Saffron is an herb most people are unlikely to utilize, either for medicinal or culinary purposes, primarily because the material has a justified reputation for being extraordinarily expensive. Bulk quantities of relatively low-grade saffron can reach upwards of $500/pound, while retail costs for small amounts may exceed 10 times that rate. But, avoiding this valuable spice might be unnecessary because of the small quantity needed: in medicinal use, 1–3 grams in decoction, 0.5–1.5 grams ingested as powder, or 30 mg of its dried extract per day is considered adequate in standard applications (described below). For culinary use, just a few strands are sufficient to flavor food (about 2–4 strands per person; there are about 70,000–200,000 strands per pound).
In some countries, such as Spain, Iran, and India, people know that saffron is worth its price and make good use of it. To meet the demand, world annual production is about 265 tons per year, which is grown on about 90,000 acres of land (if efficiently cultivated, each acre produces about 6 pounds of saffron a year). It takes about 170–200 hours of work to collect the flowers and remove the stamens for drying in order to produce just 1 pound of saffron, which is a large part of the expense for the spice. Saffron mainly grows in arid territory with sandy soil, under hot and dry summers, often requiring irrigation.
Iran, the world’s largest producer of saffron, and a neighbor to Afghanistan, has been investing in research into saffron’s potential medicinal uses. Much of the work surrounds its traditional application for alleviating depression. One of the Iranian groups carrying out saffron research is headed by Shahin Akhondzadeh, at the Roozbeh Psychiatric Hospital in the Tehran University of Medical Sciences, who has studied the use of several drugs and herbs for mental disorders, such as depression, ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, opiate dependence, and epilepsy. The clinical findings suggest that saffron is a safe and effective antidepressant. For example, in a randomized, double-blind study, 30 mg of saffron extract (in capsules) given for 6 weeks resulted in significant alleviation of depression compared to those on placebo, and did so without evident side effects (1). This study was a follow-up to a preliminary trial in which the same saffron preparation performed as well as imipramine for treating depression in a double-blind trial (2). In further preliminary work, saffron was compared to the drug fluoxetine (often known by the brand product Prozac); it was found that saffron performed as well as the drug in treatment of both depression and epilepsy (3). Pharmacology studies done in Iran (4) and Japan (5, 6) have confirmed an anticonvulsant activity in the extract of saffron.
A potential deterrent to medicinal use of saffron comes about because erroneous information related to saffron toxicity has appeared, especially in internet presentations, but also in books. The reports mention serious adverse effects from as little as 5 grams (about 3 times the medicinal dose), and fatal doses of just 20 grams have also been mentioned. By contrast, all recent research reports indicate that saffron is non-toxic. Why the discrepancy?
The most likely reason for this impression was writers initially confusing toxic meadow saffron with non-toxic saffron; from there the reports were simply repeated. Meadow saffron, also called wild saffron or Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) contains the toxic compound colchicine (used primarily in the treatment of gout). It appears that the literature references to saffron acting as a toxin causing severe spontaneous bleeding or even death with just a few grams are primarily the result of ingestion of meadow saffron (or other materials) but not true saffron. These reports of adverse effects are old ones; for example, this oft-repeated information is relayed in the 1987 German E Commission report, which, in turn, is based on comments in other literature now over 50-years-old that did not include an analysis of the materials ingested or other details. Meadow saffron is not a substitute for true saffron; rather, it is sometimes ingested accidentally when collected mistakenly as a source of wild garlic. However, it is often simply called saffron, and articles reporting on its toxicity may list Crocus sativus as the botanical name, yet refer instead to meadow saffron in the description of uses (e.g., treating arthritis and gout) and toxicity, showing how easily these two are interchanged in reporting. Today, all saffron is cultivated; the material on the market does not include adulterant herbs. The safety of saffron is important in relation to its antidepressant action because the main herb used for that purpose today, St. John’s Wort, has the problem of affecting drug metabolizing enzymes (thus, having a high potential for drug interactions) and for inducing photo-sensitivity.
THE PLANT AND ITS CULTIVATION
Saffron is collected from Crocus sativus (Iridaceae), which originated in the Middle Eastern region of the Eurasian continent, from Greece to Persia (Iran). The plant does not propagate by seeds; the underground portion, corms (also called bulbs), divide to produce new plants. Flowers emerge in autumn; the outstanding feature of the lilac to mauve colored flower is its three stigmas 25–30 mm long, which droop over the petals: that is what is collected as saffron. There are also three yellow stamens, which lack the active compounds and are not collected. The stigma is attached to a style, which has little of the active components and is only included with the lower grades of saffron.
