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Saffron: A Spice for the Brain

Bring on the paella. It may be good for the brain. A new study published in the journal Human Psychopharmacology suggests that saffron may be an effective treatment for mild-to-moderate depression. Derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, saffron may be beneficial in not only treating depression, but also Alzheimer’s disease, and menstrual discomfort and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Researchers analysed six clinical studies on saffron and depression. They looked at dosages, extract sources, standardisations and treatment duration. They also looked at safety issues and found that saffron was as effective as commonly prescribed anti-depressants.

Saffron extract is derived from the orange stigma of the flower. Two studies showed that 30mg/day of extract of saffron stigma was as effective as fluoxetine (Prozac) 20mg/day and imipramine 100mg/day for the treatment of mild-to-moderate depression.

How saffron is able to lift spirits and fight depression is unknown. The researchers theorise that saffron may be able to fight depression through a boost in serotonin levels. However, it is believed that saffron has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Touted as the world’s most expensive spice, saffron is cultivated and harvested by hand and it can take 75,000 saffron blossoms to produce just one pound (450 grams) of saffron spice. In Iran, saffron is commonly used to treat depression and also Alzheimer’s disease. Sold under the name Impiran, this saffron product reportedly is effective at improving symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. A specific saffron extract is also sold in Iran for improving menstrual discomfort and PMS.

Today, saffron is used to treat asthma, cough and a host of other illnesses. However, there are no scientific studies to support their use for these ailments. Researchers caution that is unknown what the long-term side effects may be with taking saffron extract. High doses can result in the skin and eyes turning yellow, and extremely high doses can result in death.

For now, studies are underway to find out just how saffron is able to improve brain health. It is hoped that those findings will lead to new types of medicines for preventing depression, Alzheimer’s disease and many other ailments.

By John Schieszer

John Schieszer is an award-winning journalist and radio broadcaster of “The Medical Minute”. He can be reached at

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