Prized in Ayurvedic, Chinese and Arabic medicine for centuries, the crocus sativus flower gives us saffron, the most expensive spice in the world. Traditionally used as an aphrodisiac, mood enhancer, memory booster, and anti-inflammatory, medical research has now verified this ancient knowledge, as well as discovering yet more health benefits from saffron.
The Secrets of Saffron
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Known in Iran, where much of the world’s saffron is produced, as the sunshine spice, the deep red/gold stigma of the crocus sativus flower forms the valuable spice known as saffron. It takes about 4,500 crocus flowers to make just one ounce of spice and because the crocus flowers need to be hand-picked, the labour intensity of its harvesting makes pure saffron a valuable commodity. Fortunately, a little goes a long way, so only a small amount is needed both for medicinal and culinary purposes.
We know saffron for its delicate flavour, aroma, and the golden colour it gives to dishes such as paella and Persian rice pilaf, but its powers have long been heralded in ancient Persian, Indian, Arabic and Chinese medicine for health-giving properties as well as culinary value.
It’s the dried stigmas of the crocus sativus that are used in cooking and as well as flavour and aroma, they also give a wonderful golden colour to dishes and drinks. From ancient times saffron has also been used as a medicinal plant due to its tried and tested therapeutic properties. There are paintings on the island of Santorini that have been dated at 1627 BC illustrating saffron’s valuable and much revered powers. Saffron is also listed in the European Pharmacopoeias, compiled from 16th to 20th centuries, as well as being listed in the Catalogue of Medicinal Plants.
As in so many cases, with the advent of chemically developed medicines, the natural compounds of saffron disappeared. Fortunately, in recent years – and largely due to the many side effects experienced by patients using long-term pharmaceutical drugs – there has been growing interest from medical science in researching saffron’s bioactivity.
Analysis has discovered the presence of over 150 components in saffron stigmas. The most powerful of these are crocin, crocetin and safranal. Exciting new research is being conducted into the possible effectiveness of saffron as an anti-cancer therapy and chemo-preventive agent.
Health Benefits of Saffron
Medical science has now firmly established saffron’s ability to support health, and the findings of clinical studies are as follows:
Certain plant compounds are present in saffron, and these have powerful antioxidant properties. This means that saffron can help protect your cells against free radical damage leading to serious diseases. These antioxidants are:
- Crocin – found in crocus is a pain reliever and is the compound from which paracetamol is produced. As well as pain relief it is a potent antioxidant.
- Crocetin – used for centuries by the ancient Indian, Arabic and Chinese cultures as an anti-tumour agent, is currently showing potential in studies for its ability to hinder the growth of cancer cells.
- Sefranal – a compound isolated from saffron and is the constituent that gives saffron its aroma and distinctive flavour. It may also be helpful in protecting the brain cells from oxidative stress.
- Kaempferol – is a flavonol derived from the fresh petals of the crocus flower. Research has found kaempferol to have anti-cancer properties and anti-inflammatory power.
Anti-Carcinogenic Effect of Saffron
Crocus sativus has been found in laboratory trials to have encouraging potential in anti-cancer therapy. Test tube studies have found that saffron compounds are able to selectively destroy or suppress colon cancer cells, whilst leaving healthy cells unharmed. Other positive research includes the effect of saffron in treatment of other cancers such as skin, bone marrow, lung, cervix, prostate, breast, and certain other cancer cells.
These findings are extremely promising, but more research is needed with human trials.
Crocin and crocetin are both pigments known as carotenoids, and they give saffron its deep colour. As well as having anti-inflammatory benefits, they have been found to have neurological properties to help protect against brain cell damage and depression.
Clinical trials have found that taking saffron at a dose of 30 mg per day is as effective as taking well-known pharmaceutical drugs, such as Fluoxetine or Citalopram, to treat depression. Pharmaceutical medication for depression often has undesirable side effects but during the saffron trials none of the participants experienced side effects.
The compound sefranal has been found to have potential to help with learning ability, memory, and mood.
Blood Sugar Reduction
A further positive effect of these natural plant compounds is their ability to suppress appetite, and this is proving to be helpful with weight loss. Laboratory trials have established that sefranal is effective for reducing high blood pressure associated with Type 2 diabetes.
For anyone who is both overweight and pre-diabetic, saffron has been found, in double-blind randomised trials, to be helpful in reducing fasting blood sugar levels. The study concluded that ‘saffron supplementation could improve glycemic, and antioxidant indices.’
