- Saffron is a spice, which may have health benefits for conditions ranging from inflammation to depression.
- Saffron is most known and well-researched for its positive effects on mood.
- Saffron is an antioxidant with potent anti-inflammatory properties, which help conditions such as heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes.
Saffron is a spice that is harvested from the crocus flower. It has been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times, particularly in the Middle East and Greece. Modern research supports the health benefits of saffron for conditions ranging from inflammation to depression. In addition to health benefits, saffron may be used in dyes, perfumes, and to flavor dishes.
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, due in part to how difficult it is to harvest, says Christine Bishara, MD, the founder of From Within Medical, an integrative medical wellness practice in New York City.
“The saffron threads present within the crocus flower, and are difficult to harvest since each thread must be harvested by hand,” she says. Once harvested, saffron is dried and sold in its original thread form or ground into a powder, which is then used in products like tea or health supplements.
Despite the cost, more people are taking an interest in the health benefits of saffron and using it for its potent medicinal properties, Bishara says.
What are the benefits of saffron?
Saffron is a powerful medicinal herb because it contains more than 150 chemical compounds, some of which can have a big impact on health, says Yelena Deshko, a naturopathic doctor and family practitioner based in Toronto.
Here are some of the science-backed health benefits of saffron:
Improves mood and fights depression
“Saffron is most well-known and most well-researched for its positive effects on mood,” Deshko says. In fact, some research suggests that saffron may help stave off depression.
- A 2019 medical review that included nine studies of the effect of saffron on mild to moderate depression found that the spice had a “significant effect” on reducing the severity of depression.
- Another 2019 medical review found that saffron was comparable to SSRIs, the first-line treatment for depression. Researchers found that pharmacological doses of saffron, in dried, extract, and encapsulated forms, seem to regulate neurotransmitters, including serotonin, the same neurotransmitter that SSRIs aim to increase in the brain.
Reduces inflammation and acts as an antioxidant
Bishara says that saffron contains several antioxidants including:
Antioxidants help reduce and prevent cell damage and lower the risk of certain diseases. In saffron’s case, its antioxidant properties help it to reduce inflammation, a condition that is linked to a host of diseases.
“Saffron has potent anti-inflammatory properties which help with conditions such as heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes,” Bishara says.
These chemicals can help protect the body from many illnesses, Bishara says, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease: Crocin has been shown to help people with Alzheimer’s disease by reducing degeneration in the brain.
- Cancer: Carotenoids have been shown to exhibit protective benefits against cancer and tumor formation and to be protective of cancer treatments like chemotherapy in animal models.
- Heart disease: Saffron has been shown to reduce cholesterol and obesity in animal models, therefore the research suggests it could possibly reduce the risk of heart attack. Though more research in humans is needed to know for sure.
- Diabetes: Crocetin has been linked to the prevention of insulin resistance, a condition that precedes type 2 diabetes.
Although saffron is generally considered safe in appropriate doses for short-term use or when used in cooking, it’s important to talk to your doctor before starting any herbal supplement, including saffron, because it can have a potentially adverse impact on your health.
For example, while low doses may be safe during pregnancy, high doses of saffron may be linked to miscarriage, so pregnant women should use caution before consuming it.
Affects sexual and reproductive health
Treating sexual dysfunction is one of the ancient traditional uses of saffron. And some studies indicate that saffron could improve sexual and reproductive health.
- A small 2008 study found that women who took 30 mg of saffron a day experienced fewer symptoms of PMS compared with women who received a placebo.
- A 2012 study found that 30 mg of saffron daily could help counteract the sexual side effects of SSRI depression medications in women, including lack of arousal, vaginal dryness, and pain during sex.
- A small 2009 study found that 200 mg of saffron a day could increase the number and duration of erections in men struggling with erectile dysfunction.
In general, it’s safe to incorporate saffron into your diet, Bishara says. She recommends boiling a few strands in water to make tea and mixing in honey to give a bit of sweetness. Saffron can also be added to rice, egg, seafood, and chicken.
Overall, the health benefits of saffron are intriguing, and western science is continuing to learn more about the benefits of this herb for:
- Improving mental health and fighting depression
- Reducing inflammation and offering protection against diseases associated with inflammation, such as heart disease and cancer
- Improving sexual health in both men and women
Always talk to your doctor before incorporating herbal supplements of any kind, including saffron, into your diet or vitamin regimen.