Delicious with seafood, rice, tomatoes and plays well with plenty of garlic, saffron hails from the traditional medicine found in Persian cultures. It has served mankind for millennia as both a culinary herb and powerful medicine. Saffron is known for its vibrant color and flavor, and also for being the world’s most expensive spice.
“An herb is a friend of the physicians and a praise of the cooks” – Charlemagne
It has been traditionally used as a calmative, antidepressant and anti-inflammatory. This beautiful herb also imparts the gastrointestinal advantage of relaxing the muscles of the digestive tract to reduce spasms and help digest food, as well being an appetite enhancer (Yarnell, 2008).
Saffron is a plant. The dried stigmas (thread-like parts of the flower) are used to make saffron spice. It can take 75,000 saffron blossoms to produce a single pound of saffron spice. Saffron is largely cultivated and harvested by hand. Due to the amount of labor involved in harvesting, saffron is considered one of the world’s most expensive spices. The stigmas are also used to make medicine.
It is used for asthma, cough, whooping cough (pertussis), and to loosen phlegm (as an expectorant). It is also used for sleep problems (insomnia), cancer, “hardening of the arteries” (atherosclerosis), intestinal gas (flatulence), depression, Alzheimer’s disease, fright, shock, spitting up blood (hemoptysis), pain, heartburn, and dry skin.
Women use saffron for menstrual cramps and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Men use it to prevent early orgasm (premature ejaculation) and infertility.
It is also used to increase interest in sex (as an aphrodisiac) and to induce sweating.
Some people apply saffron directly to the scalp for baldness (alopecia).
In foods, saffron is used as a spice, yellow food coloring, and as a flavoring agent.
In manufacturing, saffron extracts are used as a fragrance in perfumes and as a dye for cloth.
Depression and anxiety impose high economic and social costs.
Clinical findings have shown that saffron and its active constituents possess antidepressant properties.
Antidepressant efficacy of saffron and crocin is comparable to those of standard drugs.
This review provides updates on the antidepressant and antianxiety properties of saffron and its mechanisms of action.
Studies on Saffron for Mood Support
A number of studies indicate that the stigma of the plant (the top of the plant where the pollen is, which is technically called the ‘saffron’) and petal of Crocus sativus plant both have similar mood benefits. Animal studies show the compounds safranal and crocin in the crocus plant may exert anti-depressant effects by keeping balanced levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (Hosseinzadeh et al., 2004).
Studies in humans show there is a benefit to both anxiety and depression. An 8-week double-blind randomized Iranian trial of 40 adult depressed outpatients was randomly assigned to receive either a capsule of petal of the Crocus plant at 15 mg in the morning and evening or Fluoxetine (Prozac) at 10 mg in the morning and evening, for 8 weeks. At the end of the trial, petal the Crocus was found to be as effective as the drug. Fluoxetine (Prozac) had an 85% responder rate with 17 of 20 patients and crocus showed a similar 75% (Basti et al., 2007). In another six week comparison to imipramine (an older style tricyclic antidepressant drug), researchers found significantly better results when patients were given a Hamilton Depression scale, which is a well-known questionnaire used to assess mood (Akhondzadeh et al., 2005).
The latest 2014 review of studies analyzed 14 studies which used saffron as an anti-depressant. This review even found saffron to be an agent effective to help Alzheimer’s, showing it more effective than the placebo, and as effective as donepezil (Aricept), which is the main conventional medication for this difficult-to-treat condition of aging. Some studies also showed benefit to help with weight loss (by reducing the need to snack) while others showed help with premenstrual syndrome (Moshiri, 2014). A separate 2013 review which used an even more stringent criterion for including studies also found saffron supplementation effective to significantly reduce depression symptoms compared to the placebo control (Hausenblas, 2013).
Adjunctive Treatment for Patients with Depression and Anxiety
A very recent work, also from Iran, looked at a 9-month study of 40 patients with major depression who were taking conventional psychiatric medications. Half took crocin, the major constituent of saffron alongside their medication, while and half took only the drugs. The subjects who took the combination spice and drugs had shown significantly improved scores for depression relief, anxiety relief, and general overall health status compared to placebo group (Talaei, 2015).
And saffron may also be good for sexual side effects too. Another work found saffron to effectively decrease the antidepressant sexual side effects common in men. The men found it helped erectile issues, and increased satisfaction too (Modabbernia, 2012). Other herbals like ginkgo also show some benefits for this problem as well. The erectile function issues is a tough issue for most men I see in my practice who are taking antidepressants. Anything that helps that doesn’t negatively interact with medication and doesn’t cause side effects makes sense to me.
Saffron Extract Improves Depression and Anxiety in Teenagers
Results from a new study1 published in the Journal of Affective Disorders indicates that saffron (Crocus sativus L.) may help reduce depression and anxiety symptoms in teenage children. The first-of-its-kind study found that supplementation with Affron, a branded saffron extract ingredient from biotechnology firm Pharmactive Biotech Products (Madrid), improved feelings of separation anxiety, social phobia, and depression in young people.
The randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study included 68 young people between the ages of 12-16 with mild-to-moderate anxiety or depressive symptoms. According to data from the World Health Organization, the study authors write, psychiatric disorders including anxiety and depression are among the leading causes of disability in young people, with as much as 15%-20% of the youth population experiencing an anxiety or depressive disorder before the age of 18. Saffron, they add, has been shown to be effective in reducing feelings of depression and anxiety in adults with mild-to-moderate depression. However, saffron for depression and anxiety had not yet been studied in a youth population prior to publication of the current study, they said.
