Saffron fights depression, dementia and PMS
Most of us know saffron as that wonderfully intense spice used to make risotto, pilaf and paella. Saffron is extracted from the dried stigma of the crocus flower (Crocus sativus). Each crocus stalk grows 8 to 10 inches in height and produces up to four individual purple flowers. The flower has only three stigmas that yield the crimson powder that we know as saffron which is why the spice so expensive. Harvesting these stigmas is a very labor intensive effort, and it is estimated that 225,000 stigmas or 75,000 blossoms are needed to produce a single pound of saffron spice. As a spice, saffron is known not only for its intense, yellow-orange colouration, but hay-like, sweet taste. Today, Iran produces over 90% of the world’s supply of the spice.
Saffron works like Prozac without the side effects
A seventh-century Assyrian ruler compiled a botanical reference list for saffron in which he cited more than 90 illnesses that saffron was used to treat in classical times. In fact, saffron has long been used in traditional Persian medicine as a mood lifter, usually steeped into a medicinal tea or used to prepare rice. Saffron has antidepressant effects comparable to the antidepressants fluoxetine (Prozac) and imipramine (Tofranil); the spice works by the same mechanism as Prozac,helping to make the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin more available to the brain. Saffron contains more than 50% of the USDA’s recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, iron, and magnesium, and more than 30% of the recommended daily phosphorus and potassium.
The science behind saffron’s health benefits
Saffron’s standardized strength-of-evidence ratings are strongest for depression, Alzheimer’s disease and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). The active ingredient in saffron that is believed to be responsible for health benefits is crocetin, a potent antioxidant and carotenoid. This compound has chameleon-like properties in that it acts different ways to meet the needs of differing conditions:
Taking specific saffron extracts (Novin Zaferan Co, Iran) seem to improve symptoms of major depression after 6-8 weeks of treatment. Some studies suggest that saffron might be as effective as taking a low-dose prescription antidepressant such as fluoxetine or imipramine.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
Some clinical research shows that taking a specific saffron extract (Department of Cultivation and Development of Institute of Medicinal Plants, Iran) significantly improves symptoms of PMS after two menstrual cycles.
Menstrual discomfort. Some clinical research shows the taking a specific product containing saffron, anise, and celery seed (SCA, Gol Daro Herbal Medicine Laboratory) reduces pain severity and duration during the menstrual cycle.
Some research shows that taking a specific saffron product (IMPIRAN, Iran) might improve symptoms about as well as the prescription drug donepezil (Aricept) over 22 weeks of treatment.
Other medicinal uses of saffron
Saffron 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),
- For depression: 30 mg/day of a specific saffron extract (Novin Zaferan Co, Iran). A different saffron extract 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).
There is no question that saffron is an expensive herb, but studies show its potential beneficial effects. Current methods of cultivation, however, make it cost prohibitive. And while much more extensive research needs to be done on the medicinal properties of the Crocus sativus, there are exciting possibilities for treating depression and inflammatory disorders.