Saffron has a wealth of health benefits

12 Health Benefits of Saffron

One of the most precious spices in the world, saffron has been used throughout history to flavor foods, dye fabrics, and support health and well-being. This spice is a staple ingredient in kitchens throughout the world, and it gives dishes like Spanish paella and Indian curries their signature flavor and golden color.

But this versatile spice, dubbed "red gold," is worth much more than its culinary value thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Let's dive in and learn more about how this spice can help fight depression, support brain health, relieve PMS and more.

What is saffron?

Saffron is a spice derived from the stigmas of the flowers of the Crocus sativus, commonly known as the "saffron crocus." Crocus sativus is a flowering plant with lovely purple flowers, and their bright yellow stigmas are plucked and dried into saffron threads. Because of its labor-intensive harvesting process, saffron has, for decades, been the world's most expensive spice by weight. There have even been periods in history when saffron by weight was more expensive than gold!

The saffron threads and saffron extract made from the stigmas of the Crocus sativus plant are useful both in cooking flavorful dishes and as medicinal compounds with a number of health benefits.

Saffron was used in ancient times as a perfume, a ritual offering to deities during worship, and a treatment for various ailments. Legend has it that Cleopatra bathed in saffron-infused milk to enhance her beauty. Ancient Greeks and Romans prized saffron for its use as a perfume and deodorizer. They scattered it about public spaces like royal halls and amphitheaters to enjoy its aroma. Alexander the Great drank saffron tea (made by soaking saffron threads in hot water) and used saffron to treat his many battle wounds.

The medicinal properties of this spice continue to be studied today. It turns out that this expensive spice packs quite a punch and is used for everything from boosting mood and improving sleep to treating symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and supporting weight loss.

Is saffron good for you?

Saffron contains many phytochemicals, plant-based chemical compounds that give the spice its characteristic color, flavor and aroma. They are also responsible for its many health benefits. The main phytochemicals in saffron are crocin, crocetin, picrocrocin and safranal.

12 health benefits of saffron

The health benefits of saffron's compounds include the following:

1. Rich in antioxidants

Oxidative stress occurs when there is an excess of free radicals in the body. It damages cells and contributes to aging as well as to medical conditions like diabetes, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

Saffron is rich in antioxidants, which help neutralize free radicals and counteract their harmful effects on the body. Notable antioxidants in this spice are crocin, crocetin and safranal. These antioxidants may be especially protective for your brain and nervous system, helping to improve mood, memory and learning ability and protecting the brain from damage.

2. May help elevate mood and treat depression

Some of the most compelling research on saffron has been in the treatment of moderate depression. Studies have shown various extracts of saffron to be safe and effective for boosting mood, with the additional benefit of calming feelings of anxiety, with minimal side effects. Studies have found that use of saffron extract is associated with improved mood test scores relative to placebo.

Saffron's calming effects are due to multiple mechanisms. It increases the levels of mood-elevating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. It also modulates the stress response and exerts anti-inflammatory effects in the brain.

Some studies have found saffron to be equivalent to traditional antidepressant medications in patients with mild to moderate depressed mood. However, in a recent large meta-analysis, saffron was effective at reducing depression by certain tests, but not others. Thus, it may not be suitable as a single therapeutic approach.

3. May protect against cognitive dysfunction

Saffron has neuroprotective effects and can be beneficial for brain health. It could have potential as an additional aid in treating neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease without the side effects of traditional medications.

Additionally, saffron may help fight chronic stress-induced cognitive dysfunction by protecting nerve cells against free radical damage, reducing neurodegeneration, and preventing the accumulation of beta-amyloid protein in the brain.

4. May help reduce snacking and support weight loss

Saffron may affect neurotransmitter signals to help reduce snacking and curb your appetite. It can help promote satiety so that you don't get the urge to snack, thus supporting healthy weight management.

In an 8-week trial of mildly overweight healthy women, those taking saffron snacked less frequently and lost significantly more weight compared to the placebo group.