Each bulb produces from one to seven flowers. The cultivated form is thought to have originated as a naturally occurring hybrid that was selected for its extra-long stigmas, and has been maintained ever since. It takes about 36,000 flowers to yield just 1 pound of the stigmas.
Saffron has been cultivated in the region from Greece to Persia for 35 centuries and is mentioned in early literature, such as in the fourth of the Songs of Solomon, dated to about 965 B.C. Its cultivation and use spread throughout the region, moving east to Kashmir and west to Spain. The herb has been cultivated as far west as Britain and became an important medicinal in Tibet. Saffron was described in the Chinese compendium Bencao Gangmu (1596), indicating that it was introduced from Persia and used to benefit the blood (vitalizes blood, stops bleeding) and to calm fright.
Iran is the major saffron producer today, accounting for about 85 percent of the global production. The country produced 225 tons of saffron (April 2003–March 2004) and earned $67 million from saffron exports (only 10–15 tons were used domestically; most of the export goes to Spain). This year the Iranian saffron exports may reach $100 million. Spain is the second largest producer (35–40 tons/year) but is the primary international distributor; minor producers include Portugal, France, Italy, and Turkey. Kashmir has begun large scale production though it is not yet a major international source. Saffron has been successfully planted in several Chinese provinces, including Henan, Jiangsu, Hunan, Shanghai, and Tibet. A major problem with saffron production is that the plant grows in desert regions but needs sufficient water to thrive; irrigation in many of these areas is costly and difficult; severe draughts can cause significant crop losses.
SAFFRON AS A MEDICINAL HERB
The medicinal properties attributed to saffron are extensive. Topically, it is applied to improve the skin condition overall and specifically to treat acne. Internally, it is used to improve blood circulation, regulate menstruation, treat digestive disturbance, ease cough and asthmatic breathing, reduce fever and inflammation, calm nervousness, and alleviate depression. In Tibet, saffron is often an ingredient in medicinal incenses; it is considered a tonic for the heart and the nervous system. The active ingredients may be of benefit in inhibiting growth of cancer cells (7–10).
In the East, Saffron was generally used to treat light to moderate depression; it had the reputation to bring cheerfulness and wisdom. Because of the mood elevation affect Saffron is known to have, it is said to be useful for treating anxiety, depression, weight loss, & and improving sex drive for not only men, but women too!
Saffron contains more than 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds. It also has many nonvolatile active components, many of which are carotenoids, including zeaxanthin, lycopene, and various α- and β-carotenes. However, saffron’s golden yellow-orange color is primarily the result of α-crocin. Saffron is best kept in its natural state before use. Exposing it to the environment or breaking it down prior to use causes the herb to loose its medicinal qualities.
It is our belief that Saffron Fusion™ Tea is the most effective way of delivering the health properties of saffron. This is due to the fact that our saffron is from the latest harvest and kept in its raw natural state, unexposed to the environment until it is hand blended to order and combined with our whole leaf tea blends! Alternatively using a tea bag is also not recommended as the healing properties in the oil will soak into the tea bag rather than releasing into the tea. Saffron Fusion™ is commited to developing and delivering the highest quality products infused with saffron - Guaranteed!
Saffron Tea uses and health benefits for which it is recognized today are:
Saffron Tea uses and health benefits recognized today are:
- Anti-Cancer benefits
- Anti-Depressant Action
- Benefits for the Heart
- Antioxidant Action and Eye Care
- Digestion Aid
- Stress Reduction
- Reduce Fever
- Treat Cough
For further information and the links to the studies on saffron regarding its antidepressant effects, check the link to the article by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon.
Healing Properties of Saffron
- Saffron contains many plant derived chemical compounds that are known to have anti-oxidant, disease preventing and health promoting properties.
- The flower stigmas are composed of many essential volatile oils, the most important of them being, safranal. Safranal gives saffron its distinct hay-like flavor and is the Other volatile oils in saffron are cineole, phenethenol, pinene, borneol, geraniol, limonene, p-cymene, linalool, terpinen-4-oil, etc.
- This colorful spice has many non-volatile active components; the most important of them is α-crocin, a carotenoid compound, which gives the stigmas their characteristic golden-yellow color. It also contains other carotenoids, including zea-xanthin, lycopene, α- and β-carotenes. These are important antioxidants that help protect the human body from oxidant-induced stress, cancers, infections and acts as immune modulators.
- The active components in saffron have many therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines such as antiseptic, antidepressant, anti-oxidant, digestive, anti-convulsant.