The researchers divided participants into two groups. One group received 14 mg Affron, while another group received the same dosage of a placebo. Both groups were instructed to take one tablet of either Affron or the placebo twice daily for a total of eight weeks. In order to determine what effects supplementation with Affron had on parameters of anxiety and depression, participants completed a 47-item questionnaire called the Revised Child Anxiety and Depression Scale (RCADS). RCADS includes subscales on separation anxiety, social phobia, general anxiety, panic, obsessions and compulsions, and depression. Subjects’ parents also completed the parent-report version of RCADS; those results served as the secondary outcome measure.
The group supplemented with Affron reported improvements in overall internalizing symptoms, separation anxiety, social phobia, and depression, compared with the placebo group. Parental reports of improvement in the subjects’ mental health were inconsistent. The researchers thus concluded that “administration of a standardized saffron extract (Affron) for eight weeks improved anxiety and depressive symptoms in youth with mild-to-moderate symptoms, at least from the perspective of the adolescent.” Affron was also found to be safe and well-tolerated.
The study authors write that while the results are encouraging, the self-reporting nature of this study represents a limitation. The limited study duration, single treatment dose, and non-clinical sample used in this study likewise limit the overall generalizability of the results, warranting the need for further investigation. Pharmactive Biotech Products funded the study.
Spice for a Gut Feeling
It has high amounts of anti-oxidative carotenoids (including the main antioxidant crocin, a carotenoid which gives it its burnt orange color) and B vitamins. It is thought that saffron changes the levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain. Also, the antioxidants in saffron are thought to help clean up free radicals in the body, to help brain cells from oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is known to be a problem in people with mood issues (Chung, 2013).
I suspect saffron’s ability to help mood so well is because it is such a wonderful help to the digestive tract where it can relax tight muscles. The digestive tract is the seat of both the immune system as well as a central place of neurotransmitter creation. When digestion isn’t strong, the immune system will increase inflammation throughout our body, including our brain – which will contribute to any mood disorder to which we are predisposed. And when digestion isn’t at it’s best, our neurotransmitters (which, as Dr. Candace Pert said are our ‘molecules of emotion’) will not be balanced, which means our mood will suffer too.
Using Saffron in Your Diet and as a Supplement
You can cook with saffron. I found some nice healthy recipes here. I always recommend trying to look for these natural remedies in food. While supplements can be invaluable towards to path to healing, learning to eat foods with these beautiful herbs and the right nutrients will help keep someone healthy in the long term.
In many cases for both anxiety and depression, I do recommend my patients one capsule twice a day of a product called Mood Systems Balance. As a disclaimer, it is a formula I designed. This formula has correct dosage of saffron, plus a few other supportive nutrients like chromium (to balance blood sugar), Rhodiola (to support the stress system), and curcumin (which is another herb well-known to lower inflammation and support mood). It can be taken with or away from food.
Side Effects & Safety
Saffron is POSSIBLY SAFE for most people when taken by mouth as a medicine for up to 6 weeks. Some possible side effects include dry mouth, anxiety, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, change in appetite, and headache. Allergic reactions can occur in some people.
Taking large amounts of saffron by mouth is POSSIBLY UNSAFE. High doses can cause poisoning, including a yellow appearance of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes; vomiting; dizziness; bloody diarrhea; bleeding from the nose, lips, and eyelids; numbness; and other serious side effects. Doses of 12-20 grams can cause death.
Special Precautions & Warnings:
Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Taking saffron by mouth in amounts larger than what is normally found in food is LIKELY UNSAFE. Larger amounts of saffron can make the uterus contract and might cause a miscarriage.
Not enough is known about the safety of using saffron during breastfeeding. Stay on the safe side and avoid use.
Bipolar disorder: It seems to be able to affect mood. There is a concern that it might trigger excitability and impulsive behavior (mania) in people with bipolar disorder. Don’t use it if you have this condition.
Allergies to Lolium, Olea (includes olive), and Salsola plant species: People who are allergic to these plants might also be allergic to saffron.
Heart conditions: It might affect how fast and how strong the heart beats. Taking large amounts of saffron might worsen some heart conditions.
Low blood pressure: Saffron might lower blood pressure. Taking saffron might make blood pressure become too low in people with low blood pressure.
The following doses have been studied in scientific research:
- For depression: 30 mg/day of a specific saffron extract (Novin Zaferan Co, Iran). A different saffron extracts 15 mg twice daily has also been used.
- For premenstrual syndrome (PMS): 15 mg of a specific ethanol saffron extract twice daily (Department of Cultivation and Development of Institute of Medicinal Plants, Tehran, Iran).
- For menstrual discomfort: 500 mg of a specific combination product containing saffron, celery seed and anise extracts (SCA, Gol Daro Herbal Medicine Laboratory) taken three times a day for the first three days of menstruation.
- For Alzheimer’s disease: 30 mg/day of a specific saffron product (IMPIRAN, Iran).
Although herbal medicines are generally lower in potency than most drugs, they have also shown to cause fewer side effects and interactions compared to drugs (Sarris, 2011). Many of the patients with mood challenges who visit my office are often too sensitive for medications – in these cases, the herbs may actually do a better job to help. Of course, from a naturopathic perspective, it is vitally important to work on proper sleep, stress, get exercise, get out into nature and eat healthily for long-term healthiest mood.
If you reading this and are interested in trying saffron, or any other natural remedy, please talk to your prescribing doctor before changing or trying anything new. Preferably, it would be best to work with a natural medicine practitioner who is well-versed on using herbals alongside medications.