5. May have cancer-fighting properties

Saffron's antioxidants help neutralize the damage from harmful free radicals and protect against oxidative stress, which damages cells and contributes to diseases such as cancer. The antioxidants in saffron may help selectively target and suppress cancer cells, particularly with colon cancer, while leaving healthy cells unharmed. However, more studies are needed on the cancer-fighting effects of saffron.

6. May help treat symptoms of PMS

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) refers to a range of physical and emotional symptoms that women may experience in the days leading up to the start of a menstrual period. It is estimated that as many as three out of four women have experienced some form of PMS, which includes pelvic pain, skin break outs, tender breasts, mood swings, irritability, depression and food cravings.

Saffron may help treat PMS symptoms. A study of women ages 20-45 experiencing symptoms of PMS found that 30 mg saffron daily was more effective than placebo at treating PMS symptoms.

7. May help improve sleep

Poor sleep quality is known to have significant negative effects on health. Saffron may help improve sleep quality in healthy adults. A randomized controlled trial of 63 adults with self-reported poor sleep associated saffron with improvements in sleep quality compared with placebo. Another study of adults with mild to moderate sleep disorder associated with anxiety found similar effects. Those taking saffron extract had improved ease of getting to sleep, improved duration and quality of sleep compared with placebo.

8. May enhance sexual health

Saffron may enhance libido and improve erectile dysfunction and may be beneficial for those suffering from antidepressant and diabetic-related sexual dysfunction. A study found that saffron improved erectile dysfunction and overall satisfaction, although it found contradictory results about semen characteristics. Another study found saffron had a statistically significant positive effect on sexual dysfunction for both men and women.

9. Promotes eye health

For those looking to support their vision, saffron is a solid choice; multiple studies have shown that saffron helps support eye health and retinal function. Saffron may be especially useful for macular degeneration, which is an age-related loss of central vision. Saffron may slow down the progression of this disease because of its anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and antioxidant properties. A recent review showed that a daily dose of 20-50 mg of saffron significantly improved visual acuity in those with macular degeneration over a three-month period.

10. Anti-inflammatory effects

Chronic, low-level inflammation in the body is harmful if left unmanaged, and it can lead to accelerated aging. Saffron has demonstrated anti-inflammatory effects in several studies by reducing markers of inflammation. In participants with metabolic syndrome, saffron intake reduced CRP levels and decreased serum concentration of pro-inflammatory cytokines.

11. May reduce risk factors for heart disease

Preclinical studies show that saffron's antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties may lower blood cholesterol and help maintain healthy arteries and blood vessels, which are beneficial for cardiovascular health. In addition, a small randomized controlled trial found that taking 100 mg of saffron daily for 12 weeks significantly reduced total cholesterol, LDL, triglycerides, fasting blood sugar, and CRP levels in individuals with metabolic syndrome, compared with placebo.

12. Blood sugar support

Saffron may reduce blood glucose levels and increase insulin sensitivity in clinical research. In a recent randomized controlled trial of type 2 diabetic patients, those who took 30 mg of saffron daily for three months had improved fasting blood glucose levels (along with some improved cholesterol markers). However, glycated hemoglobin level (HbA1c), which is measure of long-term glucose control, did not improve.

How much saffron can I take daily?

Saffron extract is generally well-tolerated with minimal side effects reported. However, higher doses of saffron extract have been associated with an increased occurrence of side effects, such as drowsiness, digestive upset and nausea. Allergic reactions are also possible.

Taking very large amounts of saffron can be unsafe. Doses of 5 grams or more can cause poisoning and doses of 12-20 grams can be lethal.

About the Author: Sonali Ruder, DO, is a board-certified emergency medicine doctor, classically trained chef, cookbook author and founder of the popular website, TheFoodiePhysician.com. Dr. Ruder is a contributing writer, recipe developer, spokesperson, and health and wellness expert for several national magazines, websites, and organizations. Her passion is giving people the tools to take control of their health, starting in the kitchen!

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