Saffron

Last Updated: March 17, 2024

Saffron is a spice with antioxidant properties derived from the flowering plant Crocus sativus. When used as a supplement, saffron seems to be effective at reducing symptoms of depression and possibly anxiety.

Saffron is most often used for

What is saffron?

Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) is a flowering plant in the iris family used in various domains for its taste, aroma, pigment, and medicinal properties. Saffron, sometimes called “red gold”, is the most expensive spice in the world and is produced predominantly in Iran.[4] The most prized part of the saffron plant is the dried red stigmas, which contain over 150 bioactive compounds including carotenoids (crocin, crocetin), terpenes (picrocrocin, safranol), and many other phytochemicals.[5]

What are saffron’s main benefits?

Saffron is a potent antioxidant and has shown consistent benefits for depression.[6]

When used in people with minor to moderate depression, saffron appears to be superior to placebo and comparable to some commonly used antidepressants (e.g., fluoxetine, citalopram) for reducing symptoms of depression and achieving remission.[7][8][9] Saffron may also reduce symptoms of anxiety, but this effect is less clearly established.[7]

While the evidence is promising, nearly all of the clinical trials have been conducted in Iran, sample sizes have been small (<100 people), and durations have been short (≤12 weeks). Larger and longer trials in more diverse populations are needed to further validate these effects and determine whether the benefits persist over time.

What are saffron’s main drawbacks?

The most common side effects of saffron include nausea, changes in appetite, dry mouth, headache, anxiety, and drowsiness.[10] Changes in blood parameters have been reported in studies using doses of 60–400 mg daily, although it’s not clear if this has any clinical implications.[11][10] At excessively high doses (1,200–2,000 mg), saffron has been reported to cause vomiting, diarrhea, and bleeding.[1] Supplementing with isolated crocin (one of the active compounds in saffron) at normal doses may raise serum creatinine levels, which could indicate a risk of kidney damage.[2]

There are concerns regarding the quality of saffron supplements. Some of the important compounds in saffron are sensitive to light, oxygen, and temperature. Further, the way saffron is grown, harvested, and processed can alter its chemical composition. Due to its high economic value, saffron has also historically been prone to adulteration.[12] These factors may lead to large variations in the types and amounts of active compounds found in a saffron supplement which could impact its effectiveness. Choosing a supplement that is third-party tested can help ensure its quality.

Lastly, most of the research on saffron has been conducted in Iran, and its effects on other populations require further validation.

How does saffron work?

Saffron contains many active compounds, but crocin, crocetin, safranol, and picrocrocin are considered to be the most important.[13] Following consumption, some of these compounds are transformed within the gastrointestinal tract, and the main compound found in the blood seems to be crocetin (although more research is needed in this department).[5]

Preclinical research suggests that saffron can influence the brain in a variety of ways, which likely explains its effects on mood and cognition. Saffron may prevent the reuptake of certain neurotransmitters — like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine — which allows their effects to persist for longer.[8] Saffron may also interact with the HPA axis, leading to reduced levels of cortisol, and might influence neuroplasticity by increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).[9]

As an antioxidant, saffron may increase the expression of nuclear factor erythroid 2–related factor 2 (Nrf2), leading to increased levels of antioxidant enzymes and an overall improved antioxidant capacity.[14][6] In animal studies, saffron has reduced oxidative stress in brain tissue.[15]

What are other names for Saffron?
Note that Saffron is also known as:
  • Crocus sativus L.
  • Crocin (a bioactive compound in saffron)
Saffron should not be confused with:
Dosage information

Saffron is usually taken at a dosage of 15 mg twice daily, for a total of 30 mg daily. While higher doses have been used, there is no clear benefit to this, and there may be an increased risk of side effects. Doses above 5 grams (5,000 mg) are considered toxic and doses above 20 grams (20,000 mg) may be lethal.[1]

Saffron supplements usually contain saffron stigma extract, which is the most studied form. However, whole dehydrated stigma or petals are sometimes used, and preliminary research suggests they may also be effective.

Crocin, one of the major active compounds in saffron, can be taken in isolation at a similar dose as saffron. While some research in the realms of depression and metabolic health has demonstrated similar effects,[2][3] there’s currently not enough evidence to support taking crocin instead of regular saffron supplements. Additionally, some research suggests that crocin may increase serum creatinine levels, which could indicate a safety risk for the kidneys.[2]

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Examine Database: Saffron