Saffron, often referred to as the ”golden spice” has been used as a seasoning and coloring agent in food for centuries. Modern research confirms the benefits of saffron for mental health, eyesight, and immunity, but casts doubt on other traditional uses. Read on to discover the uses, benefits, and side effects of saffron.
What is Saffron?
Saffron, also known as Za’faran, is a spice derived from the Crocus sativus plant. Alluding to its yellow color and high cost, saffron is often referred to as the Golden Spice. Saffron has been used as a seasoning in food and as a coloring agent for over 4 millennia. Today, over 90% of the world’s saffron supply stems from Iran .
The Crocus sativus flower consists of thread-like, crimson-colored structures known as stigmas. The stigmas are collected and dried, resulting in the saffron spice .
Saffron is composed of a variety of chemical compounds that give rise to its taste, color and health benefits.
- May help with Alzheimer’s disease
- May relieve depression
- Helps with painful periods and PMS
- Supports the immune system
- May enhance physical performance
- May protect the brain, heart, and liver
- Most benefits lack stronger clinical evidence
- Effective doses can’t be reached without supplements
- Cooking may destroy some beneficial components
- Potentially dangerous to pregnant women
Traditional and Modern Uses
Historically, saffron was used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments including:
- Anxiety relief
- Treatment of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Insulin resistance
- Neurodegenerative disorders
- Learning disabilities
Today, a number of saffron formulations exist containing doses that have been proven to have a positive outcome. These include :
- Itch cream
- Scar removal cream
- Infusion into a tea
The dose of saffron and its active components may vary amongst formulations, or even between different manufacturers of the same preparation. Therefore, the health benefits observed may differ depending on the quality of the plant, the dose in each formulation or the constituents overall .
In one tablespoon of saffron, there are :
Carbohydrates – 1.37 grams
Fat – 0.12 grams
Proteins – 0.24 grams
- Iron: 0.23 mg
- Manganese: 0.6 mg
- Magnesium: 6 mg
- Copper: 0.01 mg
- Phosphorous: 5 mg
- Potassium: 36 mg
- Kaempferol: 4.3 mg
Carotenoids: A group of compounds found in plants that are responsible for producing color in leaves and petals .
- Crocetin and crocin give saffron its yellowish-red color.
- Other carotenoids of importance include lycopene, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene.
Volatile oils: The aromatic oils extracted from plants, often known as essential oils .
- Picrocrocin is responsible for the bitter taste of saffron.
- Safranal produces the odor and aroma of saffron.
Saffron is also an excellent source of Kaempferol, a flavonoid with antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. It may have beneficial effects on :
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disorders
- Skin aging
Mechanism of Action
The chemical components of saffron are responsible for its health-enhancing effects. However, given the large number of chemicals present, it is not entirely clear how saffron exerts its therapeutic effects .
It also acts as an antioxidant, picking up free radicals that could cause damage to proteins and DNA in cells. Saffron inhibits the buildup of the amyloid-beta protein, the main cause of Alzheimer’s disease .
In addition, saffron inhibits the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which results in higher levels of acetylcholine in the blood .
Saffron mediates many of its therapeutic effects through the molecule crocin. Crocin is not easily absorbed through the stomach, so in the body, it is converted to crocetin .
Crocetin is thought to increase serotonin levels in the brain, which might explain its potential antidepressant and anxiety-relieving effects .
- Stimulates beta 2 receptors: Adrenergic receptors that increase blood flow and heart rate. Stimulation mimics the effects of noradrenaline and adrenaline.
- Inhibits histamine 1 receptors: Blocks the activity of histamine.
- Stimulates GABAa receptors: Mimics GABA, further increasing the brain-protective effects.
Saffron also has antiviral effects, by preventing viral entry into cells and duplication of the virus .
Health Benefits of Saffron
In a meta-analysis of five clinical trials (30-42 subjects each), saffron significantly improved the symptoms of depression. It had an effect comparable to that of standard antidepressants .
In 40 women with mild-to-moderate postpartum depression (after childbirth), saffron supplementation for 6 weeks was more effective than the common antidepressant Prozac .
