Eating cinnamon powder may cause the body to reverse some of the brain changes associated with Parkinson's disease (PD), according to a study conducted by researchers from Rush University Medical Center and published in the Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology on June 20.
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
"Cinnamon has been used widely as a spice throughout the world for centuries," lead researcher Kalipada Pahan, PhD, said. "This could potentially be one of the safest approaches to halt disease progression in Parkinson's patients."
Brain and motor symptoms reversed
Parkinson's disease is an incurable degenerative neurological disorder that affects a region of the mid-brain known as the substantia nigra. The death of cells in this region causes levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine to fall, producing symptoms such as tremor, limb stiffness, slow movement, problems with gait and balance, constipation, bladder problems, trouble swallowing, sleep problems and even cognitive or mood disorders. It affects about 1.2 million people in the United States and Canada.
In prior studies, researchers have studied many of the brain changes that lead to the development of the disease and its symptoms.
"Understanding how the disease works is important to developing effective drugs that protect the brain and stop the progression of PD," Pahan said. "It is known that some important proteins like Parkin and DJ-1 decrease in the brain of PD patients."
For the new study, researchers fed ground cinnamon to mice with Parkinson's disease. They found that, when the cinnamon reached the gut, it was broken down into various metabolites including sodium benzoate, a widely used food preservative. The sodium benzoate then entered the mice's brains, where it prevented the loss of Parkin and DJ-1, stopped neuron death and caused neurotransmitters including dopamine to return to normal levels. The mice who were fed cinnamon also experienced an improvement in motor function.
"Cinnamon is metabolized in the liver to sodium benzoate, which is an FDA-approved drug used in the treatment for hepatic metabolic defects associated with hyperammonemia," Pahan said.
The researchers hope that the findings could lead to a treatment, or even cure, for Parkinson's.
"Now we need to translate this finding to the clinic and test ground cinnamon in patients with PD," Pahan said. "If these results are replicated in PD patients, it would be a remarkable advance in the treatment of this devastating neurodegenerative disease."
An ancient superfood
Cinnamon, derived from the inner bark of Cinnamomum trees, has featured prominently in traditional medical systems for hundreds of years to treat ailments including colds, congestion and diarrhea.
Scientific research has also shown that cinnamon may be especially helpful in managing or preventing diabetes. It appears to reduce insulin resistance, lower blood sugar levels and reduce complications for the disease. In clinical trials of patients with type 2 diabetes, cinnamon has also been shown to lower blood pressure, triglycerides and LDL ("bad") cholesterol.
Cinnamon is especially high in antioxidants, which remove free radicals from the body and can help prevent chronic disease and stave off the effects of aging. According to a study by researchers from the University of California-Santa Barbara, cinnamon may even help prevent Alzheimer's disease by protecting the brain's tau proteins from oxidative stress.
For those looking to increase the amount of cinnamon in their diet, Pahan suggests Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) rather than Chinese cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia). Both are sold in the United States.
"Although both types of cinnamon are metabolized into sodium benzoate, by mass spectrometric analysis, we have seen that Ceylon cinnamon is much more pure than Chinese cinnamon as the latter contains coumarin, a hepatotoxic molecule," Pahan said.
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