The Benefits of Saffron Extract

Can saffron extract boost your mood and help with weight management?

A wooden spoonful of bright red saffron
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Although you may know of saffron as the spice used to flavor dishes like bouillabaisse and paella, saffron extract has a long history of use in herbal medicine.

The active compounds are believed to be crocins, crocetin, picrocrocin, and safranal.

Uses

Saffron extract is sometimes used for the following health conditions:

  • Acne
  • Age-related macular degeneration
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Eye health
  • Skin care
  • Skin lightening

In addition, saffron extract is said to relieve pain, treat sexual dysfunction (such as erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation), and protect against some forms of cancer. When applied directly to the scalp, it is said to aid in the treatment of alopecia areata (a common autoimmune condition that causes hair loss on the scalp, face, and other areas of the body).

Benefits

To date, scientific support for the health effects of saffron extract is fairly limited. However, several studies suggest that consuming saffron may provide certain benefits. Here's a look at some key findings on the benefits of saffron from the available research:

1) Depression

It may be surprising to hear of saffron being explored for depression, but preliminary studies suggest this culinary spice holds promise. In a 2014 study published in Journal of Affective Disorders, for instance, adults with mild-to-moderate depression took either a saffron supplement or fluoxetine daily for six weeks. At the study's end, saffron extract was found to be as effective as fluoxetine (a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor drug, or SSRI, commonly used for depression).

In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, adults with major depressive disorder took crocin (an active constituent of saffron) or a placebo along with a SSRI. Results revealed that the group taking crocin had significantly improved scores on self-reported assessments compared to those taking the placebo.

What's more, a review published in the Human Psychopharmacology in 2014 concluded that "research conducted so far provides initial support for the use of saffron for the treatment of mild-to-moderate depression." In their systematic review of six clinical trials with placebo or antidepressant controls, the review's authors found that saffron extract had a large treatment effect when compared to a placebo, and was as effective as antidepressant medication.

Although the use of saffron in depression is poorly understood, some research suggests it may increase brain levels of serotonin (a chemical known to regulate mood). Further research is needed to understand how saffron works (and to identify possible drug interactions and adverse effects) before it can be recommended as a treatment for depression.

2) Weight Loss and Appetite Management

When used as a weight loss aid, saffron supplements are purported to curb appetite and reduce cravings. Some proponents suggest that saffron increases brain levels of serotonin and, in turn, helps prevent compulsive overeating and the associated weight gain.

Saffron extract shows promise as a means of controlling compulsive eating, according to a small study published in Nutrition Research in 2010. For the study, healthy women who were mildly overweight took either a saffron-containing supplement or a placebo every day for eight weeks. Caloric intake was unrestricted.

Study results showed that members of the saffron group experienced a significantly greater decrease in snacking and a significantly greater reduction in body weight (compared to members of the placebo group). The study's authors note that saffron's supposedly mood-enhancing effects could contribute to the decrease in snacking frequency.

3) Premenstrual Syndrome

Saffron extract may help relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), according to a 2008 study from the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. After taking saffron supplements daily throughout two menstrual cycles, study participants had a significantly greater decrease in PMS symptoms than those who took a placebo for the same time period.

Side Effects

Although saffron is considered safe for most people when consumed in the small amounts typically used in cooking, use of saffron or saffron supplements may trigger several side effects (including dry mouth, dizziness, nausea, drowsiness, headache, uterine bleeding, low blood pressure, and reductions in red and white blood cells and platelets). What's more, taking saffron in excess amounts may be toxic and lead to vomiting, bleeding, numbness, and serotonin syndrome (a rare but potentially life-threatening condition).

Preliminary research suggests that even relatively small amounts of saffron supplements can result in adverse effects.

Don't take saffron if you're pregnant. If you have kidney disease, you shouldn't take saffron extract.

If you take supplements or medication (such as antidepressants) that affects the body's level of serotonin, taking saffron may raise your risk of serotonin syndrome.

The Takeaway

Saffron is commonly used in cooking, which may lead you to believe that it's completely safe. While some preliminary studies suggest it may offer benefits, there's still a lack of large-scale clinical trials confirming these effects. Saffron has also been found to cause adverse effects, even in relatively small overall amounts, and may interact with medication. 

if you're still considering using saffron for health purposes, talk with your healthcare provider first to weigh the pros and cons. Also keep in mind that self-treating a condition like depression and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.