Saffron: The appetite suppressing, serotonin boosting spice

In a recent issue of Life Extension Magazine, I read about saffron’s health boosting benefits. As if its taste wasn’t reason enough to enjoy it!

What is saffron?

Saffron is a spice derived from the flower part of the indigenous southwest Asian Crocus sativus plant. Each flower has 3  deeply crimson colored stigmas that are hand-harvested and dried to make saffron. It is the most expensive spice in the world by weight and has a long history of medicinal use in traditional folk medicine. Saffron’s medicinal qualities have been confirmed by scientific studies: it combats depression, anxiety, emotional stress, appetite dysregulation and cravings. Some research also suggests that it has cancer-suppressing and antioxidant properties.

Saffron is estimated to contain over 150 chemical compounds though only 2 have been extensively studied: crocin and safranal. Crocin is a water-soluble carotenoid and gives saffron its color. Safranal is the volatile oil responsible for the “saffron” odor. Both of these chemicals have been found to have pharmaceutical health-improving merit. Let’s take a look.

Saffron & cravings

Saffron helps restore hormone and neurotransmitter dysregulation that are upset during a negative feedback cycle called reactional hyperphagia (abnormally high cravings and compulsion to eat more, increased emotion-based snacking, disrupted reward pathways in brain) by increasing serotonin activity in the brain. Low serotonin has been found to increase vulnerability to overeating, food cravings, depression, and compulsive snacking. Saffron’s serotonin-enhancing activity helps combat these symptoms and break the reactional hyperphagia feedback cycle.

Serotonin & stress

The same serotonin affecting mechanism that makes saffron useful for reactional hyperphagia, helps us physically deal with stress. Stress increases our primary stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol has plenty of benefits to our health and is essential to life, however, chronically elevated cortisol is not good for health and can contribute to serious dysfunction of steroidal hormone pathways (affecting sex hormone regulation, gut health,blood sugar regulation, mineral balance, thyroid function, bone turnover, etc.). Yikes! Stress also lowers serotonin activity by disrupting the transport efficiency of serotonin (by increasing glucocorticoids such as cortisol). Lower serotonin activity negatively impacts both mood and appetite (reactional hyperphagia).

Stress also activates the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis and disrupts the normal feedback cycle responsible for appetite regulation: serotonin helps normalize the HPA axis and can therefore improve snack-related emotional states such as depression, anxiety, and compulsive behavior.

In sum, chronic stress throws our body chemistry out of whack, lowers serotonin and disrupts our normal hormonal & neurotransmitter flow. As a result, we aren’t our usual sparkly selves and our appetites and eating behavior can run amok.

So what does saffron have to do with any of this? Saffron works at the fundamental level to help restore disrupted serotonin levels. Forget about treating the symptoms. The constituents of saffron cut to the chase and work at the cellular level to help restore balance to serotonin levels.

Cooking with saffron

Having learned some of saffron’s health benefits, I’m sure you’re eager to add it into your weekly menu. Saffron adds color and flavor to any dish. Try adding it to some of your current recipes. It is delicious on chicken, sauces, or veggies. For additional ideas, check out these Saffron Chicken with Cauliflower “Rice” or  Moroccan Saffron Chicken with Almonds recipes.

Benefits of eating mussels

I recently learned that mussels are a great source of selenium. Selenium is a mineral that plays a key role in good health and has become more challenging to obtain through diet due to soil depletion from intensive farming practices: our veggies today have only a fraction of the selenium they used to have.

My 22 month old daughter enjoying a mussel dinner.

Benefits of selenium

  1.  Vital component of our master antioxidant glutathione, therefore protecting every cell against free radical damage.
  2. Involved with anti-iflammatory and immune responses (alert cytokines, basically tells your immune system to get to work).
  3. Mandatory for proper thyroid function.
  4. Cancer & cardiovascular protective via increasing our body’s antioxidant capacity.
  5. Promotes healthy blood sugar levels. Selenium appears to mimic insulin and promote uptake of glucose into our cells where it can be used to make energy.

