One of our store cupboard staple ingredients could be an unlikely weapon in the fight against Parkinson’s disease.

Scientists have found that cinnamon, a spice commonly used all over the world, contains a chemical with brain-protecting benefits.

A recent study using mice discovered that the substance Cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon is converted into sodium benzoate by the liver, a substance approved for the treatment of neurological disorders. A team at Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago found that, once synthesised, the chemical enters the brain and prevents the loss of certain proteins that help to protect cells and neurons, and improve motor functions.

Lead researcher Professor Kalipada Pahan told the Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology: ‘Cinnamon has been used widely as a spice throughout the world for centuries. This could potentially be one of the safest approaches to halt disease progression in Parkinson’s patients.’

In fact, the health and medicinal properties of cinnamon have been well-known for centuries; it was used as far back as 2000BC in ancient Egypt, where it was very highly regarded as a panacea for almost everything, and consequently it was often burned or offered at ritual ceremonies.

The spice is sourced from the branches of wild tropical evergreen trees grown across the globe, including Sri Lanka, China, southern India, Bangladesh, Java, Sumatra, the West Indies, Brazil, Vietnam, Madagascar, Zanzibar, and Egypt. There are two types of cinnamon spice: Cinnamomum verum (Ceylon cinnamon), which is most commonly used in the Western world, and Cinnamomum aromaticum (Cassia cinnamon or Chinese cinnamon), a less expensive variety originating from southern China.

Modern research has confirmed its beneficial effects in the regulation of blood glucose and lipid levels, making it a popular alternative remedy for diabetes, and a study at Tel Aviv university found a positive association for the use of cinnamon in another brain disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, when an extract of the spice, CEppt, was shown to inhibit development of the disease.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine cites the popularity of cinnamon in the treatment of muscle spasms, vomiting ,diarrhoea, infections, the common cold, loss of appetite, and even erectile dysfunction and multiple sclerosis.

The cinnamaldehyde content in Cassia cinnamon has been shown to help combat bacterial and fungal infections, even human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), though in the latest study on Parkinson’s disease, Professor Pahan said tests had indicated that the Ceylon cinnamon variety was more effective at halting Parkinson’s as it is generally more pure and contained more active cinnamaldehyde. He and his team are keen to start testing the effects of the spice on human subjects.

"Now we need to translate this finding to the clinic and test ground cinnamon in patients with PD. If these results are replicated in PD patients, it would be a remarkable advance in the treatment of this devastating neurodegenerative disease," Pahan said.

Parkinson’s disease is a slow, degenerative disorder affecting a small area of cells within the mid-brain known as the substantia nigra. As these cells gradually deteriorate, there is a reduction in the production of a vital chemical neurotransmitter, dopamine. Decreasing dopamine levels eventually result in one or more of the classic signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease including: resting tremor on one side of the body; slowness of movement; stiffness of limbs; and gait or balance problems.

The cause of the disease is still unknown, but both environmental and genetic causes have been speculated by experts, and it generally affects older people.If a viable treatment could be derived from cinnamon, researchers believe that this could be one of the safest options available to stop the progression of the disease, which is currently incurable. It is always encouraging when science appears to find an answer in Nature, proof that our Earth can supply the answers to the vast majority of our issues if we just seek to find them.

Adding the delightfully sweet and aromatic flavor of cinnamon to your diet is certainly no hardship: the versatile spice can be added to bread, cakes, pancakes, tea, coffee and other hot and cold drinks and smoothies, marinades, curries, stews and dressings.

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