Saffron has been used to flavor food for centuries, but a growing body of research points to saffron’s ability to boost mood and happiness — without the side effects of antidepressants. And that’s not all! The spice helps improve memory (even in Alzheimer’s patients), anxiety, attention, focus and even weight loss, hot flashes, diabetes, arthritis pain, sleep, asthma and COPD.
“In 2000, I started hearing about saffron, and I thought how interesting it was that it can help your mood, help your memory and decrease inflammation,” says psychiatrist Daniel Amen, MD, author of Change Your Brain Every Day (Buy from Amazon, $18.99). “I had also come to the realization that many of the medications I was prescribing were really not good for the brain, and that horrified me because in medical school, they teach you to first do no harm.”
Not only do prescription antidepressants cause side effects like anxiousness, agitation, constipation, insomnia and fatigue, they also decrease sexual desire and function, he says. “I hate that for my patients because they’re already depressed and their relationships are teetering, so this side effect can be really toxic for them.”
Some experts note that saffron can cause drowsiness, stomach troubles and nausea/vomiting, but Dr. Amen says none of his patients have experienced these negatives — and neither has he. “I take saffron every day and I feel amazing and I’m 69. I love the research and I love what my patients tell me.” He even gave it to his assistant when he noticed she was feeling sad, and says the next day she was humming and happy. “Where I live, there’s a large Persian community [a culture that uses the spice in their cooking] and I was telling someone about my interest in saffron and they said there is a saying that if you’re too happy, you must have eaten saffron.”
How does saffron improve mood?
The spice increases hormones that control communication between the nerve cells in the brain and the rest of the body. “Saffron seems to increase dopamine, so you have more energy and you’re happier. It increases serotonin, so your mood is better. And it increases norepinephrine, so you have better energy,” says Dr. Amen. “There are 24 randomized controlled trials comparing saffron against placebo, comparing it against Prozac, comparing it against Lexapro and comparing it against Zoloft, all showing that it’s equally effective but has fewer side effects.”
Recently, he saw a new study that reveals yet another mechanism by which saffron can improve mood and happiness. It triggers the release of two body chemicals (anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol) that are also released after using marijuana and are associated with the drug’s ability to reduce anxiety. But the spice does this without any psychoactive or negative side effects seen with marijuana use.
Do you have to eat saffron to get the perks?
Nope! In fact, Dr. Amen believes so strongly in the brain benefits of saffron that his company, BrainMD, created a Happy Saffron supplement, which also includes curcumin and zinc. He says these nutrients work synergistically to enhance saffron’s benefits. “Putting saffron in your diet is a great idea because you will get benefits. I love adding saffron to salads and I use it to make tea. But if you’re looking for a therapeutic effect, getting a concentrated supplement is best.”
Grown in Spain, Portugal, France, India and Iran, saffron strands are painstakingly plucked from crocus flowers. (It takes more than 50,000 of the flowers to produce 1 pound of saffron!) As a result, the spice can be pricey, yet many supermarkets carry small packages for under $5. The benefits are attributed to antioxidants crocin, crocetin, safranal and kaempferol. (Click through to learn about heavy metals in spices)
What Else Saffron Can Do
Saffron speeds weight loss
The spice is surprisingly effective for weight loss, thanks to its ability to lower inflammation and improve blood-sugar control. These factors are linked to better health and to the body’s enhanced ability to burn fat. How? By boosting levels of serotonin, says Dr. Amen. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that refined sugar and carbs trigger a serotonin surge, and explain that it’s the reason why anxiety and blue moods have us craving processed comfort food. But saffron boosts serotonin without causing damaging blood-sugar spikes — and for a lot fewer calories, says Dr. Amen. In fact, when women in one study took saffron extract, they saw a 55% drop in desire for snacks and a 69% drop in hunger between meals. Plus, they lost weight even though they were allowed to eat whatever they wanted.
Studies show that saffron inhibits serotonin reuptake, a mechanism that makes serotonin stores unavailable to brain cells. Explains James Smoliga, PhD, an associate professor of physiology at High Point University in North Carolina, “When this action is inhibited, serotonin remains in the brain longer, enhancing its positive effects.”
And since serotonin calms the part of the brain that triggers worry and obsession, saffron is especially effective for people who can’t stop thinking about food, says Dr. Amen. “In my experience, it helps a lot to turn off constant thoughts of food.” For hunger control, experts advise getting up to two 88 mg. doses of saffron daily.
Saffron improves immunity
Indian researchers have found that the spice increases the body’s ability to fight off germs, plus boosts effectiveness of COVID vaccines. They credit its crocin with signaling white blood cells to attack viruses more aggressively. And laboratory studies conducted in China and elsewhere indicate that active compounds in the spice can destroy colon, lung and pancreatic cancer cells.
Saffron leads to better sleep
A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that taking 14 mg. of affron, an extract of the spice, twice daily for 28 days noticeably reduces insomnia by increasing levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. Try: California Gold Nutrition Saffron Extract with Affron (Buy from iHerb, $26 for 60 capsules).
Saffron eases arthritis pain
Scientists in The American Journal of Pathology found that a serotonin deficiency may contribute to symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), but another study found a direct link between saffron supplementation and reduction in RA symptoms. Study subjects experienced a significant decrease in the number of tender and swollen joints, pain intensity and disease activity after 12 weeks of taking saffron.
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This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.