Similar improvements in depressive symptoms were seen in 61 patients with schizophrenia given saffron extract for 12 weeks. Saffron was well tolerated and safe to use, but more research is needed to determine if it’s as effective as the current therapies used for schizophrenia [13, 5].
2) Alzheimer’s Disease
According to test-tube experiments, saffron may in part improve dementia by inhibiting an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine: acetylcholinesterase. This enzyme is a target of donepezil, one of the approved medications for Alzheimer’s .
In 54 patients, treatment with saffron (15 mg twice daily for 22 weeks) was as effective as donepezil for Alzheimer’s disease while having fewer digestive side effects .
Injection of crocin into rats improved their cognitive ability and memory .
3) Eyesight Improvement
In a recent trial of 100 patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), saffron (20 mg daily for 3 months) modestly improved eye function .
Saffron extract supplementation was able to improve vision and blood flow to the eyes in animals with this condition. This effect is likely mediated by crocin, which dilates the vessels carrying blood to the eyes .
4) Symptoms of PMS
In a group of 35 women, exposure to the odor of saffron for 20 minutes significantly reduced symptoms of PMS and improved irregular periods. This effect occurred through a reduction of the stress hormone, cortisol .
Additionally, in 50 women, saffron supplementation daily for 6 months reduced symptoms of PMS .
5) Menstrual Cramps (Dysmenorrhea)
In 180 younger women, an herbal product with saffron, celery seed, and anise extracts (1,500 mg/day for 3 days) significantly reduced the severity and duration of menstrual cramps .
Clinical studies should investigate this potential benefit further.
No valid clinical evidence supports the use of saffron for any of the conditions in this section. Below is a summary of up-to-date animal studies, cell-based research, or low-quality clinical trials which should spark further investigation. However, you shouldn’t interpret them as supportive of any health benefit.
6) Blood Pressure Reduction
A study of 230 men with infertility found that saffron supplementation for 26 weeks significantly reduced blood pressure .
Similarly, in another study, saffron tablets reduced blood pressure in higher doses (400 mg) in 30 adults after one week .
This potential effect of saffron still needs to be evaluated in humans with high blood pressure.
7) Sexual Function
A study of 20 male patients with erectile dysfunction found that saffron supplementation daily for 10 days increased the frequency and duration of erections. This study lacked a placebo control, which reduces the validity of the results .
Another study in 25 diabetic men with erectile dysfunction (a common symptom in diabetes) found that saffron gel significantly improved sexual function and increased the frequency of erections .
However, saffron extract (30 mg twice daily for 12 weeks) didn’t improve the symptoms of erectile dysfunction in much larger trial of 346 men .
Certain medications, like antidepressants, can diminish sexual drive and cause pain during sex. In a study of 38 women, saffron supplemented for 4 weeks improved sexual drive and reduced pain associated with sex. Saffron also increased lubrication, which helped minimize pain during sex .
Scientists also observed the potential of saffron to improve sexual activity in rats. This effect was mediated by the active chemical crocin .
Well-designed clinical trials should investigate the conflicting results of currently available research.
8) Immune Response
Saffron increased white blood cell count without affecting the levels of other blood cells. In theory, it could selectively enhance immunity without increasing the risk of other blood-related complications .
In test tubes, saffron could also inhibit viral replication and entry into cells, potentially improving the immune system’s ability to fight off viral infections .
9) Physical Performance
The active chemicals in saffron belong to a group of molecules called carotenoids. These molecules may improve energy supply and power (ergogenic effects) .
In a study of 28 healthy men, saffron supplementation for 10 days increased muscle strength and improved reaction time. This is likely due to improved mitochondrial function (antioxidant activity) and procognitive effects .
10) Heart Function
In a study of 20 subjects, saffron improved health in all patients but had the most profound improvement in patients with heart conditions .
Additionally, saffron’s constituent crocin, upon conversion to crocetin, may reduce cholesterol levels and the hardening of blood vessels (atherosclerosis) .
Saffron supplementation improved anxiety symptoms in a study of 60 patients after 12 weeks .
In one study in mice, saffron extract reduced anxiety-like behaviors and increased sleeping time .
