Your body runs on dietary carbohydrates, sugars and fats. These macronutrients go from food to fuel with the help of cellular mitochondria and a compound produced by the mitochondria called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
Mitochondria are tiny organelles. Red blood cells and skin cells have very little to none, while germ cells have 100,000, but most other cells have one to 2,000 mitochondria.
In order for your organs to function properly, they require energy, and that energy is produced by the mitochondria.
Since mitochondrial function is at the very heart of everything that occurs in your body, optimizing mitochondrial function, and preventing mitochondrial dysfunction by making sure you get all the right nutrients and precursors your mitochondria need, is extremely important for health and disease prevention.
Rhonda Patrick, PhD is a biomedical scientist who has studied the interaction between mitochondrial metabolism, aberrant metabolism, and cancer. One of the universal characteristics of cancer cells is they have serious mitochondrial dysfunction with radically decreased numbers of functional mitochondria.
“The mitochondria can still function in cancer cells. But one of the things that occur [in cancer cells] is that they immediately become dependent on glucose and they’re not using their mitochondria even though they have mitochondria there. They make this metabolic switch,” Patrick says.
Dr. Otto Warburg was a physician with a Ph.D. in chemistry and was close friends with Albert Einstein. Most experts recognize Warburg as the greatest biochemist of the 20th century.
He received a Nobel Prize in 1931 for his discovery that cancer cells use glucose as a source of energy production. This is called the “Warburg Effect” and, sadly, to this day it is often ignored.
To produce energy, your mitochondria require oxygen from the air you breathe and fat and glucose from the food you eat. These two processes – breathing and eating – are coupled together in a process called oxidative phosphorylation. That’s what the mitochondria use to generate energy in the form of ATP.
This process produces byproducts such as reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are damaging to your cells, and your mitochondrial DNA, which are then transferred to your nuclear DNA.
So there’s a trade-off. In producing energy, your body also ages from the damaging aspects from the ROS that are generated.
How quickly your body ages largely depends on how well your mitochondria work, and how much damage can be minimized by diet optimization.
When cancer cells are present, the reactive oxygen species produced as a byproduct of ATP production normally send a signal that sets in motion a process of cellular suicide, also known as apoptosis.
Since you generate cancer cells every day, this is a good thing. By killing off damaged cells, your body can eliminate and replace them with healthy cells.
Cancer cells, however, are resistant to this suicide protocol, and have a built-in defense against it as explained by Dr. Warburg and subsequently by Thomas Seyfried, who has done extensive research on cancer as a metabolic disease.
As explained by the biomedical scientist, Patrick:
“One of the mechanisms by which chemotherapeutic drugs work is they create reactive oxygen species. They create damage, and that’s enough to push that cancer cell to die. I think the reason for that is because, a cancer cell — which is not using its mitochondria, meaning it’s not producing those reactive oxygen species any longer — all of a sudden you force it to use its mitochondria and you get a burst of reactive oxygen species because that’s what mitochondria do, and boom, death, because that cancer cell is already primed for that death. It’s ready to die.”
In terms of nutrition, Patrick emphasizes the importance of the following nutrients; important co-factors needed for your mitochondrial enzymes to function properly:
- CoQ10 or ubiquinol (this reduced form absorbs better) CoQ10 is intimately involved in the mitochondrial production of ATP. The more CoQ10 available, the more cell energy mitochondria can produce. Take at least 100 mg daily.
- L-Carnitine shuttles fatty acids to the mitochondria. In one study, 2 grams of L-carnitine reduced fatigue and increased muscle function in older adults.
- D-ribose is raw material for ATP molecule. Ribose is an energy source that the body makes from food. Insulin reacts to ribose so do not take it without the guidance from your doctor.
- Magnesium – take 300-400 mg a day.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – are a crucial part of the cell membrane. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims that omega-3 supplements containing EPA and DHA are safe if doses don’t exceed 3,000 mg per day.
