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.

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