Your Brain on Food

How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings.

Why Cinnamon Is Good for Your Aging Brain

A safe and tasty way to slow down aging.

My grocery store recently stopped selling an excellent margarita mix because its label states that it contains the preservative sodium benzoate. Sodium benzoate prevents food from molding and can be found in lots of foods and many popular soft drinks.  The label on this drink mix claimed that it contained only “natural ingredients.”   There were complaints from some consumers that inclusion of this preservative violated that claim.

Is sodium benzoate truly unnatural? Certainly not!  Is it harmful? The answer for sodium benzoate, as for so many ingredients in the foods we consume is always the same: yes & no… & it depends.  In order to answer this question, we need to consider the natural source of sodium benzoate: cinnamon.

Cinnamon is a spice obtained from the bark of Cinnamomum verum tree.  Since antiquity it has had many uses.  Moses included it as an ingredient of the holy anointing oil. The Chinese knew it as Gui Zhi and recommended it for its antibacterial and antipyretic properties. Medieval physicians included cinnamon in their preparations to treat arthritis and infections. The widespread use of willow tree bark for these ailments was still a thousand years into the future.

Cinnamon is metabolized into sodium benzoate. Eating cinnamon significantly elevates the level of sodium benzoate in your brain. A recent report in the Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology by researchers from Rush University Medical School in Chicago found that sodium benzoate has many important positive effects upon brain function and that eating cinnamon may prevent a variety of age-related neurological disorders. How?

The sodium benzoate produced in the body after eating cinnamon induces significant increases in the levels of a variety of chemicals in the brain called neurotrophic factors. These factors stimulate the birth of new neurons in the brain and encourage the survival of existing neurons.  These two processes are critical for the maintenance of a healthy brain. During the past decade many scientific studies have discovered that these neurotrophic factors can prevent, or greatly slow the progression of, a variety of degenerative diseases of the brain, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Translating this knowledge has been a challenge because it is not easy to get neurotrophic factors into the brain; they do not cross the blood brain barrier and are quite unstable in the body. Thus, simply taking a pill containing neurotrophic factors is not an option.  A far better option is to induce the production of these factors within the brain by administering another drug that is safe and tasty- cinnamon. Cinnamon has also been shown to reduce blood sugar levels in people with type II diabetes and reduce cholesterol levels by up to 25%. Thus, cinnamon is good for your brain and body.

Two important warnings about cinnamon: the presence of sodium benzoate is why cats hate cinnamon; also, combining high doses of sodium benzoate with vitamin C produces a rather nasty carcinogen; best not to mix them.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford Univ Press)

Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University.

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