Saffron, often referred to as the ”golden spice”, has been used as a seasoning and colouring agent in food for centuries. But did you know that saffron, derived from the bright orange stigma of the Crocus (Crocus sativus L.) flower may also support mood, hormone balance and gut health, amongst other emerging health benefits?
Crocus sativus cultivation in Persia started over 3,000 years ago and today Iran produces more than 90% of the world’s saffron for cooking and health products. Persian saffron was traditionally used as a natural botanical remedy to bring joy and happiness, as well as relief for sleep disorders and premenstrual symptoms. Saffron was also used for constipation, eye inflammation, joint pain, and indigestion. And as research has followed, these indications of saffron benefits are now backed by published clinical trials and even pending EFSA claims including:
“Saffron contributes to emotional balance, helps to support relaxation and to maintain a positive mood.”
“Saffron helps to maintain good comfort before and during the menstrual cycle”
Saffron & Mood
In these post-Covid times, many people are turning to natural methods to support mood and reduce anxiety. Six clinical trials have shown that 30mg Iranian saffron extract significantly corrects severe mood troubles compared to placebo with the first significant positive effects observed after only 2 weeks. And what’s more, 30mg daily saffron extract provides the same effectiveness as well-known pharmaceutical mood stabilisers, such as fluoxetine and imipramine, without any adverse effects. Importantly, significant positive effects are observed within 1 week only.
An open study was conducted with 50 healthy women and men, aged 22 to 63, using 15 mg of saffron extract twice daily for 30 days. On days 15 and 30, a questionnaire was submitted and consistent with results from the Iranian clinical studies, saffron extract improves mood after only 15 days. In addition, after 30 days, more than 50% of subjects felt better sleep quality.
3 out of 4 people feel happier and more relaxed after only 15 days on 30mg saffron extract
Published clinical studies on 50 adults showed that 30mg concentrated Iranian saffron stigma extract significantly improves sleep quality versus placebo after only 1 week
Two published randomised placebo-controlled clinical studies on 78 women with PMS showed that 15mg twice a day for 2 months reduced PMS severity by 50% in 76% of supplemented women.
Menopausal Hot Flashes
One published clinical study on 60 women with post-menopausal hot flashes showed that 15 mg twice a day Iranian saffron extract significantly reduces hot flashes versus placebo after 4 weeks.
One published clinical study on 66 adults showed that 15 mg twice a day of Iranian saffron extract significantly improves the quality of life of people subjected to bowel troubles versus fluoxetine after 6 weeks.
As with all plants, there is a range of bioactive phytonutrients that work synergistically to produce these health benefits. Careful extraction techniques help to concentrate these all-important nutrients:
- Safranal – a terpene responsible for the characteristic saffron aroma.
- Picrocrocin – a terpene responsible for the butter taste of saffron.
- Crocins – carotenoids responsible for the bright orange saffron colour.
- Crocetin and kaempferol – secondary metabolites that have anti-anxiety properties.
So How Does Saffron Work?
The main mechanism of action of saffron phytonutrients appears to be controlling cortisol secretion and neurotransmitter balance – cortisol and neurotransmitters such as serotonin, found in the brain and the gut, are intimately linked and imbalances can contribute and exacerbate a number of underlying health issues such as blood sugar and hormone imbalances, low immunity and anxiety.
Saffron also increases levels of proteins required for development, blood flow, and healthy brain activity including Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).
It also acts as an antioxidant, picking up free radicals that could cause damage to proteins and DNA in cells, in particular inhibiting the buildup of the amyloid-beta protein, the main cause of Alzheimer’s disease.
Interestingly, saffron also has also been shown to have antiviral effects, by preventing viral entry into cells and duplication of the virus.
Specifically, safranal found in saffron:
- Inhibits histamine 1 receptors blocking the activity of histamine.
- Stimulates GABAa receptors mimicking GABA, further increasing the brain-protective effects.
Saffron is an important part of Middle Eastern cuisine. It has long been used as both a culinary spice and a medicinal spice. Although people have traditionally taken saffron for various ailments, modern research is now backing up its potential importance as a natural approach to common conditions such as anxiety and hormonal imbalances like PMS. Saffron is generally safe, but there is an absence of data of its use in pregnancy so is not recommended at this time.
Dr Elisabeth Philipps PhD BSc (Hons) BSc Nutr Med AFMCP
Dr Elisabeth Philipps is a clinical neuroscientist and functional medicine practitioner and runs a health consultancy specialising in brain health, the endocannabinoid system and phytocannabinoids including C*B*D and medicinal cannabis. She regularly presents at conferences and events and provides expert opinion for the national press, specialist healthcare publications and health companies.
You can connect with Elisabeth via:
www.drelisabethphilipps.com | instagram – @drelisabethphilipps | Twitter – @drphilipps | Linked In – Dr Elisabeth Philipps
- Akhondzadeh S, Sabet MS, Harirchian MH, Togha M, Cheraghmakani H, Razeghi S, Hejazi SSh, Yousefi MH, Alimardani R, Jamshidi A, Zare F, Moradi A. Saffron in the treatment of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: a 16-week, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. J Clin Pharm Ther. 2010 Oct;35(5):581-8.
- Al-Snafi, A.E. (2016). The pharmacology of Crocus sativus- A review.