Life Extension Magazine

Life Extension Magazine August 2012


Block Food Cravings At Their Molecular Root

By Michael Downey

Inhibiting the Snacking Impulse in Humans

Inhibiting the Snacking Impulse in Humans

To corroborate that a proprietary extract of saffron targets the neurochemistry at the root of compulsive eating, scientists first conducted a small placebo-controlled, double-blind pilot study on a small group of 16 women. Half of the women were given the proprietary saffron (Crocus sativus) daily for extract for 4 weeks, while the other half took placebo.

Remarkably, all of the women taking the saffron extract decreased their between-meal snacking, while women taking the placebo experienced no improvement! Equally noteworthy, the women in the saffron group reported decreased feelings of hunger at lunch and dinner. There was an average weight loss, largely in the form of fat from the thighs, of 3.63 pounds.1

Following these findings, scientists launched a full-scale, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, enlisting 60 mildly overweight, female volunteers ranging in age from 25 to 45. This time, however, at least half of the women selected suffered from compulsive between-meal snacking behavior, although participants were not assessed specifically for their level of anxiety or stress. Women were excluded if they had any history of cancer, diabetes, gastric surgery, pathological eating disorders (such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa), abnormal liver or kidney function or were currently using any medications (such as antidepressants) or supplements that might interfere with the results.

As before, half of the subjects were given daily doses of 176.5 mg of patented saffron extract—but this time, for a full 8 weeks—while the others took an identical-looking placebo. All subjects were instructed to otherwise maintain their normal dietary and lifestyle habits, and all between-meal food consumption was recorded.

Inhibiting the Biochemistry of Comfort-Food Cravings
  • Dieting and other stressors often disrupt levels of certain hormones and neurotransmitters.
  • This triggers an increase in the biochemical reward value of comfort food.
  • The result is a mechanism known as reactional hyperphagia, involving intense food cravings.
  • These irresistible compulsions increase snacking, comfort-food intake—and as a consequence, weight.
  • The abnormal feed-feedback cycle promotes more dieting, more stress—and more cravings.
  • No drug is available that can safely rebalance the neurochemistry of appetite.
  • Constituents in saffron extract are believed to increase serotonin activity in the brain, which then normalizes the biochemistry of appetite regulation.
  • Restored appetite regulation results in improved mood, increased satiety, and a decrease in between-meal food cravings.1,2

The saffron extract significantly reduced the frequency of snacking events to a degree that the journal-published study described as "most striking." At the beginning of the study, both groups indulged in an average of 12 between-meal snacks per week. After 8 weeks, the number of snacking events for the placebo group fell somewhat to 8.9 per week, a decrease of 28%. By comparison, between-meal snacks for the saffron group decreased to just 5.8 per week, a snacking decrease, over 8 weeks—of 55%!2

The reduction in snacking events among the saffron-extract group paralleled an increase in satiety sensation. These women reported significantly reduced feelings of hunger before meals, and a reduced feeling of the "need" to snack between meals. These saffron subjects experienced significantly greater feelings of alertness and energy.

The key objective of the study was to assess the effect of saffron extract on the frequency of snacking, and because the volunteers were only mildly overweight, substantial weight loss was not expected. Still, the increased satiety and 55% decreased snacking had an effect on weight. The saffron group experienced an average weight loss of over 2 pounds during this 8-week period of eating normally!2

While no conclusions could be reached regarding the mechanism of action for saffron extract, the study team did note that new saffron research data suggests that the benefits could be related to saffron's impact on mild-moderate anxiety.2 This finding was upheld in the current study when during the administration of a global health survey at the end of supplementation, those in the saffron group reported feeling significantly more alert and energetic than those in the placebo group. This same trend continued on follow up several weeks after completion of supplementation.2 This modest weight loss shows why more than just reduced calorie consumption is needed to produce meaningful fat loss. Taking standardized green coffeeberry extract before each meal resulted in 17.6 pounds of weight loss in a study published in 2012.36

Broader Benefits

In addition to its ability to target the biochemical root of compulsive snacking, saffron has been shown to exert a wide range of other protective health effects. The mechanisms behind these broader benefits are not yet clear, but they may stem from the ability of saffron's constituents to modulate the HPA axis, as well as serotonin and other neurotransmitters.

