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Saffron may have antioxidant and anticancer benefits. But some people should avoid high doses.
- A powerful antioxidant
Saffron contains an impressive variety of plant compounds. These act as antioxidants — molecules that protect your cells against free radicals and oxidative stress.
Notable saffron antioxidants include:
Crocin and crocetin are carotenoid pigments responsible for saffron’s red color. Both compounds may:
- have antidepressant properties
- protect brain cells against progressive damage
- improve inflammation
- reduce appetite
- aid weight loss
Safranal gives saffron its distinct taste and aroma. Research shows that it may help improve your mood, memory, and learning ability, as well as protect your brain cells against oxidative stress. Lastly, kaempferol is found in saffron flower petals. This compound has been linked to health benefits, such as reduced inflammation, anticancer properties, and antidepressant activity.
- May improve mood and treat depressive symptoms
Saffron is nicknamed the sunshine spice. This is not just due to its distinct color but also because it may help brighten your mood. In a review of five studies, saffron supplements were significantly more effective than placebos at treating symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression. Other studies found that taking 30 mg of saffron daily was just as effective as Fluoxetine, Imipramine, and Citalopram — conventional treatments for depression. Additionally, fewer people experienced side effects from saffron than from other treatments. Both the saffron petals and thread-like stigma appear to be effective against mild-to-moderate depression. While these findings are promising, longer human studies with more participants are needed before experts can recommend saffron as a treatment for depression.
- May have cancer-fighting properties
Saffron is high in antioxidants, which help neutralize harmful free radicals. Free radical damage has been linked to chronic diseases, such as cancer.
In test-tube studies, saffron and its compounds have been shown to selectively kill colon cancer cells or suppress their growth, while leaving healthy cells unharmed. This effect also applies to skin, bone marrow, prostate, lung, breast, cervix, and several other cancer cells. Test-tube studies have also found that crocin — the main antioxidant in saffron — may make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy drugs. While these findings from test-tube studies are promising, the anticancer effects of saffron are poorly studied in humans, and more research is needed.
- May reduce PMS symptoms
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a term that describes physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms occurring before the start of a menstrual period. Studies show that saffron may help treat PMS symptoms. In women ages 20–45, taking 30 mg of saffron daily was more effective than a placebo at treating PMS symptoms, such as irritability, headaches, cravings, and pain. Another study found that simply smelling saffron for 20 minutes helped reduce PMS symptoms like anxiety and lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
- May act as an aphrodisiac
Aphrodisiacs are foods or supplements that help boost your libido. Studies have shown that saffron may have aphrodisiac properties — especially in people taking antidepressants. For instance, taking 30 mg of saffron daily over 4 weeks significantly improved erectile function over a placebo in men with antidepressant-related erectile dysfunction. Additionally, an analysis of six studies showed that taking saffron significantly improved erectile function, libido, and overall satisfaction but not semen characteristics. In women with low sexual desire due to taking antidepressants, 30 mg of saffron daily over 4 weeks reduced sex-related pain and increased sexual desire and lubrication, compared with a placebo.
- May reduce appetite and aid weight loss
Snacking is a common habit that may cause you to gain weight. According to research, saffron may help prevent snacking by curbing your appetite.
In one 8-week study, women taking saffron supplements felt significantly more full, snacked less frequently, and lost significantly more weight than women in the placebo group. In another 8-week study, taking a saffron extract supplement helped significantly reduce appetite, body mass index, waist circumference, and total fat mass. However, scientists are unsure how saffron curbs appetite and aids weight loss. One theory is that saffron elevates your mood, which in turn reduces your desire to snack.
7–10. Other potential health benefits
Saffron has been linked to other health benefits that have not yet been extensively studied:
- May reduce heart disease risk factors. Animal and test-tube studies indicate that saffron’s antioxidant properties may lower blood cholesterol and prevent blood vessels and arteries from clogging.
- May lower blood sugar levels. Saffron may lower blood sugar levels and raise insulin sensitivity, as seen in test-tube studies and mice with diabetes.
- May improve eyesight in adults with age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Saffron appears to improve eyesight in adults with AMD and protect against free radical damage, which is linked to AMD.
- May improve memory in adults with Alzheimer’s disease. Saffron’s antioxidant properties may improve cognition in adults with Alzheimer’s disease.
- Easy to add to your dietIn small doses, saffron has a subtle taste and aroma and pairs well with savory dishes, such as paella, risottos, and other ricedishes. The best way to draw out saffron’s unique flavor is to soak the threads in hot — but not boiling — water. Add the threads and the liquid to your recipe to achieve a deeper, richer flavor.Saffron is readily available at most specialty markets and can be purchased as threads or in powdered form. It’s best to buy the threads, if possible, since they can be used in many different ways and are less likely to be adulterated. Though saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, a small amount goes a long way. You often won’t need more than a pinch in your recipes. In fact, using too much saffron can give your recipes an overpowering medicinal taste.
In addition, saffron is available in supplement form.
Medically reviewed by Jared Meacham, Ph.D., RD, PMP, MBA, CSCS — Written by Ryan Raman, MS, RD (Healthline)