Researchers from the University of Michigan Life Sciences (LSI) have found that one of everyone’s favorite spices, cinnamon, can help fight against those extra pounds.

It’s no miracle food, but cinnamon might someday be used to fight obesity. Image via Pexels.

Researchers have known for a while that cinnamaldehyde, an essential oil that gives cinnamon its flavor and odor, can boost metabolism in mice, but the mechanism through which it does this wasn’t so well understood. Now, Jun Wu, research assistant professor at the LSI, has applied cinnamaldehyde to fat cells from both rats and humans. He and his colleagues learned that the oil acts directly on the fat cells (also called adipocytes), causing them to burn energy through thermogenesis (heat generation). In other words, cinnamon oil makes fat cells burn out.

“Scientists were finding that this compound affected metabolism,” said Wu, who also is an assistant professor of molecular and integrative physiology at the U-M Medical School. “So we wanted to figure out how—what pathway might be involved, what it looked like in mice and what it looked like in human cells.”

Adipocytes store fat in the form of lipids. This was extremely useful to our ancestors, who didn’t have reliable access to food. They might have found a tree full of fruit today, but nothing tomorrow or the day after. This mechanism allowed humans (and other animals) to survive in this type of situation. But recently, that all started turning against us. In the developed world, food is readily available, and people started eating too much. Our bodies still happily conserve energy in the form of lipids, but little do they know we might never actually use that energy, and get fat instead.

“It’s only been relatively recently that energy surplus has become a problem,” Wu said. “Throughout evolution, the opposite—energy deficiency—has been the problem. So any energy-consuming process usually turns off the moment the body doesn’t need it.”

Researchers believe that since cinnamon turns the heat on fat cells, regular consumption might make a noticeable difference.

“We speculate that you don’t have to eat a large amount of cinnamon all at once,” she says. “If you eat it every day, we suspect there will be a cumulative effect, and that over time you will achieve these benefits.”

Not a miracle cure

This won’t help against obesity — no matter how much cinnamon you put on it. A healthy diet and exercise are still the best way to go. Credits: Eric Petruno.

Now, this doesn’t mean that tossing cinnamon into your latte or pastry will help you lose any extra pounds. The world has a massive obesity problem, and no silver bullet will cure that — even if it’s cinnamon coated. Many media outlets tend to greatly exaggerate such benefits, and consumers end up believing that this or that food can magically get rid of obesity. Nothing can replace a healthy diet and exercise. However, as part of a balanced lifestyle, cinnamon might also help.

Perhaps even more importantly, with further research, they could find a way to incorporate a treatment for obesity, and since it’s based on such a popular spice, it might make people more likely to stick to the treatment.

“Cinnamon has been part of our diets for thousands of years, and people generally enjoy it,” Wu said. “So if it can help protect against obesity, too, it may offer an approach to metabolic health that is easier for patients to adhere to.”

Journal Reference: Jun Wu, Juan Jiang, Margo Emont, Heejin Jun, Xiaona Qiao, Jiling Liao and Dong-il Kim. “Cinnamaldehyde induces fat cell-autonomous thermogenesis and metabolic reprogramming,” DOI: 10.1016/j.metabol.2017.08.006.