Cancer is a growing health concern worldwide, causing more than 7.5 million deaths each year.37 Botanical extracts have been one of the main sources for development of chemopreventive agents.38 Recent scientific evidence, both in vitro and in vivo, has suggested that saffron extract and its main active constituents, can help inhibit carcinogenesis and tumorigenesis.39-42 Rodent studies demonstrate that saffron can reduce the side effects of the anticancer drug Cisplatin® (cisplatinum).43,44 These findings have prompted extensive current research on saffron and its components, including safranal and crocin, as promising chemopreventive agents.

The mechanism for saffron's anticancer potential is not known but may be related to its demonstrated high free-radical scavenging activity.45-47

Saffron is thought to have some action in supporting the serotonergic system in the brain and is well supported through research as a natural anti-anxiety and antidepressant agent that does not include the side effects of pharmaceutical options.32-35,48 In fact, this same potential serotonin effect is believed to be largely behind its ability to inhibit comfort food impulses, compulsive snacking, and sugar cravings, as well as to promote weight loss.1,2,49

Another benefit, research has suggested, is the potential of saffron to slow the progress of the eye conditions, macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.50-52

In traditional and folk medicine, saffron is used for many medical benefits, including as a remedy for pain (an analgesic), poor digestion, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, respiratory diseases, and Alzheimer's disease.53


Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of the Crocus sativus plant, which is indigenous to southwest Asia. It is the most expensive spice in the world by weight—and for good reason.

Each plant holds a maximum of four flowers, and each flower holds three deep crimson stigmas. The tiny stigma, and the thin filament stalk connecting it to the flower, are harvested—by hand—and dried to make saffron.

There has been a great deal of scientific interest in the many complex metabolites found in saffron. Although saffron is estimated to contain over 150 chemical compounds, only about 40 to 50 constituents have so far been identified, two of which have been extensively studied.54-77 The two main, pharmacologically active compounds in saffron are crocin and safranal. Crocin is a saffron-colored, water-soluble carotenoid, which provides saffron's color.58 Safranal is the volatile oil responsible of the odor that is characteristic of saffron.54 Other constituents include proteins, sugars, vitamins, flavonoids, amino acids, mineral matter, gums, and other chemical compounds.78

Saffron has a long history of medicinal use in traditional folk medicine. Studies have concluded that extract of saffron combats depression, anxiety, and emotional stress.19,23-25 Some research suggests saffron's constituents have anti-carcinogenic (cancer-suppressing) and antioxidant properties.39-42,45,46

Placebo-controlled studies on humans have recently established that a proprietary extract of saffron containing crocin and safranal uniquely targets appetite dysregulation at the neurotransmitter level. This substantially improves mood, and reduces food cravings and between-meal snacks.1,2


Scientists have discovered that there is a stress-induced mechanism behind the comfort-food cravings and compulsive snacking that sabotage many weight-loss programs.

Unbalanced hormones and neurotransmitters disrupt the normal brain reward pathways. The result is an induced feed-feedback cycle, known as reactional hyperphagia, which causes food cravings.

A study recently found this cycle to be all but identical to the mechanism underlying drug addiction.10

A proprietary extract of saffron (Crocus sativus) uniquely targets this appetite dysregulation at the neurotransmitter level, inhibiting the snacking compulsion.

Placebo-controlled studies found that a daily dose of 176.5 mg of a proprietary saffron extract decreased the average number of snacking incidents by 55% and decreased between-meal snacking—for all of the women taking saffron!1,2

If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Health Advisor at 1-866-864-3027.