12) Weight Loss
According to one review of clinical and preclinical data, saffron may aid in weight loss by :
- Slowing down fat absorption and digestion
- Reducing calorie intake by lowering appetite
- Improving glucose and fat utilization for energy
High doses (176.5 mg twice daily) of saffron for 6 months slightly reduced late-night snacking in 60 overweight women .
Saffron and its components may reduce cholesterol and lipid levels, potentially contributing to better weight control .
However, these observations mainly stem from animal research. Large clinical trials are needed to evaluate the potential effects of saffron on weight loss.
Animal and Cellular Research (Lacking Evidence)
No clinical evidence supports the use of saffron for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based studies. They should guide further investigational efforts but should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
13) Anticancer Effects
Saffron’s potential anti-cancer effects are mediated by the main chemical crocin, which is converted to crocetin in the body. Crocetin can selectively target cancer cells and kill them. It does this by inhibiting the production of cancerous proteins and increasing cell death (apoptosis) [45, 47].
These promising results haven’t yet been verified in humans.
14) Brain Protection
In multiple cell-based and animal studies, scientists examined the potential of saffron to improve brain health by :
- Reducing inflammation in the brain
- Regulating levels of neurotransmitters
- Antioxidant activity that reduces damage to the brain
- Protecting the brain from injury
- Preventing cell death in the brain (apoptosis)
15) Wound Healing
In rats, saffron extract cream was able to treat burn wounds caused by hot water. This is potentially a result of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties .
When tested in cells, the saffron extract was able to increase levels of molecules that promote skin growth and regeneration (VEGF). Similarly, saffron reduced inflammatory molecules, which in turn promoted wound healing. This effect may prove beneficial in wound recovery and in the cosmetics industry, but we can’t conclude anything in the lack of clinical data .
16) Bone Health
After menopause, many women suffer from issues with bone health resulting in conditions like arthritis and osteoporosis. This occurs due to changes in hormone (estrogen) levels that are responsible for maintaining bone health.
In a rat model of osteoporosis, saffron extract given for 16 weeks was able to prevent disease progression. This was likely mediated by an increase in estrogen levels, which promotes healthy bone growth [50, 9].
Historically, saffron has been used in traditional medicine to treat spasms in the lungs and asthma attacks.
In rats, saffron extract successfully reduced asthmatic symptoms by decreasing inflammation in the lungs .
Saffron may exert this benefit by relaxing the smooth muscles of the lungs, as seen in mice. However, the exact target of saffron in the lungs is unknown and clinical trials are needed to evaluate its efficacy in humans .
18) Digestive Issues
In another study on rats, the daily use of saffron inhibited the production of ulcers caused by excessive histamine or stress .
Similarly, in test tubes, saffron was able to combat ulcers caused by bacterial infections .
Saffron has commonly been combined with opiates and other pain-relieving substances in traditional medicine .
Certain types of pain cannot be addressed using common painkillers, like neuropathic pain. Neuropathic pain occurs within the nerves and is a symptom of certain conditions like fibromyalgia and diabetes and can occur from injuries.
In rats with damaged nerves, saffron extract treatment for 40 days reduced pain associated with the damage .
Similarly, in mice with morphine withdrawal, saffron was able to improve symptoms including pain sensitivity .
These findings suggest that saffron may play a role in managing certain types of pain, but they have yet to be confirmed in humans.
20) Liver Health
In rats, scientists observed the ability of saffron extract to protect against drug-induced liver damage .
This effect is mediated by 3 possible ways :
- Inhibiting certain enzymes that create toxic byproducts
- Protecting against oxidative stress
- Regulating the cell structure of the liver (hepatic membrane)
Saffron has been used in traditional medicine for its ability to prevent seizures (anticonvulsant properties) for a long time. When tested in both rats and mice, saffron use was able to suppress seizures at doses above 400 mg/kg .
However, such high doses would pose the risk of toxicity and adverse effects in humans .
In epileptic mice, saffron’s active ingredient safranal was able to suppress seizures. This is due to binding at the GABA-A receptor, similar to the way benzodiazepine drugs (Xanax, Valium) prevent certain types of seizures (absence seizures) .