Other good sources of selenium

Aside from mussels, great food sources of selenium are Brazil nuts, liver, oysters, fish, shrimp, crab,sunflower seeds, bacon and pork chops.

Benefits of eating mussels

A 3-ounce portion of blue mussels gives you:

  • 340% of your RDA of vitamin B12, great for the nervous system
  • 700 mg Omega 3 fatty acids, great for reducing inflammation & is cardioprotective
  • High amounts of folate, manganese, vitamin C, zinc, iron, and phosphorous (promotes health bones, immune system, and energy metabolism)
  • Sustainable. Most farmed mussels use a system of ropes suspended from rafts or bouys and don’t come in contact with the ocean floor and therefore don’t contribute to habitat destruction.

Preparing mussels

 I was surprised by how easy it is to cook mussels! Seriously, it takes only about 5 minutes from start to finish. If you buy farm raised mussels (easier to clean), all you need to do is:

  1. Rinse them off (wild mussels require scrubbing to remove sand & debris).
  2. Heat mussels in a deep pan with a cup or two of water on medium-high heat till water starts to boil. I did this with the lid on to heat them more quickly. I also tossed 2 cloves of garlic into the water.
  3. Reduce heat to medium and take off lid once water starts to boil. Use tongs to remove each mussel once it opens so that you don’t overcook the early-openers. All mussels should open within about 5 minutes. Don’t eat mussels that don’t open on their own.

It’s that easy! You  can get really exotic when cooking mussels, however, they are delicious and flavorful simply steaming them with water and garlic as described above. For variety, use broth or coconut milk and mix up the herbs and spices.

The 80/20 rule

Are you blocking yourself from being successful because you think you have to be perfect to get results? All of us have been there. Let me remind you that it isn’t necessary to make ideal health choices 100% of the time to be healthy, fit, strong, & happy.

The 80/20 Rule

This rule reminds you that if you want to maintain a healthy body and weight, you’ll need to make wise food choices more often than not, but it still allows you to feel like you are “sticking to your program” when you make occasional allowances for certain foods or occasionally larger portion sizes.

Aim daily food choices and portion sizes for 80% of what you think/know is ideal for you…and keep deviations from this ideal to 20%. This could mean that you ate the foods that you’ve learned through trial and error work well for your body at every meal, but maybe you had an extra square of dark chocolate for dessert or ate light meat chicken when you know you really feel best with dark meat chicken (or something like that).

The 80/20 rule is all about knowing that we need to give ourselves some wiggle room to maintain healthy eating over our lifetime. It is easy to become unmotivated if you feel like you’ve screwed up by not eating perfectly. So often this is used as an excuse to continue to eat poorly. That’s what is so great about the 80/20 rule: re-defining what is perfect to allow you to comfortably fit the mold!

Progress, not perfection

Make your new motto “progress, not perfection”. We are all coming from different paths on our journey to the road to health, so don’t feel badly if you notice you have a lot farther to come than a friend or colleague. Ask yourself instead if you’re making improvements every week? What have you changed since you started? What positive changes have you seen in your health since you started? These questions will remind you that your effort is paying off and it doesn’t matter if someone else is in better shape than you. There’s always going to be someone in the world who is in a lot worse shape than you and there’s always going to be someone in better shape. Don’t worry about them. You aren’t them and they aren’t  you. Work on your health, your choices, and your attitude towards yourself. Look at where you want to go and how far you’ve come and remember: you’re a success with progress, not perfection.

Low-glycemic barbecue sauce your immune system will love

I usually avoid barbecue sauce, even though I generally like the taste, because almost all of it is full of sugar. White sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, large amounts of fruit sugar (especially dates) and maple syrup can pack quite a wallop to the immune system (sugar competes with Vitamin C for entrance into cells). In fact, a blood sugar value of 120 reduces our phagocytic index (efficiency of white blood cells’ destruction of a virus, cancer cell, or bacteria) by 75%.