- All B vitamins, including riboflavin, thiamine, and B6
- Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) – Many foods have alpha-lipoic acid including spinach, broccoli, yams, potatoes, yeast, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, carrots, beets, and rice bran.
What damages and improves mitochondria?
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates burn dirty in the body. This would be similar to running diesel fuel instead of gas in your car. Healthy fats and moderate protein burn clean. (clean burning equates to far less damage to the mitochondria).
Eating before bedtime causes mitochondrial damage: Allowing extra time for your cells to not process the glucose from foods. This lowers the damage potential to the mitochondria.
Excess Iron: Iron in even the slightest excess causes large amounts of free radical damage within the cell. Testing ferritin levels regularly is the only way to determine your level.
Statin Drugs: Statins directly damage the mitochondria.
Exercise improves and supports healthy mitochondrial function. Sitting is the new smoking because research strongly indicates that inactivity for as little as 2 hours is changing body chemistry to the negative.
Eat Real Food: Foods today have over 10,000 food additives that are legally approved. This approval was by the food industry and in no way ensures safety. Clean wholesome unprocessed foods must be the primary choices you make.
Coconut Oil: Coconut is one the cleanest fuels available.
Trans-Fat: The older fat called trans-fat that is now been removed from foods killed millions due to the damage to the body. This fat is now being replaced by alternative oils that are even worse! Stay away from vegetable oils like canola and sunflower.
Ketones: Teaching the body to efficiently burn ketones for fuel instead of glucose may be the most important concept in mitochondrial health. Ketones are the fuel source when carbohydrates are not readily available. This comes from rearranging your meals to include longer periods of time between meals. Use intermittent fasting, or calorie restriction as a guide.
Aging is inevitable. But your biological age can be quite different from your chronological age, and your mitochondria have a lot to do with your biological aging. Regardless of your actual age, how old you look corresponds with your biological biomarkers, which are largely driven by the health of your mitochondria. So the point is that while aging is inevitable, you have enormous control over the way you age, which is really empowering. And one of the key factors is keeping your mitochondria in good working order.
As noted by Patrick, “youthfulness” is not so much about your chronological age, but rather how old you feel, and how well your body works.
Adapted from Found My Fitness
Saffron is taken from the stigmas of the saffron crocus, a member of the lily family. The stigma is the part of the flower that catches the pollen.
Saffron is harvested in the hours just before sunrise, while the crocus petals remain closed; this makes the flowers easier to pick and helps protect the crimson-red stigmas. The delicate buds are usually hand picked.
On the same day, the stigma, three tiny threads per flower, are separated from the petals. It is a delicate process that takes hours with a skilled and patient hand. Then, the stigmas are dried, often on an open fires, adding to the richness of the color and flavor.
It takes roughly 4,000 flowers to make one ounce of saffron powder. No wonder that it is the most expensive spice in the world. Due to the intense labor in cultivating, harvesting, and handling, saffron – which can cost around $260 an ounce in the American market – is often referred to as “Red Gold.”
Saffron is used to flavor dishes like bouillabaisse and paella, but saffron extract has a long history in herbal medicine spanning over 2,500 years. According to a review study from 2014, it’s been used in various countries to treat skin disease, respiratory issues, poor vision, pain, mental illness, gynecological problems, erectile dysfunction, and infections.
More than 150 chemicals are present in saffron, but the key ones are crocetin and crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal, which are responsible for saffron’s color, taste, and odor.
These compounds are all strong antioxidants, molecules that protect cells against free radicals and oxidative stress, and scientists propose that many of saffron’s beneficial effects can be attributed to them.
Crocin and crocetin are carotenoid pigments and responsible for saffron’s red color. Both compounds may have antidepressant properties, protect brain cells against progressive damage, improve inflammation, reduce appetite, and aid weight loss. Test-tube studies have found that crocin may make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy drugs.
Safranal gives saffron its distinct taste and aroma. Research shows that it may help improve your mood, memory, and learning ability, as well as protect your brain cells against oxidative stress.
Kaempferol is found in saffron flower petals. This compound has been linked to health benefits, such as reduced inflammation, anticancer properties, and antidepressant activity.
In test-tube studies, saffron and its compounds have been shown to selectively kill colon cancer cells or suppress their growth, while leaving normal cells unharmed. This effect also applies to skin, bone marrow, prostate, lung, breast, cervix, and several other cancer cells.
Saffron is nicknamed the “sunshine spice.” That’s not just due to its distinct color, but also because it may help brighten your mood. In a review of five studies, saffron supplements were significantly more effective than placebos at treating symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression.
Other studies found that taking 30 mg of saffron daily was just as effective as Fluoxetine, Imipramine, and Citalopram – conventional treatments for depression. Additionally, fewer people experienced side effects from saffron compared to other treatments.
Both the saffron petals and thread-like stigma appear to be effective against mild-to-moderate depression.
In women 20 – 45 years of age, taking 30 mg of saffron daily was more effective than a placebo at treating PMS symptoms, such as irritability, headaches, cravings, and pain. Another study found that simply smelling saffron for 20 minutes helped reduce PMS symptoms like anxiety and lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Saffron may have aphrodisiac properties for both men and women and may especially help those taking antidepressants.
Saffron has been shown to reduce snacking and curb your appetite. In one eight-week study, women taking saffron supplements felt significantly more full, snacked less frequently, and lost significantly more weight than women in the placebo group. In another eight-week study, taking a saffron extract supplement helped significantly reduce appetite, body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, and total fat mass. It is thought that saffron elevates your mood, which in turn reduces your desire to snack.
May reduce heart disease risk factors: Animal and test-tube studies indicate that saffron’s antioxidant properties may lower blood cholesterol and prevent blood vessels and arteries from clogging.
May lower blood sugar levels: Saffron may lower blood sugar levels and raise insulin sensitivity — as seen in test-tube studies and mice with diabetes.
May improve eyesight in adults with age-related macular degeneration (AMD): Saffron appears to improve eyesight in adults with AMD and protect against free radical damage, which is linked to AMD.
May improve memory in adults with Alzheimer’s disease: Saffron’s antioxidant properties may improve cognition in adults with Alzheimer’s disease .
How to Buy
Saffron is readily available at most specialty markets and can be purchased as threads or in powdered form. However, it’s best to buy the threads, as they give you more versatility and are less likely to be adulterated.
It’s important to keep in mind when shopping for supplements that mixing saffron with materials like beet, pomegranate fibers, and red-dyed silk fibers sometimes occurs as a way of decreasing its cost. Researchers report that the yellow stamens of saffron have also been mixed with the saffron powder. Sometimes the flowers of other plants, particularly safflower, marigold, arnica, and tinted grasses, are fraudulently mixed with the genuine stigmas. Turmeric, paprika, and other substances have also been combined with saffron powder.
When saffron is used for therapeutic purposes, adulterations make it completely useless or even harmful.
When buying saffron supplements, be wary of products that list “Indian saffron,” “American saffron,” or “Mexican saffron,” which are common ways of mislabeling the herb turmeric. Make sure to purchase saffron from a reputable brand or store to avoid an adulterated or mislabeled product.
How to Store
Keep in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place for up to six months for maximum flavor. Saffron, like other herbs and spices, is sensitive to light, so keep it out of direct light. Saffron will not spoil, but it will lose increasingly more and more of its flavor with age.
How to Cook
In small doses, saffron has a subtle taste and aroma and pairs well with savory dishes, such as paella, risottos, and other rice dishes. Though saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, a small amount goes a long way, and you often won’t need more than a pinch in your recipes. In fact, using too much saffron can give your recipes an overpowering medicinal taste.
The best way to draw out saffron’s unique flavor is to soak the threads in hot, but not boiling, water. Add the threads and the liquid to your recipe.
As a dietary supplement, up to 1.5 grams of saffron can be safely taken per day. It’s considered toxic when ingested at doses higher than five grams and could be lethal at doses of more than 20 grams a day.
Clinical studies have evaluated doses ranging from 20 mg a day to 400 mg a day, though the most common effective doses being applied in clinical trials are 30 mg to 50 mg a day.
Vicky Berman/ Photo Credit: Avocado Pesto
- 2 cups jasmine rice
- 3 and 3/4 cups vegetable broth
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion diced
- 1/4 teaspoon saffrom dissolved in 1/4 cup hot water
Heat oil over medium heat in pot. Add onion and cook for a few minutes. Add turmeric and salt, mix.
Add rice and cook for a couple minutes.
Add broth and saffron liquid.
Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered over low heat for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork.
Gjørup I, Gjørup T, Andersen B. Serum selenium and zinc concentrations in morbid obesity. Comparison of controls and patients with jejunoileal bypass. Scand J Gastroenterol. 1988;23(10):1250-2.
Gohari AR, et al. An overview on saffron, phytochemicals, and medicinal properties. Pharmacogn Rev. 2013 Jan-Jun; 7(13): 61–66.
Moshiri M, Vahabzadeh M, Hosseinzadeh H. Clinical Applications of Saffron (Crocus sativus) and its Constituents: A Review. Drug Res (Stuttg). 2015;65(6):287-95. DOI: 10.1055/s-0034-1375681
Akhondzadeh S, Sabet MS, Harirchian MH et al. Saffron in the treatment of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease: a 16-week, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. J Clin Pharm Ther 2010; 35: 581-58837.
Lashay Alireza, et al. Short-term Outcomes of Saffron Supplementation in Patients with Age-related Macular Degeneration: A Double-blind, Placebo-controlled, Randomized Trial. Med Hypothesis Discov Innov Ophthalmol. 2016 Spring; 5(1): 32–38.
Talaei A, Hassanpour moghadam M, Sajadi tabassi SA, Mohajeri SA. Crocin, the main active saffron constituent, as an adjunctive treatment in major depressive disorder: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, pilot clinical trial. J Affect Disord. 2015;174:51-6. DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2014.11.035
Shahmansouri N, Farokhnia M, Abbasi SH, et al. A randomized, double-blind, clinical trial comparing the efficacy and safety of Crocus sativus L. with fluoxetine for improving mild to moderate depression in post percutaneous coronary intervention patients. J Affect Disord. 2014;155:216-22. DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2013.11.003
Lopresti AL, Drummond PD. Saffron (Crocus sativus) for depression: a systematic review of clinical studies and examination of underlying antidepressant mechanisms of action. Hum Psychopharmacol. 2014 Nov;29(6):517-27.
Lopresti AL, Drummond PD, Inarejos-Garcia AM, Prodanov M.affron®, a standardised extract from saffron (Crocus sativus L.) for the treatment of youth anxiety and depressive symptoms: A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. J Affect Disord. 2018 May;232:349-357.
Gout B, Bourges C, Paineau-Dubreuil S. Satiereal, a Crocus sativus L extract, reduces snacking and increases satiety in a randomized placebo-controlled study of mildly overweight, healthy women. Nutr Res. 2010 May;30(5):305-13.
Broadhead GK, Grigg JR, Mccluskey P, Hong T, Schlub TE, Chang AA. Saffron therapy for the treatment of mild/moderate age-related macular degeneration: a randomised clinical trial. Graefes Arch Clin Exp Ophthalmol. 2019;257(1):31-40. DOI: 10.1007/s00417-018-4163-x
Maleki-Saghooni N, et al. A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials on saffron (Crocus sativus) effectiveness and safety on erectile dysfunction and semen parameters. Avicenna J Phytomed. May-Jun;8(3):198-209.
Agha-hosseini M, Kashani L, Aleyaseen A, et al. Crocus sativus L. (saffron) in the treatment of premenstrual syndrome: a double-blind, randomised and placebo-controlled trial. BJOG. 2008;115(4):515-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-0528.2007.01652.x