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The health benefits of saffron

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Could saffron supplements lift your mood and libido and help you sleep? Eva Gizowska looks at the evidence.

🕒 6 min read

The use of saffron as a medicinal plant dates back to ancient times – Hippocrates first wrote about the healing benefits of saffron in 400 BC. Now, the latest research suggests that saffron may help to support a positive mood, induce feelings of relaxation and emotional balance, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce tiredness and fatigue.

What is saffron?

Known as the world's most expensive spice, the saffron plant (crocus sativus) grows mainly in Iran, Spain, France, Italy and India. A recent study indicates that the plant was first discovered in Greece around 1700 BC. The flower has lilac petals with crimson stigmas, or 'threads', which catch pollen. The stigmas are the parts used to produce the spice.

The flowers can only be hand-picked during a short three-week window in the autumn. The stigmas are then gently extracted and dried in the sun. It takes 1,000 flowers to produce 5g of saffron. As a result, this precious spice is often referred to as 'red gold', due to its high cost.

Saffron key ingredients

Saffron contains many different compounds, including the antioxidants crocin, picrocrocin and safranal. Crocin (a carotenoid) permeates the plant with colour. Piccrocrocin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and gives saffron its bitter taste.

Safranal is the main component in the essential oil that creates saffron's unique odour. Studies suggest that these compounds can help to protect the body from oxidative stress, which can lead to health problems.

7 ways saffron can benefit your health

1. May help to improve your mood and alleviate symptoms of depression

A 2023 survey found that 58 per cent of adults in Ireland had experienced some form of depression. Obviously, if mood changes are affecting your daily life, it's important to seek help. Your GP should be the first port of call, but supplements can also have a role to play.

Several studies suggest that saffron may help to support positive mood and maintain emotional balance. A recent meta-analysis of 9 randomised trials found that supplementing with 30mg of saffron each day had a significant effect on the severity of mild-to-moderate depression.

Saffron was shown to be significantly more effective than placebo after 12 weeks, and just as good as antidepressant drugs after 6. In one study that looked at depression and anxiety, it was found that taking 30mg of saffron daily was as effective as a trio of prescription drugs.

Saffron may also be effective in cases of major depressive disorder. In a meta-analysis of 5 randomised controlled trials (2 placebo and 3 antidepressant-controlled trials) it was shown that saffron supplementation significantly reduced depression symptoms compared to the placebo.

There was no difference between the group taking saffron supplementation and the antidepressant group, which suggests that both treatments were similarly effective in reducing symptoms.

2. Enhances emotional wellbeing and resilience to stress

Anxiety, stress and low mood are closely related and may contribute to depressive symptoms. Taking saffron may help to enhance emotional wellbeing, according to a new study involving 56 healthy male and female participants, aged 18-54.

Participants who received 30mg saffron extract daily for 8 weeks reported reduced depression scores and improved social relationships at the end of the study. Results suggest that saffron extract appears to improve subclinical depressive symptoms in healthy individuals and may contribute to resilience against the development of stress-related psychiatric disorders.

Saffron pack

Saffron

For positive mood and emotional balance

  • 30mg saffron extract capsules
  • The sunshine spice, known to support positive mood, relaxation and emotional balance
  • Unique beadlet technology delays release for better absorption of saffron in the body
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3. Can lower blood pressure

If you have high blood pressure this can raise your risk of stroke, heart attack and kidney failure, so keeping blood pressure at a healthy level is crucial. You can do this through exercise, healthy diet, losing weight and reducing stress.

Taking saffron supplements may also help. Medicinally, saffron is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. It is also high in antioxidants, including crocin, picrocrocin, crocetin and safranal. These compounds help to protect the body from the oxidative stress that may lead to cell damage and disease, including hypertension.

A recent meta-analysis suggests that saffron supplementation may help to reduce high blood pressure. The review analysed eight randomised controlled studies (RCT) involving men and women with high blood pressure. This included 249 participants in the intervention group, and 139 participants in the control group.

The length of intervention varied from 1 to 12 weeks, and the dosages of saffron supplementation were between 15mg and 1,000mg. The review showed that saffron supplementation resulted in a significant decrease in systolic blood pressure (0.65 mmHg) and diastolic blood pressure (1.23 mmHg).

4. May help to increase libido

The latest research suggests that saffron may be helpful for sexual dysfunction in both men and women. A recent study showed that when a group of women aged 18-55 who were suffering with severe female sexual dysfunction, such as problems with desire, arousal and orgasm, took 15mg saffron capsules twice daily for 6 weeks, they experienced a significant increase in desire, lubrication and sexual satisfaction compared to those taking a placebo.

In an earlier meta-analysis on five studies, it was found that saffron had a significant positive effect on sexual dysfunction in both men and women. In another meta-analysis it was shown that saffron supplementation has a beneficial effect on erectile dysfunction and sexual desire in men.

5. Can lead to better sleep

It's estimated that 16pc of the Irish population experience insomnia. Saffron may help. In one study, 55 healthy adults aged 18-70 with poor sleep took a standardized saffron supplement of 14mg twice a day for 28 days.

The results showed an improvement in sleep quality, with no side-effects, and that most of the changes occurred in the first seven days. These findings are echoed in a recent meta-analysis, where it was also shown that saffron supplementation improved sleep quality. Dosages varied, but in one study 100mg of daily saffron supplementation showed excellent results and a more stable effect. Researchers continue to investigate the efficacy of different doses of saffron for insomnia.

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6. Can balance cholesterol

A new review shows that saffron can lower levels of 'bad' LDL cholesterol by 39%-50% in as little as three weeks. The review analysed six studies, carried out on animals (rodents) who were given 40mg of saffron per kilogram of bodyweight daily.

The results found that saffron extract is nearly as effective in reducing cholesterol levels as standard therapies, such as prescription medication. In an earlier meta-analysis that looked at 6 studies, involving 291 adults split into two groups, results showed a significant reduction in total cholesterol and triglyceride levels. There was also a significant increase in serum levels of 'good' HDL cholesterol following supplementation with saffron.

7. May enhance cognitive function

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) affects around 20% of people in the UK aged over 65. A recent meta-analysis shows that saffron may have an effect. The review looked at four RCTs, involving 203 patients with MCI. Participants in all the trials took 30mg saffron extract daily for 4-12 months. The results showed that saffron may have the potential to improve cognitive function and daily living activities in patients with MCI. However, further clinical trials are needed to shed more light on efficacy and safety.

8. Can protect your eyesight

Macular degeneration is a loss of central vision, which is usually age-related.

Studies suggest that the antioxidants in saffron may help to protect general eye health. Saffron may also help to slow down the progression of age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) and improve vision, according to a recent study.

During this study 54 male and female participants with dry ARMD were split into two groups. One group took 50g of saffron daily for three months. Measurements were taken before and after the trial. Results showed that after three months, those who took saffron experienced a significant improvement in visual acuity and contrast sensitivity, compared to the control group. This suggests that the short-term intake of saffron may slow down the progression of dry ARMD and help improve vision.

Saffron pack

Saffron

For positive mood and emotional balance

  • 30mg saffron extract capsules
  • The sunshine spice, known to support positive mood, relaxation and emotional balance
  • Unique beadlet technology delays release for better absorption of saffron in the body
Shop now

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