Sugar is also highly addictive, promotes tooth decay, disrupts blood-sugar stability and the hormone insulin (which when produced in excess can lead to increased fat storage), aggravates asthma, and increases anxiety & irritability.

I tried this barbecue sauce recipe, compliments of Kelley Herring from the Healing Gourmet, on the 4th of July on some chicken wings and it was really good and only has 1 tablespoon of organic blackstrap molasses in the entire batch!

Low Glycemic Barbecue Sauce

Yield: 20 servings, 2 Tbsp. each
  • 2 strips pastured bacon*, chopped fine
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika or chipotle powder
  • 1 small onion, minced fine
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 small can (6 oz) Muir Glen Organic Tomato Paste
  • 1 cup filtered water
  • 3 Tbsp. organic spicy mustard
  • 1 Tbsp. organic Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 pinch ground cloves
  • 2 Tbsp. organic balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. organic molasses
  • Organic hot sauce to taste

*You may omit the bacon and increase the paprika or chipotle to achieve a rich, smoky flavor.

  • In a medium saucepan, add the bacon. Cook until crisp.
  • Add the onion and cook until soft, about 3 minutes.
  • Add the garlic and remaining ingredients.
  • Simmer 30 minutes, stirring, adding additional hot sauce and spices to taste.

Nutrition Information (per 2 Tbsp. Serving)

16 calories, 1 gram fat, 2 carbohydrates, 1.5 grams sugars, 0.5 grams fiber, 1 gram protein
Enjoy on barbecued meat, poultry, veggies or as a dipping sauce.

Almond flour: A gluten-free delight

Celiac disease and gluten intolerance diagnosis is at an all-time high. Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, barley and hidden in MANY processed foods and sauces. The bodies of gluten intolerant individuals take a major health beating when it is ingested. Many inflammatory conditions, autoimmunity, nervous system disorders, skin conditions, digestive disorders, arthritis, and even ADHD have been connected to gluten intolerance. Unsurprisingly, creative culinary minds have been hard at work perfecting recipes using gluten-free flour alternatives.

Almond flour can be used in place of wheat flour and is arguably healthier for gluten-free and gluten compatible dieters alike.

Almond flour benefits

  • Better for blood sugar. Almond flour is primarily fat and protein whereas grain-based flours are primarily carbohydrates. On the glycemic index, a measure of how high a food raises blood sugar; almonds have a rating of 15 versus wheat flour ‘s rating of 85!
  • Lower in carbs (which helps keep blood sugar stable, cortisol & your waistline down). Many gluten-free flours and products are even higher in carbohydrates than wheat flour (potato, rice, and tapioca flour).
  • High in magnesium, calcium, fiber, B-vitamins, Vitamin E, and healthy fat! These nutrients help combat all sorts of health disorders: Magnesium deficiency is associated with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, fatigue, pain, insomnia, nerve dysfunction, muscle spasms, cardiovascular disease and hypertension (high blood pressure). B-vitamins help us combat stress and are vitally important to the nervous system.
  • Gluten-free (as mentioned), so can be enjoyed by anyone whose body bursts into inflammation when they ingest gluten.
  • Mood boosting. Almonds contain tryptophan, an amino acid required to make serotonin (our natural anti-depressant).

Blanched or unblanched almond flour?

Depending on your cooking goal, blanched versus unblanched almond flour will be appropriate. Most almond flour is made from unblanched almonds with the skins left on. Blanched almond flour is lighter in color (such as Bob’s Red Mill) than unblanched flour (found at Trader Joe’s and many other grocery stores).

Blanched almond flour works better for most baked recipes since it creates a softer texture. Unblanched almond flour can be fine as a thickener to sauces and stews, in cookie recipes and for protein pancakes.

For delicious gluten-free and lower carbohydrate recipes using almond flour and other gluten alternative flours, check out: