Cinnamon

Cinnamomum cassia (Cassia) or C. verum (Ceylon)

A number of species are often sold as cinnamon:

  • C. cassia (Cassia/Chinese cinnamon)

  • C. burmannii (Korintje/ Indonesian cinnamon)

  • C. loureiroi (Saigon/Vietnamese cinnamon)

  • C. verum (Ceylon cinnamon)

Cinnamon ceylon.jpg

Parts Used
Inner bark

Herbal Actions

Astringent, analgesic, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, bitter, carminative, hemostatic/styptic, radiation-protective, increases circulation, lowers blood sugar.

Energetics

Spicy, sweet, hot

Cinnamon ~ more than a spice

Just saying the word cinnamon conjures up its delicious flavor and brings feelings of warmth and comfort. Most people view it as a common spice used in baking and cooking. But little do we know how exotic and rare this spice once was. As the weather gets colder, we crave cinnamon flavored teas and baked goods and there is a medicinal explanation behind this simple association. Cinnamon is a warming and stimulating herb for the whole body and has been used for millennia in this way.  

The English word "cinnamon" has been in use since the fifteenth century and derives from the Greek kinnámōmon, and was borrowed from a Phoenician word, which was similar to the related Hebrew qinamon. The name "cassia", first recorded in English around AD 1000, was borrowed via Latin and ultimately derives from Hebrew q'tsīʿāh, a form of the verb qātsaʿ, "to strip off bark". Early Modern English also used the names ‘canel’ and ‘canella’, similar to the current names of cinnamon in several other European languages, which are derived from the Latin word cannella, a diminutive of canna, or  "tube", from the way the bark curls up as it dries. The term "cinnamon" also is used to describe its medium brown color.

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Cinnamon has been in use since 2000 B.C.  It was used by the Egyptians as a perfuming agent during the embalming process. The Old Testament mentions cinnamon as an ingredient in anointing oil. Arab traders introduced it to Europe and it was immediately popular and became a status symbol of the wealthy because it was rare and of limited supply. It was desirable for preserving meats, since it contain high amounts of phenols which inhibit bacterial growth and spoilage. Supposedly the Roman emperor Nero burned a years’ worth of the rare spice on the funeral pyre of his second wife Poppaea Sabina in A.D. 65 because he felt guilt over her death. 

A depiction of cinnamon being used in the embalming process

Due to limited supplies of cinnamon and high demand, explorers took to the seas to find more. Christopher Columbus tried and failed to find it in the New World. A Spanish explorer named Gonzalo Pizarro traversed the Amazon in vain looking for it. Around 1518, Portuguese traders discovered cinnamon at Ceylon (currently Sri Lanka). This had devastating consequences for the native peoples. The Portuguese took over the island kingdom of Kotto and enslaved the entire population to work for the cinnamon trade.  The cinnamon monopoly remained in the hands of European traders for the next 150 years. By 1800, cinnamon was no longer an expensive, rare commodity, since it was being cultivated in other parts of the world.

Differences of the Species

Today there are two types of commercial cinnamon: Ceylon and Cassia cinnamon. While both belong to the same scientific family, they produce distinctly different products. The two types of cinnamon are differentiated by the way they are harvested, their taste, their smell, and the chemical compounds found within them. Cassia cinnamon, Cinnamomum cassia, is what most of us buy at the grocery store. It is primarily produced in China and has the stronger smell and flavor of the two varieties and is less expensive. This is what we usually buy in grocery stores to spice pies and desserts.

 

The more expensive Ceylon cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum, is still mainly produced in Sri Lanka and has a milder, sweeter flavor popular for both baking and flavoring hot drinks such as coffee or hot chocolate. The barks of the species are easily distinguished when whole, both in macroscopic and microscopic characteristics. Ceylon cinnamon sticks called quills have many thin layers and can be easily made into powder using a coffee or spice grinder, whereas cassia sticks are much harder. Indonesian cinnamon is often sold in neat quills made up of one thick layer, capable of damaging a spice or coffee grinder.

 

Saigon cinnamon (C. loureiroi) and Chinese cinnamon (C. cassia) are always sold as broken pieces of thick bark, as the bark is not supple enough to be rolled into quills. The powdered bark is harder to distinguish, but if it is treated with tincture of iodine (a test for starch), little effect is visible with pure Ceylon cinnamon, but when Chinese cinnamon is present, a deep-blue tint is produced.

Cinnamon_ceylon vs cassia.jpg

Medicinal Use

Cinnamon is primarily warming and stimulating, but is also an astringent, demulcent, carminative, analgesic, styptic, antiseptic, helps circulation, and can effectively lower blood sugar when taken in doses of 3-5 grams daily. The aroma and flavor of cinnamon come from its essential oil and principal component cinnamaldehyde, as well as other constituents including eugenol.

Through its warming properties, it raises the vitality of all the functions of the body. It relieves congestion, stops diarrhea, dispels nausea, improves digestion, resolves abdominal spasms and cramps, fights fungal infections, helps coughing and wheezing, aids in the peripheral circulation of the blood and is anti-rheumatic. According to WM. H. Cook, MD:  “It acts upon the stomach, and through it upon the whole sympathetic system–also promoting assimilation, and stimulating the entire nervous and arterial organisms to a moderate extent.”

Cinnamon ceylon trees.jpg

Cinnamon is often added in herbal formulas as a supporting herb to warm the constitution of the person and stimulate circulation. Rosemary Gladstar states: “Cinnamon is most often combined with other herbs to enhance its effectiveness – for example, with ginger for circulatory problems, with chamomile for poor digestion, and with yarrow and peppermint for colds and flus.”