Saffron for PMS Relief
Easing the misery of pre-menstrual syndrome is something that can vastly improve the lives of many women. Under the acronym PMS are a range of debilitating emotional, psychological, and physical symptoms that come around like clockwork every month before the start of a menstrual period.
Research has shown that saffron may give relief to these symptoms and in studies where women of reproductive age took 30 mg supplement each day, saffron was found to be more effective than a placebo in treating PMS problems such as headaches, cravings, pain, and irritability/low mood.
Saffron for Eye Health
Because saffron contains antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective compounds, it has protective properties that may support ocular health and inhibit the formation of macular degeneration.
Italian research has found that saffron has excellent effects on the genes which regulate key vision cells. It protects the photoreceptors from damage and may also slow and reverse the course of blinding diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and retinitis pigmentosa.
A clinical trial with AMD patients in Rome has found indications that treatment with a dietary supplement of saffron may help damaged eye cells to recover.
Saffron for Men’s Health
Medical research has verified the centuries of folk medicine knowledge, that saffron has aphrodisiac properties. Read more about male low libido. Studies have shown that saffron has potential to help arouse sexual desire in both men and women, particularly for those who are taking anti-depressant medication.
An aphrodisiac is a food or supplement that helps boost libido.
Saffron Trials for Erectile Dysfunction
- ED not caused by other complications
- A highly significant trial outcome on the use of saffron to help men suffering with erectile dysfunction was carried out at the Mashhad University of Medical Sciences in Iran. Twenty male participants with ED were monitored for a period of ten days. During this time, they took 200 mg of saffron each day. At the end of ten days of technical monitoring, it was concluded that saffron treatment had produced positive effect on sexual function. It was also considered significant that the improvements had manifested after only ten days of saffron treatment.
- ED Related to Anti-Depressant Medication
- A randomised, double-blind, placebo-based study has shown that taking 30 mg of saffron daily over four weeks can improve erectile function. The study showed a significantly positive outcome for men with antidepressant-related erectile dysfunction.
- A further six studies found that taking saffron improved erectile function and libido but made no significant difference to semen characteristics.
Saffron for Women’s Health
Research has shown that saffron can be beneficial for improving female sexual dysfunction (FSD). This can include desire, lubrication and satisfaction.
A study “demonstrated an improvement, superior to placebo, in the overall indicator of female sexual function among those who received saffron.” and importantly “did not observe any intolerable adverse events in any participants”
An amount of 66mg daily is recommended to support female sexual health.
Adding Saffron to Your Diet
Only very small quantities of saffron are needed to flavour dishes such as paella, risotto, and many other rice-based recipes. Soaking a pinch of saffron strands in hot (not boiling) water will draw out the flavour. The saffron and water may then be added to the dish. The steeped saffron and its liquid can also be added to a smoothie. Be careful not to use too much saffron or you can give a medicinal taste to the recipe.
The best way to buy saffron is in thread form rather than as a powder. The threads will probably be fresher and are not likely to have been contaminated or adulterated with other spices such as turmeric or paprika. It sometimes happens that an unscrupulous trader will try to make more profit by blending saffron with other spices, but this can only be achieved with the powdered version.
Taking Saffron in Supplement Form
If including enough saffron in your diet is not always possible, you may wish to try out the effectiveness of taking saffron in supplement form, particularly to help with one or more of the health-related conditions mentioned. Enhancing mood, boosting libido or providing help with erectile dysfunction may be easier to achieved when taking a daily supplement of saffron from a trusted source.
The extract we use in our Saffron Extract Capsules is crocin. This has been proven to be effective for treating erectile dysfunction as well as giving support to women’s health, vision, and joint health. Our Saffron Extract Capsules are organic, gluten-free, halal, kosher, GMO-free and suitable for vegan diets.
Read more about the composition of our supplement in our saffron extract brochure.
Cautions and Dosage of Saffron
Saffron is generally safe with little or no side effects. As a dietary supplement you can safely take up to 1.5 grams per day, although just 30 mg has been shown to be sufficient for gaining health benefits.
When pregnant or breast-feeding it is not advised to take saffron as a supplement. High doses of saffron, 5 grams or more, can have a toxic effect and when pregnant may cause miscarriage
If you are currently taking blood-thinning medication it is advised that you check with your GP before taking saffron.
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