When you think of saffron, you probably think of paella or bouillabaisse, since it’s the classic spice flavor and color addition for these dishes. But, perhaps it’s also time for saffron to take its rightful place, beyond spices and into the world of natural medicines, as a potential remedy for anxiety, depression, memory enhancement, and more.
This article, the first of a three-part series, will explore the ways in which saffron can provide support for those suffering from anxiety. Upcoming articles will examine saffron for depression and memory, respectively.
What is saffron?
Saffron is the red pollen-bearing structure of crocus (Crocus sativus) flowers, known as the stigma. Each crocus flower contains three stigma, which are thread-like structures handpicked from the flowers, making saffron both a labor-intensive and an expensive crop. Grown primarily in Iran, saffron is also cultivated from crocus flowers in Spain, France, Italy, and India.
When anxiety strikes
Most of us experience anxiety when we take exams, have job interviews, make difficult decisions, or face other stressful situations. However, anxiety can become a mental health condition when it impairs a person’s ability to function, causes them to overreact, or prevents them from controlling their responses to situations.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by anxiety that makes it difficult to get through the day due to nervousness, fear, dread, sweating, and rapid heartbeat.
Genetic or environmental factors can predispose someone to anxiety disorders. Some of these factors include:
- stressful or traumatic events
- a family history of mental health conditions
- feeling uncomfortable with and having a tendency of avoiding unfamiliar people, situations, or environments
Additionally, women are more vulnerable to anxiety disorders, although there is still uncertainty as to whether it is due to monthly hormonal fluctuations or to the fact that higher levels of testosterone in men may ease anxiety.
Promising research for those with anxiety
A growing body of research indicates that saffron may be valuable in the prevention or treatment of anxiety. Says Lauren Hauswirth, new product development manager at Genuine Health, “Saffron is a very gentle yet effective botanical with few contraindications or interactions with pharmaceuticals, so it is an accessible option for people who have been struggling with their mental health.”
In a 2016 study published in Pharmacopsychiatry involving 60 participants with depression and anxiety, researchers found that saffron was as effective as citalopram, a drug used in the treatment of anxiety. The researchers found that a standardized extract of 1.65 to 1.75 mg of crocin per 15 mg capsule of saffron, taken twice daily for six weeks, significantly decreased anxiety.
In a double-blind 2017 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, researchers found that affron,® a standardized extract of crocus stigmas (saffron), effectively reduced anxiety and managed stress levels in 128 healthy adults over the four-week study duration.
Another double-blind study published in the 2016 Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine also found that saffron had a significant impact when used over the 12-week study duration on 60 patients with anxiety and depression.
Supplementing with saffron
Hauswirth recommends, “choosing a saffron supplement that is research supported,” adding that because “there are many different standardizations and extract ratios available, you’ll want to find one that has been specifically studied for the outcome you want to achieve.”
She recommends 28 mg of saffron standardized extract known as Affron®. A great option, in addition to 28 mg of Affron, according to Hauswirth, is adding KSM-66® Ashwagandha, which has been found to reduce stress and support brain health as well as passionflower, a well-known botanical used to calm the nervous system. The blend works synergistically to support people dealing with stress and anxiety and help them return to a state of genuine health.
A typical dose of Affron in clinical trials was 30 to 200 mg of saffron daily. Five grams or higher is believed to create toxicity and should be avoided.
Consult your health care provider prior to taking saffron and avoid saffron supplements during pregnancy. Always choose a reputable brand to ensure you’re getting pure saffron.
Saffron’s important compounds
Saffron stigmas contain over 150 compounds, some of which include crocin, crocetin, and safranal. Crocin and crocetin are carotenoids that give saffron its characteristic red color while safranal imparts aroma and flavor.
Cooking with saffron
Saffron is available as a spice in powder or thread forms. The latter is less likely to have been subjected to adulteration. It’s easy to add saffron to your daily diet.
Simply add a pinch of the threads to a couple of tablespoons of hot water for about 15 minutes to deepen its flavor and then add to savory dishes such as rice, quinoa, farro, soups, and stews. Saffron rice makes an excellent accompaniment to curries as well.
Avoid using excessive amounts, as it can yield a medicinal flavor.