Updated: Nov 27, 2019
As a naturopathic doctor that focuses on brain health I am always seeking the best herbs, supplements, and remedies to aid others in recovery from a myriad of brain issues. Lately, Saffron (Crocus Sativus L. Iridaceae), an ancient Ayurvedic medicine, has come to my attention and I thought it worth passing on information about this useful herb.
We know that saffron is a good source of polyphenols, carotenoids, crocetin, crocins, and other antioxidant compounds that reduce inflammation. As such, it has the potential to treat a number of inflammatory based health conditions, such as depression, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, and heart disease. (1)
As it pertains to this article, I would like to focus on the brain effects and treatment of mood disorders for saffron.
A review article that looked at randomized, double-blind controlled trials, that compared saffron to placebo as well as to a traditional antidepressant (Prozac) for major depressive disorder (MDD) found that:
1) Saffron was better than placebo at healing major depressive disorder.
2) Saffron was as effective as Prozac in MDD. (2)
Saffron has also been shown to be effective in mild to moderate depression in double-blind, placebo-controlled, and randomized trials. (3) (4)
In animal studies it has been demonstrated to improve spacial cognitive abilities after brain damage as well as act as a good anxyiolitic (anti-anxiety compound. (5) (6)
In Ayurveda it has been known as a sedative, pain relieving, adaptogenic herb. All three of these properties are extremely relevant to healing depression and anxiety. (7)
Furthermore, we are seeing brain healing effects in multiple brain conditions, suggesting that the herb has multiple actions and indeed acts as a brain adaptogen (adaptogens refer to substances that balance multiple properties as their healing mechanism):
Saffron has been shown to be as effective as methylphenidate (Ritalin) for ADHD (and it is not a stimulant drug so comes without the side effects). (8)
Saffron has been shown to improve mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. (9)
As you can see, there is some great therapeutic potential for this common Indian spice. I came upon this powerful medicine through case reports of colleagues that have been using saffron successfully in their practices. After reviewing the research I have confirmed that I too will be starting to use saffron as a supplement with many of my future brain health patients.
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(1) Mashmoul M, Azlan A, Khaza'ai H, Yusof BN, Noor SM. Saffron: A Natural Potent Antioxidant as a Promising Anti-Obesity Drug. Antioxidants (Basel). 2013;2(4):293–308. Published 2013 Oct 29. doi:10.3390/antiox2040293
(2) 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;11(6):377–383. doi:10.3736/jintegrmed2013056
(3) Akhondzadeh S., Tahmacebi-Pour N., Noorbala A.A., Amini H., Fallah-Pour H., Jamshidi A.H., Khani M. Crocus sativus L. in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: A double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. Phytother. Res. 2005;19:148–151. doi: 10.1002/ptr.1647.
(4) Basti A.A., Moshiri E., Noorbala A.-A., Jamshidi A.-H., Abbasi S.H., 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;31:439–442. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2006.11.010.
5) Hosseinzadeh H., Sadeghnia H.R., Ghaeni F.A., Motamedshariaty V.S., Mohajeri S.A. Effects of saffron (Crocus sativus L.) and its active constituent, crocin, on recognition and spatial memory after chronic cerebral hypoperfusion in rats. Phytother. Res. 2012;26:381–386.
(6) Hosseinzadeh H., Noraei N.B. Anxiolytic and hypnotic effect of Crocus sativus aqueous extract and its constituents, crocin and safranal, in mice. Phytother. Res. 2009;23:768–774. doi: 10.1002/ptr.2597.
(7) Schmidt M, Betti G, Hensel A. Saffron in phytotherapy: Pharmacology and clinical uses. Wien Med Wochenschr. 2007;157:315–9.
(8) Basiar S, Aqamolaei A, Khadem E, Mortazavi SH, Naderi S, Sahebolzamani E, Mortezaei A, Jalilevand S, Mohammadi MR, Shahmirzadi M< Akhondzadeh S. Crocus sativus L. Versus Methylphenidate in Treatment of Children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Randomized, Double-Blind Pilot Study. J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2019 Apr;29(3):205-212. doi: 10.1089/cap.2018.0146. Epub 2019 Feb 11.
(9) S. Akhondzadeh PhD, M. Shafiee Sabet MD, M. H. Harirchian MD, M. Togha MD, H. Cheraghmakani MD, S. Razeghi MSc, S. Sh. Hejazi MD, M. H. Yousefi MD, R. Alimardani MD, A. Jamshidi PhD, F. Zare MD, A. Moradi MD. Saffron in the treatment of patietns with mild to moderate Alzheimers disease: a 16-week, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. J Clin Pharm Ther. 2010 Oct; 35(5):581-8. doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2710.2009.01133.x