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.
Saffron 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).
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 benefit to both anxiety and depression. An 8-week double-blind randomized Iranian trial of 40 adult depressed outpatients were 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 a 8 weeks. At the end of 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 foudn 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 criteria 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 showed 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 help that doesn't negatively interact with medication and doesn't cause side effects makes sense to me.
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Spice for a Gut Feeling
Saffron 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.
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Although herbal medicines are generally lower in potency than most drugs, they have also show to cause less 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.
about the author: Peter Bongiorno, ND, LAc. is President of the New York Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Dr. Bongiorno trained at Bastyr University, and researched at Yale and the National Institutes of Health before medical school. In 2010, Dr. Bongiorno authored Healing Depression: Integrated Naturopathic and Conventional Treatments, the first comprehensive textbook designed to teach physicians how to use the science and art of natural medicine to heal depression. The public book, How Come They’re Happy and I’m Not? The Complete Natural Guide to Healing Depression for Good (Red Wheel) followed. In 2015, he authored the practitioner-guide Holistic Therapies for Anxiety and Depression (WW Norton). His newest book for the public is, Put Anxiety Behind You: The Complete Drug-Free Program.
Akhondzadeh Basti A, Moshiri E, Noorbala AA, Jamshidi AH, Abbasi SH, Akhondzadeh S. Comparison of petal of Crocus sativus L. and fluoxetine in the treatment of depressed outpatients: a pilot double-blind randomized trial. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Mar 30;31(2):439-42.
Chung CP et al. Salomon. Increased oxidative stress in patients with depression and its relationship to treatment. Psychiatry Res., 206 (2013), pp. 213–216
Hosseinzadeh H. et al. Antidepressant Effect Of Crocus Sativus L. Stigma Extracts And Their Constituents, Crocin And Safranal, In Mice present at : I International Symposium on Saffron Biology and Biotechnology , May 2004
Hausenblas HA, Saha D, Dubyak PJ, Anton SD Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) and major depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. J Integr Med. 2013 Nov;11(6):377-83.
Modabbernia A, et al. Effect of saffron on fluoxetine-induced sexual impairment in men: randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2012 Oct;223(4):381-8.
Moshiri M, Vahabzadeh M, Hosseinzadeh H. Clinical Applications of Saffron (Crocus sativus) and its Constituents: A Review. Drug Res (Stuttg). 2014 May 21.
Sarris J., et al. Herbal medicine for depression, anxiety and insomnia: a review of psychopharmacology and clinical evidence Eur. Neuropsychopharmacol, 2011; 21:841–860
Talaei A et al. 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 Mar 15;174:51-6.
Yarnell E. Russell L Common Uses for Crocus. NDNR 2008 October: 21