With Thanksgiving around the corner and a chill in the air, many of us are getting back in the kitchen to prepare warm, comforting food. Maybe you’re the type to spend hours perfecting a butternut squash soup recipe, or maybe you’ve just been eagerly anticipating the return of a certain cult coffee flavor. From muffins to stews to hot drinks, it seems like anything can be (and has been!) pumpkin-spiced. But did you know that the star ingredient of this popular spice mix–cinnamon–is also an important part of Chinese herbal medicine?
Thanks to recent research, Western medical providers are increasingly using this versatile spice to treat high blood glucose (hyperglycemia). In Chinese medicine, however, cinnamon has been long known for its capacity to treat and prevent a much wider range of ailments.
What is cinnamon?
Cinnamon is one of the most ancient spices still in common use, and has been written about since antiquity. It is mentioned in the Old Testament as an ingredient in anointing oil, and ancient Egyptians employed it as a spice, perfume, and embalming agent.
Cinnamon is derived from several related trees in the genus Cinnamomum. It is grown in countries all over the world, including Sri Lanka, Mexico, Indonesia, Vietnam, and China. Americans will be most familiar with cassia (Cinnamomum cassia), with its pungent, spicy bark. The brighter, more acidic Ceylon (Cinnamomum verum) is generally considered to be “true cinnamon,” but there aren’t substantial differences between the two.
Regardless of the variety, the trees are usually grown for two years before being cut down. Then, the inner bark is dried, curled into quills or ground into powder for use in cooking, essential oils, or pharmaceuticals. The twigs are also removed and dried to be used in Chinese medicine.
How is cinnamon used in Chinese herbal medicine?
Generally, practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine use two different parts of C. cassia: the twigs (gui zhi) and the inner bark (rou gui). The form that is used will depend upon the illness or dysfunction being treated, as well as the individual attributes of each patient. An experienced practitioner will, for example, take into account the patient’s sensitivities, root and branch diagnosis, and symptoms when deciding which herbs or formulas to prescribe.
Cinnamon can be administered in a few different ways. Often, it is decocted or steeped alongside other herbs and spices as a medicinal drink. Other times, it is powdered and encapsulated to be taken as part of formula. Practitioners might also suggest that you add it to your normal meals.
Who should consider cinnamon?
Chinese medicine views gui zhi (cassia twigs) as spicy, sweet, and powerfully warming. From a channel perspective, this herb has the ability to penetrate the heart, lung, and bladder meridians. Gui zhi may also be used to release the muscle layer; this means that it can act as an early intervention against wind-cold conditions (feeling run down and/or presenting with neck or body aches).
If caught early enough, gui zhi will expel pathogens by mobilizing the body’s own immune response, a process known in Chinese medicine as “lifting” and unblocking the yang qi. Cinnamon twigs also have the ability to remove painful obstructions in the body. This application makes them useful for treating painful menstruation and acute traumatic pain. Gui zhi also aids weak digestion by warming the middle and ensuring the proper processing of food and drinks.
While its beneficial properties are abundant, it should also be noted that the improper use of cinnamon twigs can lead to worsening of acute illnesses or excessive menstrual bleeding.
Rou gui is the inner bark, or cortex, of the cinnamon tree. Its properties are spicy-sweet and hot. Rou gui enters channels relating to the heart, kidney, liver, and spleen meridians, and is well suited for chronic cold conditions that result in debility. This is commonly seen as an insufficiency of the body’s kidney yang. Clinically, this can present as an aversion to cold, chronic weak back, impotence, and urinary frequency with dilute or clear urine. It can look like chronic digestive insufficiency, with non-painful and non-burning diarrhea, undigested food in the stool, and reduced appetite.
Cold in the body can also present as chronic wheezing, low pulse rate, and chronic chest tightness. Rou gui’s ability to warm and unblock cold is also beneficial in chronic sore and wound healing, and in the reduction of chronic joint pain that is exacerbated by cold weather. Rou gui should be employed with caution in pregnancy, or if you have a warm disease process or constitution.
As I noted in another blog post, I use rou gui to help Raynaud’s patients manage their symptoms. People with this syndrome have abnormally narrow blood vessels in their fingers, toes, nose, and lips, which leaves them vulnerable to cold. They are prone to frostbite, gangrene, and painful joints, and these problems can be difficult to manage with Western treatments alone. Because rou gui is so effective at improving circulation and warming the body, I use it to help prevent complications and support people with Raynaud’s to lead more comfortable lives.
Unsurprisingly, clinical research has also shown that both forms of cinnamon can help with a variety of other joint-related problems. One 2015 study suggested that therapeutic concentrations of cinnamon can be used to treat age-related inflammation, particularly in the joints. Other studies have found that cinnamon may help with ailments including painful menstruation (dysmenorrhea); diabetic hyperglycemia; irregular periods in PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome); and even common yeast infections.
It usually doesn’t take much persuasion to encourage people to use cinnamon in their daily life. It’s an enduringly popular spice in everything from foods to scented candles, especially during the colder months.
But if you suffer from any of the conditions listed above, you should consider talking to a Chinese herbalist.