Cinnamon, Diabetes, and Chemistry – My Undergraduate Research

I was 14 years old when my dad was first diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.  I had never heard of diabetes.  My sister and I had to ask him what it meant.  He told us basically his blood sugar was too high and he had to take medication to help control it.  Today I am 22 years old, and it seems weird how I did not even know what diabetes was back then.

Diabetes has grown significantly in the U.S.   According to the National Diabetes Fact Sheet released by the American Diabetes Association on January 26, 2011, 18.8 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes, 7.0 million people remain undiagnosed, and 79 million people have prediabetes.

American Diabetes Association Logo  From: http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/diabetes-statistics/

American Diabetes Association Logo
From: http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/diabetes-statistics/

The College of the Ozarks requires all chemistry majors to take on a research project.  We could continue research worked on by a previous student or come up with a new idea to pursue.  My research began sophomore year when a close friend told me about her research on the effects of cinnamon on glucose levels. I had previously heard about this study and could not believe someone from our college was involved in this type of research. She told me about the different types of tests used to measure glucose levels and how cinnamon significantly lowered the glucose level when she tested them.  Her research captivated me. After all, this type of study could help people like my dad. Even though it meant putting aside my primary interest, forensics, I really wanted to do this research instead. I wanted to know my research could help someone.

The study of cinnamon lowering blood glucose levels (Khan A, Safdar M, Khan MMA, Khattak KN, Anderson RA. Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 2003 Dec;26(12):3215-8.) was first published in 2003.  This experiment involved several different groups with the same type of diabetes, around the same age, and with the same body weight.  Half the group ate rice with a placebo mixed in while the other groups ate rice with different amounts of cinnamon mixed in.   They each ate the rice daily and their blood glucose levels were analyzed each time.

Khan, Khan, Khattak, and Anderson discovered that the groups that ate the rice with cinnamon had a decrease in blood glucose levels.  The ones who ate the rice with the placebo had no change.  This set off an enormous number of studies to discover the reason why cinnamon had such an effect on glucose levels.  Some believed cinnamon may mimic insulin, a hormone that causes cells to take in glucose.  Khan, Khan, Khattak, and Anderson’s study was controversial. Another study, published in the journal Critical Care in 1975, has shown that certain molecules interfere with the tests. Walter Blaedel and James Uhl analyzed one glucose test, glucose oxidase-peroxidase, and found uric acid resulted in lower apparent glucose levels when added to the test solutions. Because of this, Blaedel and Uhl looked into the chemical reactions behind the test. They broke down different parts of the reaction and analyzed the effect of uric acid on the glucose oxidase-peroxidase reaction.  They discovered that if specific oxidizing agents are not present, then the color reagent is unable to change the solution’s color, which makes it appear that the glucose levels had lowered.

Both these studies influenced my research.  I analyzed both the glucose oxidase-peroxidase test and the hexokinase test.  Measuring glucose levels by the enzymatic method using glucose oxidase-peroxidase showed that cinnamon interfered and caused glucose levels to be reduced. The enzymatic method of measuring glucose using hexokinase showed no interference. Because the hexokinase test showed no interference, we analyzed the glucose oxidase-peroxidase further to determine what caused the apparent decrease of glucose levels. From there, we analyzed 10 other compounds found in cinnamon, and noted that tannic acid caused a considerable reduction in glucose levels with the glucose-oxidase test.

Although the question to whether cinnamon lowers blood glucose levels remains unanswered, it did show that the tests doctors use to detect blood glucose levels in patients could be misleading and need to be improved. In any event, this research has provided new information for diabetics.

I feel lucky I had the opportunity to work on this research. It truly opened a new door for me. Several of my friends said, “You must be really glad that you are finally done with your research.” The truth is I felt I could have kept going; I loved working on it! My research helped me find graduate schools with related research programs, and taught me to always keep an open mind because you never know what life will offer you. And of course, it’s shown me that my research isn’t confined to the lab. It can directly affect those around you, sometimes in intensely personal ways.

Carly Engel graduated from the College of the Ozarks with a B.S. in chemistry. She will be attending graduate school in the fall.

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