Could Saffron be useful for the treatment of depression?

Nutrition and natural remedies for the treatment and prevention of mood disorders and depression is something I am very interested in and have written a lot about.  Nutrition really can impact the brain and it would be wonderful to see nutritional and natural remedies being used more widely by the medical community.  Depression is one of the top five most prevalent diseases worldwide and by 2020 it is expected to be the second leading cause of disability globally.  Finding research-backed, non-pharmaceutical ways of helping to alleviate symptoms of depression is something I believe to be important since many medications have numerous side effects and there is a growing number of individuals who wish to try other treatments.

Previously I have written a fair amount about the long chain omega 3 fatty acids the herb St John’s wort St John’s Wort in the treatment of depression, as well as other potentially helpful nutrients such as vitamin D.  Recently I have become aware of evidence which suggests that the spice saffron might be helpful in the treatment of depression.

A review study published this year (1) found that “Saffron stigma (part of the plant that receives pollen) was found to be significantly more effective than placebo and equally as efficacious as fluoxetine and imipramine[depression medications]. Saffron petal was significantly more effective than placebo and was found to be equally efficacious compared to fluoxetine and saffron stigma”.

Saffron has been used as a medicine for over 3600 years (1) and in 1862 an English herbalist called Christopher Catton was quoted as remarking “Saffron hath power to quicken the spirits, and the virtue thereof pierceth by and by to the heart, provoking laughter and merriness”.  In the review paper (1) the authors write that “the effects of saffron stigma and petal in mild-to-moderate depression compare favourably to results observed in St John’s wort trials”.  Further, larger and longer trials looking into the effectiveness of saffron in the treatment of depression are certainly warranted and needed. 

It is important to visit your medical doctor if you have any concerns about your health and mood.  If you wish to try a saffron supplement it is important to discuss this with your doctor.   Saffron stigma is one of the world’s most expensive spices, however the new studies which seem to show the effectiveness of saffron petal may result in a reduced cost of some supplements.

A laboratory study published last year (2) found that there were bioactive compounds within saffron that could well be responsible for the anti-depressant properties observed.  The authors of the study suggest that their results add support to the validity of using saffron for the treatment of depression and also say that further studies would be useful to gain further insight into how certain compounds within saffron might be acting to alleviate depression.

(1) Dwyer AV et al.  2011.  Herbal medicines, other than St. John’s Wort, in the treatment of depression: a systematic review. Altern Med Rev.  16(1):40-9.

(2) Wang Y et al.  2010.  Antidepressant properties of bioactive fractions from the extract of Crocus sativus L.  J Nat Med.  64(1):24-30.

Written by Ani Richardson