Saffron: An impressive portfolio of health benefits from this age-old spice – Part 2

In last month’s column we focused primarily on saffron’s ability to help relieve sexual dysfunction. This month we look at the spice’s ability to help with weight loss, and improve brain, eye and women’s health.

Preliminary trials of saffron’s impact on brain function are also promising. In a comparative trial in 54 people with moderate Alzheimer’s disease, saffron stigma extract (30mg/day) was as effective as the modern drug donepezil (10mg/day) on cognitive functioning over 22 weeks.1 It was also more effective than a placebo at the same dose in 46 patients with ‘mild’ to ‘moderate’ Alzheimer’s over 16 weeks.2

Saffron’s benefits extend to women’s health as well. Saffron stigma (30mg/day of extract) over two menstrual cycles significantly relieved symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) in a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial.3 Patients on saffron also had significantly better depression scores. A combination of saffron, celery and anise relieved dysmenorrhoea (period pain) symptoms in a three-arm placebo-controlled trial involving 180 women.4 The herbal combination actually worked better than mefenamic acid, a commonly used drug for this problem.

Kicks cravings to help you lose weight

Saffron seems to be a valuable discovery when it comes to reducing food cravings and the snacking that goes with them, something we can all benefit from. Based on preclinical and clinical studies reporting positive anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects for saffron, a team of French scientists wondered if the herb might also balance mood and reduce snacking and the desire to eat, making it a suitable supplement for people trying to lose weight. To test this hypothesis a placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial was done using a proprietary extract of saffron stigma in 60 healthy women who were mildly overweight (body mass index (BMI) 25 to 28 kg/m2).5 Over eight weeks the participants consumed one capsule of saffron extract (exact details not provided, but probably corresponding to 100mg to 150mg of original stigma) twice a day or a matching placebo. Caloric intake was left unrestricted during the study.

In outcomes that achieved widespread publicity, saffron resulted in a significantly greater body weight reduction than the placebo. But the main result was a striking reduction in weekly snacking events with saffron (reduced from 6.1 to 2.9) compared to the placebo group (reduced from 6.3 to 4.5). This was evaluated only in those women who exhibited ‘snacking’ behaviour (16 in each trial group). Saffron also scored significantly higher for the questions: “Did you feel less hungry before meals?” and “Did the product help reduce your need for snacking between meals?” There were no differences between the saffron and placebo groups in terms of tolerance, and the noted side effects were mild and transient.

Improved retinal function in just 90 days

Finally, as you might expect given its high levels of carotenoids, saffron is showing promise in eye health, especially for the retina. The influence of saffron on retinal health was first clinically investigated by researchers from Italy and Australia in a double-blind trial that was reported in December 2010. Twenty-five patients with early age-related macular degeneration (AMD) were randomly divided into two groups, either taking saffron or a placebo for a period of 90 days. The groups were then crossed over to receive the other treatment, with a washout period of 15 days between them.6 Patients took saffron at a daily dose of 20mg of powdered dried stigma. Very low, sub-therapeutic doses of turmeric, black pepper and DHA were also present in the tablets.

Retinal flicker sensitivity was assessed. Flicker sensitivity, evaluated by the focal electro-retinogram, provides an estimation of the macular dysfunction in age-related macular degeneration because it analyses the functioning of the cones in the retina. From each patient, one eye, typically the eye with the best visual acuity (sharpness of vision), was selected and designated as the study eye. Daily intake of saffron for 90 days was associated with a significant improvement in retinal function. No changes were observed in the same patients after administration of the placebo. There was also a small but statistically significant increase in average visual acuity after taking saffron.6 (A calibrated standard Snellen chart was used to evaluate visual acuity, and means for example, that a number of patients were able to read one or two lines on the eye chart that were smaller than the lines they could read before treatment  with saffron.)7

The same research team conducted further research with the aim of finding out whether the benefits observed from saffron treatment would extend over a longer duration. Twenty-nine patients with early AMD were recruited from an outpatient eye clinic.8 As was the case with the previous study, the patients were not taking medications known to affect macular function or to interfere with carotenoid absorption. They received ongoing treatment with the same saffron tablet described above (providing 20mg/day powdered dried stigma). Two patients completed only six months of treatment, with seven and 20 patients completing 12 and 15 months.

After three months of treatment retinal function improved and the mean visual acuity improved by two Snellen lines with saffron, when compared to the start of the trial. These results were statistically significant and remained stable over the treatment period (six to 15 months). In addition, all the patients volunteered an improvement in their quality of vision, most commonly reporting an improvement in contrast and colour perception, reading ability, and vision in low light. Perhaps as a result of these improvements, everyone indicated an enhancement in their quality of life.

Deciding on a dosage

As mentioned, saffron is very expensive, so it’s fortunate it is so concentrated in carotenoids that the effective clinical doses are not that high, helping to keep the cost down. The trials in AMD used just 20mg of dried stigma per day. Most of the other trials used 30mg/day of a concentrated extract, probably corresponding to around 180mg/ day of stigma.

To your better health,

Kerry Bone
Nutrition & Healing

Volume 7, Issue 7 – July 2013

Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.

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