Saffron adds a lovely color to your food. Could it add a big boost to your health as well? Registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD, dives into the science behind saffron and explains how to use the spice safely.
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What is saffron?
Saffron, a spice that originated in Asia, has a long history as a healing or health-boosting plant. Also known as Crocus sativus L., people have used saffron as a flavoring, coloring agent and health remedy for thousands of years.
Czerwony explains recent research on this reddish flower, sharing how saffron could have several health benefits.
Health benefits of saffron
Many studies — most of them small — suggest that saffron could boost your health or help with specific health issues. That research shows saffron could hold promise as a:
1. Antioxidant boost
Saffron, like many other herbs and plants, is rich in antioxidants. These substances help fight cell damage and may prevent cancer or other diseases. Research has also shown that the antioxidants in saffron may be healthy for your brain and nervous system.
Crocetin, crocin and safranal, three antioxidants found in saffron, may help improve memory and learning ability. These substances may also help prevent neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
“The antioxidants in saffron could help protect the brain from damage,” says Czerwony. “Antioxidants are beneficial substances, and you should get them from a variety of sources. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is a powerful way to boost your antioxidant intake and prevent disease. Add some saffron to a healthy diet to increase your antioxidants.”
2. PMS reliever
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) can cause a variety of symptoms, from pelvic pain to acne breakouts. For many people, PMS impacts their mental health, causing anxiety, depression and mood swings. Some small research studies have found that saffron could improve PMS-related depression.
“Premenstrual syndrome can negatively affect a person’s quality of life,” says Czerwony. “If you experience PMS that is severe or interfering with your daily activities, talk to your provider. Saffron could also help relieve some of the emotional symptoms of PMS.”
3. Weight loss aid
Losing weight can be hard, especially when your appetite seems to be working against you. One study on a group of women found that taking saffron helped them feel less hungry and snack less frequently.
“Some evidence shows saffron can suppress your appetite and help you lose weight,” says Czerwony. “But it doesn’t work alone. Combine saffron with a healthy, balanced diet for success.”
4. Seizure treatment
Saffron is used as an anticonvulsant (anti-seizure) remedy in Iranian folk medicine. Some studies in biologic models show that it can shorten some types of seizures. However, says Czerwony, we need larger clinical trials to find out more about how it works.
“Saffron could hold promise as a seizure treatment, but we need more data about its safety and effectiveness,” notes Czerwony. “If you have a seizure disorder, ask your provider before taking herbs or supplements like saffron.”
5. ED remedy
Erectile dysfunction (ED), the ability to maintain an erection, affects millions. And saffron could be a treatment for ED, according to some research.
“Providers often recommend ED medication, which works for many people,” says Czerwony. “But those looking for an herbal remedy could try saffron. Studies found 30 milligrams a day to be effective, but don’t exceed this amount. High amounts of saffron can be toxic.”
6. Alzheimer’s disease treatment
Saffron could be as effective as a prescription medication for treating mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. There isn’t a cure for Alzheimer’s, but studies suggest saffron could help slow its progression and relieve symptoms.
“Some small studies found that saffron extract improved cognitive function in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s,” says Czerwony. “Saffron also has a low risk of side effects. People with Alzheimer’s disease should see their provider regularly and discuss any supplements they take.”
7. Depression treatment
Depression is a mental health disorder affecting millions of people worldwide. Treatment may involve different types of therapy or medications. Some studies show that consuming saffron could help with symptoms of depression.
“Saffron could become a future depression treatment if we get more evidence and data,” says Czerwony. “However, we need larger studies that look at long-term outcomes before saffron can replace proven depression medications. Don’t stop taking any of your prescription medications without talking with your provider.”
How to use saffron
Saffron flower petals look like thin, red threads. Soak a few threads in hot water to make saffron tea, or mix the liquid into savory dishes for flavor. And be prepared for the price — it’s one of the most expensive spices in the world.
You can also purchase saffron capsules to swallow if you don’t like the flavor. But before taking any supplements, ask your healthcare provider if it’s safe for you. Some supplements can have unwanted side effects, especially if you’re pregnant, taking medications or have any health conditions.
“Saffron is usually safe when people use small amounts in cooking or as a tea,” says Czerwony. “It’s also packed with antioxidants, so we know it has health benefits. Before taking saffron, however, check with your provider to be sure it’s safe for you.”