In muscle cells, saffron increased glucose utilization and the uptake of glucose from the bloodstream. When given alongside insulin, saffron enhanced the activities of insulin and the responsiveness of the cell to insulin .
In a rat model of diabetes, saffron supplementation was able to increase glucose uptake into cells when taken during exercise .
Limitations and Caveats
Although extensive research has been conducted on saffron, a few caveats exist that limit the reliability of these studies:
- Different studies use various parts of the Crocus sativus plant; petals, extracts, isolated crocin or safranal, supplements, or gels. The chemical composition of the different parts of the plant vary and thus, the full profile of health benefits may be limited to one part of the plant.
- Most of the clinical studies on the health benefits of saffron were undertaken in Iran. Patients with different genetic backgrounds may respond differently to saffron. Therefore, global wide-scale studies are required to accurately determine if saffron has significant benefits for people of different backgrounds.
- Many of the doses used are much higher than the dose of saffron obtained from foods.
- Cooking with saffron may break down the active chemicals, rendering them ineffective for treating certain conditions. Therefore, to see the full benefits of saffron it is recommended that this substance is taken in supplemental form.
- Saffron manufactured by different companies may have different chemical compositions and therefore, the benefits cannot always be guaranteed unless purchased from a reliable source (see below)
Side Effects of Saffron
This list does not cover all possible side effects. Contact your doctor or pharmacist if you notice any other side effects. In the US, you may report side effects to the FDA at 1-800-FDA-1088 or at www.fda.gov/medwatch. In Canada, you may report side effects to Health Canada at 1-866-234-2345.
Saffron is considered a safe supplement to add to your daily regimen. Although side effects are rarely seen with saffron supplementation, some minor discomfort may occur, including :
- Dry mouth
- Change in appetite
Some people may exhibit allergic reactions to the carotenoids found in saffron. These reactions usually take form as hives, nasal congestion, or difficulty breathing .
Taking high doses of saffron for a long period of time may lower red blood cell count .
Pregnant women should not take saffron (unless prescribed by a doctor), regardless of the potential benefits demonstrated in some earlier studies. Enough evidence indicates that saffron may pose a risk to the fetus and the mother [65, 3, 66, 25].
Supplement-drug interactions can be dangerous and, in rare cases, even life-threatening. Always consult your doctor before supplementing and let him know about all drugs and supplements you are using or considering.
- Calcium channel blockers
Saffron supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use. In general, regulatory bodies aren’t assuring the quality, safety, and efficacy of supplements. Speak with your doctor before supplementing.
The below doses may not apply to you personally. If your doctor suggests using 7-keto DHEA, work with them to find the optimal dosage according to your health condition and other factors.
Saffron supplements should be taken twice daily, in doses ranging from 30-50 mg per serving .
The maximum daily dose of saffron is 1,500 mg. This value may be lower in patients with genetic variations that may enhance the effects of saffron .
The opinions expressed in this section are solely from the users who may or may not have a medical background. SelfHacked does not endorse any specific product, service, or treatment. Do not consider user experiences as medical advice. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice because of something you have read on SelfHacked.
A number of users purchase saffron for its ability to improve mood and regulate appetite. There are mixed reviews regarding saffron supplementation.
“Taking to control cravings. Found it does suppress appetite and boosts mood. Not a miracle drug though.”
“I found after a few weeks it definitely helped me control my appetite. I did not look at side effects until after this time and found out the odd dizziness and nausea I was feeling was definitely a side effect. The dizziness was actually frightening because it was severe.”
“I had a horrible migraine-like headache and dizziness after about 4 weeks of use. I was nauseous and overall malice feeling.”
Where to Buy
Adulteration of Saffron
Due to the high price of saffron, vendors often sell adulterated versions of this spice. This adulteration can range from substituting a completely different plant such as safflower or marigold flowers, to adding dyes to recover the color of already used saffron. It is not uncommon to see other parts of the Crocus sativus plant used in place of the stigmas (the part that constitutes saffron) .
Therefore, saffron supplements, teas, and the spice itself should only be purchased from known, reliable sources.
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