The need for long-term thinking in medicine: Cinnamon as a case study

Here in Vermont, we are approaching the first anniversary of a storm that, over less than a day, poured an incredible amount of rain over the mountains, down the streams, and into narrow river valleys. The hill towns were quickly overwhelmed and literally swept away on huge torrents of water. These types of events are outliers, “hundred-year” floods. We tend not to think about them until they happen. If a river floods one spring, and washes away our garden, we could just build a retaining wall and be fine for years. But in Vermont, it seems that sort of thought process may have contributed to the severity of last summer’s event: narrower valleys, more constrained riverbeds, actually increased the torrent’s force and destructive power. As we rebuild, civil engineers are taking this into account.

In fact, there is a growing realization in many professions and disciplines that we need to approach the world with much more long-term thinking. Perhaps pumping out wetlands and building cities isn’t the best idea. It might be smart to consider sources of energy that aren’t going to run out fairly soon. When educating, connection to long-term curiosity might be better than passing the next test. Social and ecological concerns in market-based economies might trump the need to make a buck.

I dare say that medicine is beginning to embrace this trend, too – or at least people are. People who are interested in real food that may not require contaminating the water supply to cultivate, and who feel like this food might be better for their long-term health (though missing the tasty nacho cheese). People who consider a fever the sign of a healthy reactive response, and watch it for a bit rather than immediately suppresing it. People who are beginning to think that diabetes may be connected as much to ubiquitous, unregulated sugar in the food supply as it is to increased weight, lack of exercise, or “poor self-control”.

Which brings me to cinnamon. A recent meta-review found a small but significant effect from the powdered bark of this fragrant member of the Laurel family in treating the elevated blood sugar levels associated with Type 2 diabetes. I recommend this plant to clients concerned about this disease, either as part of breakfast or – my favorite – mixed with stevia, almond butter and cacao and rolled into “bliss balls”. It is best to take it regularly, as part of a long-term habit that includes real, bitter food and lots of movement. In this context it’s delicious, easy to take (doses are in the teaspoon range), and effective. 

The effect is, indeed, small when observed in isolation and for short periods of time. But diabetes (at epidemic levels) isn’t a problem that develops overnight, folks. I doubt anyone in the food industry, somewhere between the middle of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th, was saying “whoa - wait a sec, guys. I think that all this tasty sweet stuff (and elimination of all botanical biodiversity in the diet) might actually lead to epidemic levels of a sugar-metabolism disease in the next century!” No, that would have required seriously long-term thinking in matters of public health. And a little more knowledge of the human body.

Well, today we have a little more of  both. But research still looks at botanicals for three to four months most of the time – and this is partly because research is still beginning. When more time and interest are devoted to certain plants, such as the 2012 analysis that showed soy food consumption leads to lower recurrence of estrogen-positive breast cancer, striking results are revealed. But even this research only followed ten thousand women for seven years. Would that we had multi-generational followup data for cinnamon, endive, and dandelion roots! We might see a reversal of the grand experiment in carbohydrate refinement that gave us the current diabetes epidemic.

Short-term thinking gives us a need for dramatic, immediate results that might fit within the constraints of our current research model. This is great for many acute and chronic diseases, but not as great for matters of public health or for analyzing cultural patterns that lead to the diseases themselves.  Often, we learn about these matters from retrospective studies – discovering a problem after it’s already well-established. Long-term thinking takes a break and asks “if left alone, what might this situation look like?” Long-term thinking wonders how the river might handle a hundred-year flood if we hadn’t intervened to alter its course, how a population’s blood sugar might look if we hadn’t altered its food supply. 

Type 2 diabetes is a long-term effect of short-term thinking (satisfy my hunger now, and in a way that can be easily produced, stored, transported and packaged!) Its solution has to be based in long-term thinking, and part of that might very well include herbs such as cinnamon. The reason they are important is that, unlike a pharmaceutical solution, they provide an inroad to self-care based on whole plants and food – elements of life which, along with movement, end up being the keys to successful prevention of diabetes. If your mother started making cinnamon bliss balls when you were little, you might grow up eating them and eventually making them for your friends and family. Who knows what other bizarre plants you might consume along the way. Lo and behold, two generations later population levels of diabetes, obesity and heart disease are lower. I’d give you a rose to celebrate, but we all know there’s no research showing roses are effective as mood-lifters.

Some argue that, since the effect of a botanical such as cinnamon is small compared to conventional drugs, it should be rejected as part of our approach to diabetes. Ironically, the argument is that using cinnamon perpetuates a pill-driven, not lifestyle-driven, mentality for handling the disease. Call me crazy, but I’d respectfully argue that it’s probably pharmaceuticals that are driving this mentality, and that the search for a cinnamon capsule as an “alternative” is a first baby-step towards a different way. In the hands of an herbalist, baby steps turn into hikes in the forest. That could be a good thing – and a complex, multi-layered approach to diabetes that includes cinnamon most certainly is. 

Say what you will about an over-reliance on short-term clinical trials to drive therapy (or just read the British Medical Journal). Aside from the caveats (some of which I mention above), the approach is often a good one. But the offhand rejection of botanicals such as cinnamon, especially when they show promise, is actually harmful to public health. It is also a product of very short-term thinking. This is a problem that we need to resolve if we want to advance the cause of medicine and improve global quality of life – and herbalists, as those who, across the world, know what local plants do, are well placed to be part of the solution. Herbalists know the plants, but they also know that moving your vegetables over a little and supporting the community of cattail and calamus by the riverbank might be a better choice than a retaining wall, though it requires a (small) sacrifice in the short-term. Herbalists know that a bouquet of flowers makes you happy even though there’s not a single study out there to prove it. And they are usually inspiring teachers, too – the perfect choice for a diabetic patient. 

All this requires a change in thinking about medicine. We need to be looking further over the horizon, at a future where the advancement of our species sometimes includes a return to older technologies – not because they’re old, but because they’re damn smart in a long-term context. A future where we observe and mimic nature in designing our systems not because it’s “natural” but because, in the end, it’s in our own self-interest (global warming? Hundred year flood?). Herbal medicine fits in perfectly here. It is the precise modality that offers cultural connection, self-empowerment, ecological awareness, and effective remedies! It is both a blueprint for the future and a safety net for the present. As a design element for the next century of medicine, it can bring long-term thinking into a branch of science struggling with its own pressing challenges, helping it to harness the tools of complexity and deep ecology that are driving other industries. Long-term, complex herbal therapy won’t look as flashy in the short term – but that does not mean it has no value. Give it time, and skilled hands – a garden takes a season to come to fruit.

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