Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) comes from the sunflower family, from which its oil is derived. While not as well-known as other healthy oils such as olive or coconut, Safflower oil can hold its own when it comes to being a multi-tasking natural wonder.
Countries in both the Eastern and Western continents like India and the United States are cultivating safflower oil primarily as cooking oil.
Several parts of China have also been cultivating the Safflower plant as a traditional herbal medicine for at least 2000 years now, as well as in Korea, Japan, and Persia.
This article will explain the health benefits as well as potential side effects and the alternatives to Safflower oil.
1. Improves Blood Sugar Levels and Helps With Fat Loss
Safflower oil is rich in unsaturated fatty acids – both monounsaturated (oleic acid) as well polyunsaturated (linoleic acid) fats. Studies show that the oil can improve health markers related to type 2 diabetes.
A well-known study on menopausal diabetic women at Ohio State University showed that after over 16 weeks of supplementation, Safflower oil increased insulin sensitivity, thereby improving blood sugar levels.
The same study also resulted in a reduction of abdominal obesity in the test subjects, echoing findings from earlier studies. One such study demonstrated that daily consumption of Safflower oil could change the gene expression of fat cells leading to the effective reduction of obesity caused by poor diet.
2. Promotes Cardiovascular Health
Some of the same studies above and others have also shown that Safflower oil is great for cardiovascular health. The type of Safflower oil high in linoleic acid can suppress levels of LDL (bad cholesterol). However, it can also increase levels of HDL (good cholesterol).
Researchers discerned that the serotonin derivatives, flavones, and lignans in the seeds of the plant are responsible for these cholesterol-lowering abilities. One study showed that a diet that includes Safflower oil reduces arterial stiffness among healthy volunteers, to further promote heart health.
3. Rich In Antioxidants to Help With Inflammation
Safflower oil has great antioxidant activity. Therefore, its anti-inflammatory properties are great for type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular health. Studies have shown that the serotonin derivatives that come from Safflower oil have strong scavenging activity against inflammatory free radicals.
It works to inhibit inflammatory mediators that come about due to metabolic processes in the human body or externally. Especially when we are exposed to harmful substances like food preservatives, cigarette smoke, and industrial chemicals.
4. Reduces High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is one of the factors in metabolic syndrome. That is a condition that affects anywhere from 25% to 40% of Malaysians. Luckily, Safflower oil can potentially decrease high blood pressure, a marker of many ailments that we mentioned earlier.
One study attributes this to the role of Safflower oil in the synthesis of prostaglandins which are responsible for regulating blood flow (vasodilator) and inflammatory responses, thereby effectively lowering blood pressure to healthier levels.
5. Promotes Beautiful Healthy Skin and Hair
The linoleic acid found in Safflower oil can boost skin health and improve its appearance. It’s rich in vitamin E, lightweight and you can even use it as a hair conditioner thanks to its easy absorption, hydrating properties.
Besides, Safflower oil has great antimicrobial properties. This is why skincare and cosmetic brands also use it in their products; you can also use it to treat acne vulgaris.
Also, a study showed that Safflower seed extracts can inhibit the formation of melanin and promote skin brightening.
6. Great for Women’s Health
The flowers of the Safflower plant is also used to promote women’s health in both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Western medicine. TCM refers to Safflower as hong hua, and physicians consider it an invigorator of the blood. They usually prescribe Safflower in decoctions or herbal mixes as a way to combat blood stasis, and also to target heart and liver issues.
For this reason, it is known to help with menstrual irregularities as well as other pains associated with blood stagnation. Given its warm nature as described in TCM, Safflower can also help with other women’s problems. Especially those associated with poor circulation resulting from a yin (cold) excess or yang (hot) deficiency.
The warm and pungent nature of Safflower gives it the valuable properties of being able to improve blood circulation. It can also remove blood stasis and even alleviate pain that arises from blood stasis.
