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Soothes indigestion, controls blood sugar in diabetics, prevents stomach ulcers, wards off urinary tract infections, fights tooth decay and gum disease, prevents vaginal yeast infections

Hot apple cider tastes flat without a cinnamon stick, and toast, cookies, candies and fruit salads all benefit from a generous sprinkle of cinnamon powder. But cinnamon is more than just a kitchen spice. It's been used medicinally for thousands of years. Modern science has confirmed its value for preventing infection and indigestion and has also discovered a couple of new therapeutic uses for the herb.

Cinnamon comes from the bark of an Asian tree. (The sticks are actually pieces of bark.) Ancient Chinese herbals mention it as early as 2700 BC, and Chinese herbalists still recommend it for fever, diarrhea and menstrual problems. Cinnamon was an ingredient in ancient Egyptian embalming mixtures. In the Bible, Moses used it in holy anointing oil.

After the fall of Rome, trade between Europe and Asia became difficult, but cinnamon was so prized that it still found its way west. The 12th-century German abbess and herbalist Hildegard of Bingen recommended it as "the universal spice for sinuses," and to treat colds, flu, cancer and "inner decay and slime," whatever that means.

Boastful Benefits

Several toothpastes are flavored with cinnamon, and for good reason. "Like all the spices used in curries," says Daniel B. Mowrey, Ph.D., director of the American Phytotherapy Research Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah, and author of The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine, "cinnamon is an antiseptic that helps kill the bacteria that cause tooth decay and gum disease." Cinnamon also kills many disease-causing fungi and viruses. One German study showed it "suppresses completely" the cause of most urinary tract infections (Escherichia coli bacteria) and the fungus responsible for vaginal yeast infections (Candida albicans).

Like many culinary spices, cinnamon helps soothe the stomach. But a Japanese animal study revealed that it also may help prevent ulcers.

It also appears to help people with diabetes metabolize sugar. In one form of diabetes (Type II, or non-insulin-dependent), the pancreas produces insulin, but the body cannot use it efficiently to break down glucose-the simple sugar that fuels body functions. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers discovered that cinnamon reduces the amount of insulin necessary for glucose metabolism.

Putting the herb to work

One-eighth of a teaspoon of cinnamon triples insulin efficiency," says James A. Duke, Ph.D., a botanist retired from the USDA and author of The CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Dr. Duke suggests that people with Type II diabetes discuss cinnamon's benefits with their doctor.

In foods, simply season to taste. For people with diabetes, 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon per meal may help control blood sugar levels.

To brew a stomach-soothing tea, use 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon of powdered herb per cup of boiling water. Steep 10 to 20 minutes. Drink up to three cups a day.

In powdered form, culinary amounts of cinnamon are nontoxic, although allergic reactions are possible. Cinnamon oil, however, is a different story. On the skin, it may cause redness and burning. Taken internally, it can cause nausea, vomiting and possibly even kidney damage. Don't ingest cinnamon oil.

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