- This novel spice is a good source of minerals like copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure. Manganese and copper are used by the body as co-factors for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. Iron is essential for red blood cell production and as a co-factor for cytochrome oxidases enzymes.
- Additionally, it is also rich in many vital vitamins, including vitamin A, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin,vitamin-C that is essential for optimum health.
- The active components present in saffron have many therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines since long time ago as anti-spasmodic, carminative, diaphoretic.
- Research studies have shown that, safranal, a volatile oil found in the spice, has antioxidant, cytotoxicity towards cancer cells, anti-convulsant and antidepressant properties.
- Αlfa-crocin, a carotenoid compound, which gives the spice its characteristic golden-yellow color, has been anti-oxidant, anti-depressant, and anti-cancer properties.
Saffron tea was treasured by ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks for use in folk medicine, and to create culinary and herbal delights. Saffron, a member of the lily family, is the delicate part of the flower that catches pollen. The bright red stigmas of the saffron plant are carefully picked, leaving behind a golden stamen. Recent clinical trials have proved the herb to have potential health benefits, according to Michael Murray, N.D. author of “The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods.”
A cup of saffron tea may have the potential to slow down blindness, according to the article, “Saffron: Golden Secret of Clearer Sight” on the In science website. Research at the University of L’Aquila in Abruzzi, Italy, has established saffron’s ability to protect vision cells thanks to its fatty acid content. When saffron is taken daily, the fatty acid content becomes tougher. During the trial, eye charts showed remarkable progress by the patients. A daily cup of saffron tea protects the eye from bright light, and it is safe to use daily.
The rich, golden color of saffron tea comes from crocin, a chemical component in the flower that is loaded with antioxidants. According to Murray, crocin has potent anti-cancer effects against a wide spectrum of cancers. The flavonoids found in crocin inhibit human cancer cells and can potentially shrink tumor cells. Carotenoids, the natural pigments prompting the yellow hue found in saffron, protect the body from diseases, stress and viruses. Preparing saffron tea is simple. Use three threads of saffron or less, toss into hot water, and steep for a minimum of 20 minutes. Add a cinnamon stick to reduce bitterness of the saffron.
Antioxidants in saffron tea can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The flavonoids, especially lycopene, found in saffron can provide added protection. A clinical trial at the Department of Medicine and Indigenous Drug Research Center showed positive effects of saffron on cardiovascular disease. The study involved 20 participants, including 10 with heart disease. According to the Indian Journal of Medical Sciences, all participants showed improved health, but those with cardiovascular disease showed more progress.
Helps With Premenstrual Syndrome
In a study published in a 2008 issue of “BJOG,” researchers found that taking 30 milligrams of saffron a day led to reduced premenstrual syndrome in women with regular menstrual cycles. The study was conducted over the course of two menstrual cycles. While researchers found the study promising, they stated that a study regarding the safety of consuming saffron in such high quantities — the amount used could make up to 20 cups of tea — was needed before recommending saffron as an alternative treatment to PMS.
May Help Treat Alzheimer’s Disease
In 2010, the “Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics” published a study on saffron and its potential use as an herbal aid for dementia. Study participants with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease took 30 milligrams of saffron per day for 16 weeks. The study found saffron was safe for use in such high quantities, and those taking the saffron supplement showed improved cognitive function when compared to those on the placebo. While the study suggested saffron may be useful in treating some aspects of Alzheimer’s disease in the short term, longer, randomized studies are still needed.
May Aid Depression
A 2013 issue of the “Journal of Integrative Medicine” included a large-scale analysis on the studies where saffron was used as a potential anti-depressant. Researchers found that when comparing studies conducted on adults and in the presence of a placebo option in the study, saffron showed significant benefits toward relieving the symptoms of depression. They concluded that longer-term trials were needed, however, with greater geographical variety. As well, larger study groups would help further confirm saffron’s safety and efficacy as a natural anti-depressant.
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- Escribano J, et al., Crocin, safranal and picrocrocin from saffron (Crocus sativus) inhibit the growth of human cancer cells in vitro, Cancer Letters 1996; 100 (1–2): 23–30.
- Tarantilis PA, et al., Inhibition of growth and induction of differentiation of promyelocytic leukemia (HL-60) by carotenoids from Crocus sativus, Anticancer Research 1994; 14(5A): 1913–1918.
- Garcia-Olmo DC, Effects of long-term treatment of colon adenocarcinoma with crocin, a carotenoid from saffron (Crocus sativus): an experimental study in the rat, Nutrition and Cancer 1999; 35(2): 120–126.
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Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D.