A well-known TCM herbal soup is Sheng Hua Tang which physicians prescribe for women post-pregnancy. A good grade of Sheng Hua Tang uses Saffron instead of Safflower, but you will need to use a proper dosage with the advice from your physician.
Before you make your purchase, check your Sheng Hua Tang ingredients to make sure that they use Saffron or Safflower, as the pricing and dosage differ. Along with the other herbs in this soup, Sheng Hua Tang helps promote blood circulation. It can also restore the uterus to its original shape while eliminating uterine tissue leftovers from the pregnancy.
The Chinese communities have been using this remedy for confinement from back in the day. The mechanisms were then researched in modern, Western medicine – results show the efficacy of these herbs in post-partum recovery.
Safflower vs. Saffron in TCM
Safflower and Saffron may look and sound similar but they both function differently. Safflower has interesting bright red and green leaves and is a commonly used traditional Chinese medicine. Moreover, its wine is a famous gynaecological formulation introduced by the Medical Sage Zhang Zhongjing back in the olden days.
Saffron (Stigma Croci, xi hong hua, 西红花), on the other hand, is a traditional Chinese medicine of great value. The Chinese Pharmacopoeia records that its “dried stigma” is the medicinal part of Saffron. When harvesting, one would usually handpick the stigma of three pistils in each flower.
Saffron only blossoms once a year, within a period of 14 days. Experts must harvest them when they fully open, before or immediately after sunrise so that the direct heat from the sun will not dry them up.
Experts must harvest the flowers by hand, as they are very delicate, and many growers believe mechanical plucking damages the Saffron crocus flowers and most importantly the stigmas.
Each flower produces only 3 stigmas. It takes between 15,000-16,000 flowers to produce 1 kilogram of Saffron stigmas. In terms of labour, producing this amount takes 370–470 hours. It is this labour-intensive harvesting process that makes Saffron so expensive.
From bottom to top, there are three parts to the pistil – ovary, style and stigma. Both Saffron and Safflower are great medicines for gynaecology as they have the effect of promoting blood circulation and dispelling blood stasis.
The Nature of Safflower Oil
However, Saffron is “slightly cooling” in nature while Safflower is warm in nature. TCM uses Safflower more commonly than Saffron, and often combine it with peach seed to treat gynaecology issues. Besides, it can relieve pain caused by stagnation.
Saffron has a stronger effect as compared to Safflower due to its chemical compositions and glycosides content. It can help relieve depressive symptoms and calm the nerves. Additionally, Saffron can clear heat and remove toxins as well.
However, Saffron is more expensive compared to Safflower, as high-end restaurants mostly use Saffron as a luxurious spice due to its healthy ingredient. Safflower is more commonly used in Chinese medicine prescriptions instead.
Side Effects and Alternatives
Although the benefits of Safflower are tempting, you should still consult your physician before using its oil in your diet or topically, as some side effects can be potentially harmful.
Be careful with Safflower oil if you are already on blood-thinning medication, have bleeding disorders, or undergoing surgery. Safflower also has abortive properties, so pregnant women should avoid Safflower products.
The compounds in Safflower could also have negative consequences on male fertility, wherein mouse models showed that it could have toxic effects on testicular tissues (in a high dose of Safflower extract, it can decrease the sperm count).
Rest assured, there are alternatives to Safflower oil like sunflower oil; they have similar health benefits and derive from the same Asteraceae or sunflower family.
Sunflower oil is a great cooking oil due to its high smoke point and mild flavour. Canola oil is another heart-healthy alternative due to its mild flavour, followed by soybean oil as it’s great for the skin.
Safflower oil is a great example of how bountiful nature is with plants that have many health benefits as well as utility in our lives. As always, make sure to work with your healthcare provider and TCM physician before incorporating Safflower oil into your diet. Next time you’re in the supermarket shopping for groceries, consider adding Safflower oil to your cart and discover the wonderful health benefits that it has to offer.
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