WEDNESDAY, April 5, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Help against diabetes and heart disease may be as close as your kitchen cabinets.
Two new studies suggest that cinnamon and cloves boost insulin function while lowering cholesterol. The reports were presented Tuesday at the Experimental Biology meeting, in San Francisco.
One study reinforced previous research indicating that as little as a quarter teaspoon of cinnamon extract, taken two times a day, can stimulate insulin-like activity while lowering triglycerides, cholesterol and glucose levels by 10 percent to 30 percent.
And this new research found that the same amount of cinnamon may also alleviate inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.
The second study revealed that a few grams of cloves per day delivers a similar therapeutic effect.
Either spice might help both pre-diabetic and diabetic patients alike, researchers contended.
"If you can improve insulin function the cholesterol goes down, triglycerides go down, glucose goes down, and all this goes towards the alleviation of type 2 diabetes," said Richard A. Anderson, a research chemist with the nutrient requirements and functions laboratory at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Md.
In the lab, Anderson and his team studied the effect of consuming one to six grams of cinnamon extract a day. One gram is the equivalent of about a half a teaspoon.
They found that cinnamon increases levels of three important proteins crucial to promoting normal insulin-signaling processes, a healthy inflammatory response, and efficient glucose transportation throughout the body.
Human trials are now underway to further understand cinnamon's effect.
The clove study involved 36 men and women diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Three groups of patients consumed either one, two or three grams of cloves for 30 days in capsule form, while a fourth consumed none of the spice.
At the end of the study, regardless of the amount of cloves consumed, all those who ingested cloves showed a drop in glucose, triglycerides and LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels. Blood levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol were not affected among the clove eaters. Those who did not ingest cloves experienced no changes.
"The people who would benefit the most are those who have impairments in their blood sugar," said Anderson. "These are the 40 million people with metabolic syndrome who are pre-diabetic, people with type 2 diabetes, and even the severely diabetic and the severely overweight -- although they may not benefit as much because the impairments in their insulin are much, much worse."
Anderson cautioned, however, that consumers should not simply start dousing their food with cloves and cinnamon. He noted, for example, that cinnamon in powder form is rendered ineffective by contact with saliva, and its lack of solubility in water can result in an unwanted build up of the spice in the body.
"But I certainly think there are things people can do," he added. "We recommend you add cinnamon to your coffee before you grind it, as this eliminates, in essence, the toxic components of cinnamon. Or you can use cinnamon sticks to make tea in hot water, which does the same thing. Or you can buy the cinnamon capsules in the store with the water-soluble extract in the equivalent of 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoons twice a day.
Cathy Nonas, director of the obesity and diabetes program at North General Hospital in New York City, expressed reserved enthusiasm for the food studies.
She stressed that more large-scale studies need to be conducted to identify the best way to use the spices, as well as any long-term side effects.
"The findings are terrific," she noted, "but they don't take away from important food and lifestyle issues -- from the need to do all the difficult things like make correct food choices and exercise. So this alone is not the solution, and it's important for people to understand that. Unfortunately, we can't now just all go out and have cinnamon Danishes and cinnamon ice cream."
Also released at the meeting was a study that explored the potential downsides to two popular herbal remedies: St. John's wort and echinacea.
A research team led by Christopher Gorski, from the division of clinical pharmacology at Indiana University's School of Medicine in Indianapolis, found that both preparations appear to affect the way many non-herbal drugs are metabolized by altering the normal activity levels of a specific metabolic-controlling enzyme found in the liver and intestine.
He and his colleagues noted that when drugs are metabolized too quickly or too slowly they can lose their benefit entirely, or even become toxic.
Up to one-quarter of all prescription and over-the-counter medications are vulnerable to this type of herbal interference, the researchers said. These include oral contraceptives, high blood pressure drugs, and anti-rejection therapies taken by organ transplant patients.
While the impact of St. John's wort on metabolism has been noted in prior studies, Gorski's work with patients taking either a pre-surgery relaxant drug or oral contraception showed that one enzyme in particular is the conduit for the metabolic problem -- cytochrome P450 3A4.
When either patient group took St. John's wort, this enzyme became abnormally active, and the relevant drug was metabolized much more rapidly than normal.
Echinacea -- which had not previously been identified as having a metabolic impact -- was similarly found to change the metabolic behavior of a number of enzymes involved in the absorption of common medications.
Gorski said that, pending further study, patients should be leery of taking herbal supplements when they are also taking prescription or non-prescription drugs.
"The interaction potential or effect of combinations of different herbal supplements is unknown," he cautioned. "(And) the assumption that herbal supplements are safer and more efficacious than prescription medicines is not supported."
"Herbal supplements taken for the prevention or treatment of an illness are by definition drugs," he added. "In comparison to pharmaceuticals which contain a single active ingredient, herbal supplement contain many active compounds. These active compounds -- ingredients -- have not been fully identified or characterized in regard to adverse effects, drug interactions or efficacy."
For more on the healthy eating, head to the American Dietetic Association.