Saffron (Crocus sativus) is much more than a rich and warm flavoring agent in foods and cosmetics. It is known to relax the mind and lift your mood, thanks to its components safranal and crocin, which can run the communication system in the brain more efficiently. It also helps relieve stress by reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and supporting the antioxidants in the body fight cell-damaging free radicals better. Functioning as a digestive, saffron nudges nitric oxide to help release more digestive enzymes.
The dried red-orange stigmas of the saffron plant (Crocus sativus) have always been about enriching food – with an intense flavor, aroma, and typical burnt-orange color. But it’s not all just showmanship. Saffron is particularly healthful for your mind, mood, and digestion. We’ll tell you how.
But first, what does saffron contain that our body recognizes and responds to? Mainly 4 bioactive compounds – crocin and crocetin (responsible for saffron’s color), picrocrocin (its bitterness), and safranal (its aroma and taste).
- Stigmas are the parts of flowers where bees drop pollen.
- Saffron is not the same as Indian saffron, another name for turmeric.
Why It’s So Great
1. Relaxes the Mind and Lifts Your Mood
Saffron is especially beneficial for the brain and mental well-being. Its components, mostly safranal and crocin, integrate themselves into the communication systems in the brain, helping things run a little more efficiently there.
- Helps balance the levels of neurotransmitters:
Particularly dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and glutamate. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that carry dialogue back and forth between nerve cells, including brain cells. They’re the reason you think, breathe, move. The smallest of imbalances in their levels manifest, affecting your mood, sleep, and behavior to say the least. With saffron’s help, there’s a little more stability in your levels of neurotransmitters.
Here’s another interesting angle. About 90% of the body’s serotonin is made in the digestive tract, in the nerves there with the help of gut bacteria. By supporting the digestive system (discussed in the next point), saffron helps ensure there is enough serotonin to go around. While you probably associate serotonin with feelings of well-being and happiness, it does so much more. Think body temperature control and secretion of digestive juices.
- Gives a hand to in-built antioxidants:
Charged molecules called free radicals are produced as byproducts of normal processes in the body. Because they can cause damage to the body’s own cells, the body has a free radical cleanup system in place a.k.a. antioxidants. Sometimes, say due to stress or illness, there may be way too many free radicals for the body’s antioxidants to handle and complications like mood disorders arise. That’s when external antioxidants from food become crucial. Saffron’s components behave as antioxidants too, and in the brain, provide added protection to brain cells.
- Slightly reduces the stress hormone cortisol:
This calming effect was seen in otherwise healthy individuals with the aroma of saffron alone. A whiff is all it takes!
2. Aids in Digestion
Saffron is a great addition to your meals for the simple reason that it helps you digest what you’ve eaten better. You get more out of your food and feel more energetic!
- Fires up digestive juices
Nitric oxide (NO) is a chemical that certain cells in the stomach wall can produce. Through a series of reactions, it increases the production of stomach acids and pepsin, the main enzyme that breaks down proteins in food.
One theory is that saffron’s components activate the enzyme that makes NO (nitric oxide synthetase) and, thus, contribute to better digestion.
- Helps preserve the stomach lining
Though stomach acids are important for digestion, they must be kept in check or else they will start eroding the stomach lining. At a molecular level, this involves those hyperactive free radicals we spoke about.
Saffron not only helps bolster the level of the in-built antioxidant glutathione to nullify free radicals but also serves as an antioxidant resource itself.
Saffron is considered to be the world’s most expensive spice, hence the title “red gold.” So it may not be something you come across in every supermarket and may be uneconomical to have on a regular basis. That said, thankfully, a little goes a long way and you can benefit from as much as a pinch. In fact, you shouldn’t have too much of it or too often anyway.
So, stock up on the dried, thread-like stigmas and treat yourself every once in a while. The spice goes especially well with rice, tomatoes, and seafood, so add a pinch whenever you’re feeling exotic. You could also add some saffron in your tea.
It’s best to avoid saffron if you’re pregnant.