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, concentration and even weight loss, hot flashes, diabetes, arthritis pain, sleep, asthma and COPD.
In 2000, I started hearing about saffron and thought how interesting it was that it could help your mood, aid your memory and reduce inflammation, says psychiatrist Daniel Amen, MD, author of Change your brain every day (Buy from Amazon, $18.99). I had also come to the conclusion that a lot of the drugs I was prescribing weren’t really good for the brain, and that horrified me because in med school they teach you first not to do harm.
Not only do prescription antidepressants cause side effects like anxiety, agitation, constipation, insomnia and fatigue, they also reduce sexual desire and function, she says. I hate it for my patients because they are already depressed and their relationships are faltering so this side effect can be really toxic for them.
Some experts note that saffron can cause drowsiness, stomach upset, and nausea/vomiting, but Dr. Amen says none of his patients have experienced these ill effects and neither has he. I take saffron every day and feel great and am 69 years old. I love research and I love what my patients tell me. He even gave it to his assistant when she noticed she was feeling sad and says the next day she was humming and happy. Where I live, there is 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 that there is a saying that if you are too happy, you must have eaten saffron.
How does saffron improve mood?
The spice increases hormones that control communication between nerve cells in the brain and the rest of the body. Saffron appears to increase dopamine, so you have more energy and are happier. Increases serotonin, so your mood is better. And it boosts norepinephrine, so you have better energy, says Dr. Amen. There are 24 randomized controlled trials comparing saffron to placebo, comparing it to Prozac, comparing it to Lexapro, and comparing it to Zoloft, showing that it is equally effective but has fewer side effects.
Recently, she saw a new study revealing 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 marijuana use and are associated with the drugs ability to reduce anxiety. But the spice does so without any psychoactive or negative side effects seen with marijuana use.
Do you have to eat saffron to get the benefits?
No! In fact, Dr. Amen believes so strongly in the brain benefits of saffron that his company, BrainMD, has created a Happy Saffron supplement, which also includes curcumin and zinc. He says these nutrients work synergistically to enhance the benefits of saffron. Putting saffron in your diet is a great idea because you will reap the benefits. I love adding saffron to salads and 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 threads are carefully harvested from crocus flowers. (It takes more than 50,000 flowers to make 1 pound of saffron!) As a result, the spice can be expensive, but many supermarkets sell small packets for under $5. The benefits are attributed to the antioxidants crocin, crocetin, safranal, and kaempferol.
What else can saffron do
Saffron accelerates weight loss
The spice is surprisingly effective for weight loss, thanks to its ability to reduce inflammation and improve blood sugar control. These factors are linked to better health and the body’s increased ability to burn fat. As? By increasing serotonin levels, says Dr. Amen. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that sugar and refined carbohydrates trigger a surge in serotonin and explain that’s why anxiety and blue moods make us crave processed comfort foods. But saffron boosts serotonin without causing harmful blood sugar spikes and for far fewer calories, says Dr. Amen. In fact, when women in one study took saffron extract, they saw a 55% drop in cravings for snacks and a 69% drop in hunger between meals. Also, they lost weight even though they could 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, associate professor of physiology at High Point University in North Carolina, When this action is inhibited, serotonin stays in the brain longer, enhancing its positive effects.
And because 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 about food. For hunger control, experts recommend taking up to two 88 mg. daily doses of saffron.
Saffron enhances immunity
Indian researchers have found that the spice boosts the body’s ability to fight germs, as well as boosting the 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 the active compounds in the spice can destroy colon, lung and pancreatic cancer cells.
Saffron helps you sleep better
A study in Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that taking 14 mg. of affron, an extract of the spice, twice daily for 28 days markedly 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 relieves arthritis pain
Scientists inside The American Journal of Pathology found that a serotonin deficiency can contribute to rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms, but another study found a direct link between saffron supplementation and reduced 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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