Cinnamon is indicated in states of exhaustion, especially after being sick. It is also specifically indicated in passive hemorrhages. It was known to midwives for its ability to increase uterine contractions and control postpartum hemorrhage; a tincture given every 15 minutes until the bleeding subsides. Hemorrhages from the lungs, stomach, bowels, and renal organs are often subsided by giving cinnamon internally promptly at the beginning stages. Recent scientific studies have shown that taking cinnamon extract internally might provide substantial protection against radiation-induced oxidative and inflammatory damages. The essential oil can be added to salves as an analgesic or massage oils for a warming effect.

All species of cinnamon contain a compound called coumarin*. Coumarin is moderately toxic to the liver and kidneys, with a median lethal dose of 275 mg/kg, a low toxicity compared to related compounds. European health agencies have warned against consuming high amounts of cassia bark, one of the four main species of cinnamon, because of its coumarin content. The percentage of coumarin in Cassia is much higher than in Ceylon. Thus is it much safer to use Ceylon cinnamon (C. verum) for medicinal purposes. The cinnamon in the grocery stores is Cassia cinnamon and should be used for cooking and baking purposes only.  A good source for Ceylon cinnamon is Mountain Rose Herbs: https://www.mountainroseherbs.com/search?page=1&q=cinnamon&utf8=%E2%9C%93

Cultivation & Harvesting

Cinnamon is an evergreen tree with oval-shaped leaves, thick bark, and a berry fruit. The bark and leaves are the primary parts of the plant used. Cinnamon is cultivated by growing the tree for two years, cutting the stems at ground level. The next year a dozen or more new shoots form from the roots, thus multiplying what can eventually be harvested. The bark will start to be harvested twice a year the following year after pruning. Cinnamon is always harvested immediately after each of the two rainy seasons, when the rain-soaked bark can be more easily stripped from the trees. 

Cinnamon trees.jpg

Cinnamon peeling is a highly skilled technique, handed down almost unchanged from ancient times. In Sri Lanka it is still the exclusive occupation of the Salagama caste - a socio-occupational group which follows a trade prescribed by tradition. In the first stage of the harvest, the tender shoots are cut down, covered in a sack and left to slightly ferment. The next day the workers cut off the leaves and twigs and scrape off the rough outer bark from the twigs. The inner bark is rubbed and beaten down with a smooth brass block to break up and homogenize the tissues and free the bark from the twigs. Then the skilled peeler uses a special curved knife tool called a kokaththa and makes two parallel slits on the stick and eases the bark free in one piece. The barks are carefully packed in layers, one inside the other in several plys, telescoped and overlapped end to end to produce long, rolled and layered "quills." The bark rolls are covered in jute sacking again and left to cure lightly for a day, after which they are air-dried indoors on hammocks for two days. When dried, the bark is curled round into golden-brown quills, which are again dried outdoors in filtered sunlight for one or two days. By this time the cinnamon is dried to a papery texture and possesses the true cinnamon color. The bark is then trimmed precisely to the 106.7cm (42-inch) quills specified by the world cinnamon market, and is now ready to be sold. Cultivating and harvesting cinnamon is an astonishingly labor-intensive process. So the next time you reach for your jar of nicely ground cinnamon, take a moment to think about all the tedious work that went into getting this spice into your cabinet and give thanks to those who made it possible.

Cinnamon_peeler.jpg
Cinnamon peeling.jpg
Cinnamon ceylon quills.jpg

Preparation & Dosage

A safe daily dosage of Ceylon cinnamon (not Cassia) for medicinal use is 2 grams or roughly 1/3 teaspoon.
According The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BFR) it is recommended not to have more than 0.1 mg of coumarin per day.

Contraindications

Cinnamon is contraindicated for individuals with wasting and dryness, and signs of heat and fire from inflammation. Pregnant women should not use in large quantities because it stimulates uterine contractions; regular food flavoring is fine. Ceylon cinnamon (C. verum) should be used for medicinal purposes. Cassia cinnamon species should be used as a flavoring for food only.
 

Cinnamon verum vintage botanical drawing.jpg

References

  • Azab KSh, Mostafa AH, Ali EM, Abdel-Aziz MA. Cinnamon extract ameliorates ionizing radiation-induced cellular injury in rats. 22 July 2011. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21782243 

  • Balch, Phyllis A. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. New York: Penguin Books Ltd. 2006.

  • Bennett, Robin Rose. The Gift of Healing Herbs. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2014.

  • Cook M.D., William H. The Physiomedical Dispensatory. 1869. Reprints, Boulder: Medical Herbalism, 2007.

  • Ellingwood M.D., Finley. American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy. 1919. Reprint, Bisbee: Southwest School of Botanical Medicine, 2003.

  • Felter M.D., Harvey Wickes. The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics. 1922. Reprint. Bisbee: Southwest School of Botanical Medicine, 2003.

  • Gladstar, Rosemary. Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health. North Adams: Storey Publishing, 2008.

  • Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1990.

  • Ratwatte, Florence. The Spice of Life: Cinnamon and Ceylon. May 1991. Web. http://www.infolanka.com/discover/cinnamon

  • Synan, Mariel. Cinnamon’s Spicy History. 4 Oct 2013. Web. https://www.history.com/news/cinnamons-spicy-history 

  • Tierra, Michael. The Way of Herbs. New York: Pocket Books, 1998.

  • Tierra, Michael. Planetary Herbology. Twin Lakes: Lotus Press, 1992.