Saffron: A Promising Natural Treatment for Depression

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Saffron: A Promising Natural Treatment for Depression

The bright crimson stigma that make up saffron are used in cooking and are a potent medicine. (ZhakYaroslav/Shutterstock)

Emma Suttie

Emma Suttie

2/9/2024

Updated: 2/20/2024

Saffron is the world’s most precious spice, and by weight, it’s also the most expensive—with a price tag of a whopping $5,000 per pound.
Although saffron isn’t common in the average American diet, it’s a staple in Iranian (Persian) cuisine and has a long history in cooking and medicine. Saffron also is widely used as a dye for its resulting brilliant golden color.
Saffron is the tiny, dried stigma of the crocus flower (Crocus sativus). Harvesting saffron is notoriously labor intensive and requires the time-consuming task of hand-separating the stigmas from the flowers. One pound of saffron requires about 170,000 flowers, which explains its cost and its value in cooking and medicine. Iran boasts more than 90 percent of the world’s saffron production, but it’s also grown in Morocco, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, India, and the United States.
A bee on saffron flowers in a field in the town of Krokos, Greece, on Oct. 27, 2018. (Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis)

A bee on saffron flowers in a field in the town of Krokos, Greece, on Oct. 27, 2018. (Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis)

The three main bioactive compounds in saffron are safranal, crocin, and picrocrocin, which are responsible for saffron’s color, taste, and smell. Saffron also contains abundant antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, antimicrobial, antihypertensive, and antidepressant properties.
Much research has been directed toward that latter capacity. While the basic efficacy of antidepressants remains fiercely debated, a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2014 found short-term treatment saffron to be as effective as fluoxetine.

Saffron Studies

An increasing number of studies support the use of saffron as a natural way to treat depression and anxiety without side effects.
A review of six placebo-controlled trials found that saffron was as effective as antidepressive drugs for depression. The study states that “saffron’s antidepressant effects potentially are due to its serotonergic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, neuro-endocrine and neuroprotective effects.” The researchers concluded that the evidence supported the use of saffron “for the treatment of mild-to-moderate depression.”
A review article published in the Journal of Affective Disorders evaluated saffron in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders, saying that “a number of clinical trials demonstrated that saffron and its active constituents possess antidepressant properties similar to those of current antidepressant medications such as fluoxetine, imipramine, and citalopram, but with fewer reported side effects.” The review concluded that saffron is a safe and effective treatment because of its antidepressive effects.
In a study published in Frontiers in Nutrition in 2020, researchers tested the effects of saffron extract “on mood, wellbeing, and response to psychological stressors in healthy adults.” Those who took saffron reported lower depression scores and “improved social relationships.”
The saffron group also showed increased heart rate variability (HRV) when presented with a psychosocial stressor (which naturally decreases HRV). This increase in HRV is thought to increase resilience “against the development of stress-related psychiatric disorders.”
A systematic review published in Alternative Medicine Review in 2011 looked at six human trials that examined the antidepressant effect of either saffron stigma or petal. In the review, “saffron stigma was found to be significantly more effective than placebo and equally as efficacious as fluoxetine and imipramine,” while “saffron petal was significantly more effective than placebo and was found to be equally efficacious compared to fluoxetine and saffron stigma.”
Imipramine is a tricyclic antidepressant and, like fluoxetine, is used to treat depression.
Lindsey Grych, a family nurse practitioner in Lakeland, Florida, with a holistic approach, prescribes saffron to her patients.
“I typically use from 30 mcg [micrograms] to 90 mcg based on the patient’s depression/anxiety scores (using the phq-9/gad-7), and use it as an option for those who don’t typically tolerate SSRI’s [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors] well, or are looking for a more natural option,” Ms. Grych told The Epoch Times.
The PHQ-9 is the Patient Health Questionnaire, consisting of nine questions used for screening, diagnosing, monitoring, and measuring the severity of depression.
The GAD-7 is the General Anxiety Disorder questionnaire, which is made up of seven questions and is used to assess general anxiety disorder.
When asked how her patients respond to saffron, she said, “Patients typically do see results—it provides results consistent to mild to moderate SSRI prescription.”

Saffron Beyond Anxiety and Depression

Saffron’s benefits to our health and well-being extend beyond treating depression and anxiety. The spice has been used traditionally throughout Asia and the Middle East for centuries to strengthen digestion and treat menstrual disorders, skin conditions, inflammation, and symptoms of depression.
Ayurvedic medicine—the traditional medicine of India and one of the oldest medical systems on Earth—has used saffron for centuries as a treatment for skin conditions; to strengthen digestion, immunity, and the heart; to support the female reproductive system; and as an aphrodisiac. In fact, ancient Ayurvedic texts describe a ritual in which saffron is mixed with milk and given to a new couple on their wedding night.
Today, research shows that saffron has cancer-fighting abilities, can help reduce appetite and increase weight loss, and improves libido (in men and women) and erectile dysfunction. Its neuroprotective abilities are also showing promise in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
A growing body of research is uncovering the extent of saffron’s healing abilities, and the demand for this delectable spice is increasing, with research suggesting that the global saffron industry will be worth $2 billion by 2025.
(Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

(Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

A Bit of Saffron History

Saffron has been used for thousands of years, and many ancient civilizations prized saffron for its flavor, aroma, and medicinal properties. Because of its rarity, it was a highly prized commodity and was a symbol of wealth and refinement. As a result, it was used mainly by nobility.
Alexander the Great was said to have discovered saffron on his campaigns through Persia, now Iran—where saffron likely originated—and used it to heal wounds acquired in battle.
The ancient Egyptians used saffron for its flavor and aroma, in medicine and cosmetics, and as an aphrodisiac—Cleopatra is known to have added it to her baths to enhance lovemaking.
Saffron has been found “woven into ancient royal Persian carpets and shrouds” dating back to the 10th century B.C.
Saffron was introduced into India in around 500 B.C.—at about the time of the Buddha’s death. According to one source, it was around this time that the robes worn by “the title class of Buddhist priests” started being dyed with saffron—making them a beautiful golden hue.

Final Thoughts

Thankfully, we now live in a time in which we don’t have to be part of the royal class to enjoy the delights of saffron! Although many of us may not have tried saffron, it’s worth exploring for its wonderfully unique aroma and flavor, as well as for the health benefits it has to offer—especially for those who may be struggling with anxiety and depression.
Emma Suttie

Emma Suttie

Author

Emma is an acupuncture physician and has written extensively about health for multiple publications over the past decade. She is now a health reporter for The Epoch Times, covering Eastern medicine, nutrition, trauma, and lifestyle medicine.

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