate this effect. The study of this protein-regulation process is the focus of the new and growing field of epigenetics. Epigenetics means literally “above genetics,” referring to the control or regulation of gene functions in the cell. These changes were not even thought possible just a few years ago.
Most genetic research is focused on the changes that can occur in the DNA sequence of a cell. Those changes are abnormal, or “mutations,” and the mutated DNA segments produce an altered response through modifications in protein production. Epigenetics examines changes in DNA that are not classified as traditional mutations, but instead represent the “turning on or off” of whole DNA sequences or genes. The gene is intact and contains no mutations but is made accessible or inaccessible (i.e., turned on or off) based on chemical changes in the environment in and around the cell. This concept has been the focus of environmental research in the causes of cancer, and investigators have found links between certain herbs and the incidence of cancer. An example of this is the chemicals found in green tea, which have been shown to decrease tumor production. Many similar chemicals are found in cinnamon, and it is these chemicals Stockert’s group has been studying. They’ve branched out from diabetes to begin investigating a line of breast-cancer cells to see if treatment with cinnamon alters the proteins produced in the cell and potentially decreases tumor growth.
However, Stockert hasn’t given up on diabetes. Her lab also studies human cells that have the ability to change into fat cells. She expects cinnamon treatment may also alter the conversion of those cells by using some of the same epigenetic mechanisms that she previously found. Stockert works with fat cells because both muscle and fat use the same mechanism to transport sugar into the cells. She’s focused on the link between type-2 diabetes and obesity, an epidemic across the nation that is especially prevalent in Ohio and rural Hardin County.
A healthy fat cell stores fat but releases it for energy production so that there is a constant turnover of fat in the body. An unhealthy fat cell stores fat but doesn’t release it effectively for energy production. Thus, healthy fat cells provide a good energy source for the body, but unhealthy fat cells remain stagnant without providing energy, leading to obesity. Research has shown that fat cell size matters, in that smaller fat cells are the healthiest while larger fat cells tend to be unhealthy or poorly active. Stockert’s work has suggested that treatment with cinnamon produces smaller fat cells. The hope of this research is that cinnamon treatment will keep newly formed fats cells small and healthy and possibly even shrink large fat cells back to a healthy size. If this is the case, as the size of the fat cell changes, the amount of fat breakdown that occurs will increase, making existing fat easier to use for energy and decreasing the fat stored in the body, reducing obesity. More research is needed to know if this will help in the treatment of type-2 diabetes and obesity, but, for now, Stockert’s work has shown that treated fat cells remain smaller and that cinnamon decreases blood-sugar concentrations.
Several Ohio Northern students and faculty have been involved in this research. Ashley Hoehn, a sixth-year pharmacy student from Cloverdale, Ohio, initiated the project as a high school student before starting in pharmacy. During the course of the project, pharmacy students Katie and Sarah Bova, Jimesh Raval, Racheal Bulko, Angela Smith, Sam Alam, Matthew Willoughby, Joe Marchiano, and Jessica Lewe have been involved in different aspects of the research. Biology majors Sabrina Newstead and Ellen Freeh have also been involved in much of the project. Branislava Supljejlav, a pharmacy research exchange student from the International Pharmaceutical Students’ Federation (IPSF) program who studied with Stockert during the summer, worked on the cancer cell portion of the project. Heloiza DeBraga, a Brazilian exchange student through IPSF who studied over the summer, worked on the fat cell portion. Dr. Dave Kinder and Dr. Tarek Mahfouz from the College of Pharmacy and Dr. Amy Aulthouse from the College of Arts & Sciences (biology department) are members of Stockert’s research team.