Saffron - A Potent but Pricey Solution to Depression
by Adrian Nasager, ND
Jaconello Health Centre
77 Westmount Rd #300
Guelph, ON - N1H 5J1
What if there was a flower that was the key to unlocking happiness for people with mild to moderate depression? What if that flower was a spice found in your kitchen cabinet right now? Saffron might just be the thing you’re looking for to spice up your life!
If you are one of the millions of people who has ever suffered from depression, you know that this feeling can take on many forms. It is normal for our moods to go up and down with the events of life. When you fall in love, get a promotion, or complete a challenging project, you can feel happy. When you lose a loved one, lose your job, or lose faith in yourself, you can feel sad. It is unrealistic to think we should feel happy all of the time; but when sadness, despair, or regret persist, it can seem impossible to experience pleasure, joy, or contentment. Even if you just feel bored, unmotivated, or flat, these can be a sign that you might be depressed.
Conventional Treatment for Depression
There are many different causes of depression; some of these include fatigue, pain, neurotransmitter imbalances, grief, disappointment, nutrient deficiencies, and inactivity. Since the cause of depression is not the same for everyone, treatment for depression is most effective when it is individualized. The first-line conventional treatment for depression is a class of drugs called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). As the name suggests, one way in which these medications may help is by increasing the amount of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with positive mood, in the brains of people with depression. Only 60–70% of people find that SSRIs are an effective treatment for their depression. Even those that do find them effective often have to wait six to eight weeks before deciding whether the medication is helping them or not. SSRIs also are not without side effects—most notably sexual dysfunction—and this can be so undesirable that people stop taking the medication even if it’s helping their depression. Given these limitations of conventional treatment, there is a clear role for naturopathic treatment options.
Natural Treatments for Depression
Naturopathic medicine has a lot to offer people suffering with depression. There are many effective natural approaches to overcoming depression and helping you live a happy life. St John’s Wort is a medicinal herb which works like SSRIs but without the same degree of side effects. St John’s Wort is one of the best studied natural treatments for mild to moderate and even major depression;(2) however it has many of herb-drug interactions and may not be ideal for women on birth control or other medications.(3,4) While for some, substituting St. John’s Wort for an SSRI might be a suitable alternative, others they may require a different completely different type of treatment to help manage their feelings of sadness.
What is Saffron?
Saffron (Crocus sativa) is a culinary spice produced primarily in Iran, where it is often used to flavour rice and has been used traditionally as an antidepressant in Persian traditional medicine. It is highly aromatic and highly prized, often referred to as the most expensive spice. The spice can be made from the stigma or the pedals of the flower and requires up to 200 000 flowers and 400 hours of labour to produce 1 kg of dried herb.
Research on Saffron for Depression
To date, the antidepressant effects of saffron have been investigated in at least five human studies. In two studies, saffron was found to be better than placebo. More impressively, in three studies, it was found to be equally effective at treating depression as conventional medications like SSRIs. In one study, 15 mg of saffron extract (standardized to 300–350 μg safranal) was given twice per day for eight weeks. Both
saffron and fluoxetine caused a time-dependent reduction in depressive symptoms measured by the Hamilton depression scale. Seventy-five to 85 percent of people had a 50% reduction in their depression, and 25 percent had no depression at the end of the eight weeks. Saffron has other benefits, which have been studied to various degrees. These include significantly lowering high blood pressure, anxiety, food intake, and PMS symptoms.
Saffron and Sexual Side Effects of SSRIs
As with many other natural treatments, saffron may not cause as many side effects as the medications to which it was compared. What’s better is that saffron has been investigated in combination with SSRIs, and found to decrease many of the sexual function side effects caused by the medication. Specifically, 15 mg of saffron extract twice daily improved arousal, lubrication, and pain in women; and erectile function and sexual satisfaction in men.[7, 8]
How to Use Saffron
Saffron is considered the world’s most expensive spice. This may be one of the reasons why this herb has not been investigated for medicinal uses until recently. That being said, studies of saffron’s antidepressant effects show that only 15–50 mg is needed to be effective; this is about 20 times less than the amount of a standardized extract of St. John’s wort. So while saffron may be expensive by weight, in therapeutic doses it is not only affordable but also very easy to take.
One way that herbs are different from drugs is that they contain many different compounds, and this means that there is often variability between herbal preparations. Standardized extracts are used to measure relevant compounds within the herb to insure potency, quality, and efficacy. Presently, crocin and safranal are the main components credited with saffron’s therapeutic effects. It appears that crocin and possibly safranal inhibit the reuptake of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain.
Safety and Side Effects of Saffron
At recommended doses of 15–50 mg per day for up to 12 weeks, saffron appears to be very safe. Higher single doses up to 200 mg have also been used in humans. Very
high doses of 1,200–2,000 mg saffron can acutely cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and uterine bleeding, but there is presently no indication for giving such high doses. There are two case reports of abnormal uterine bleeding in two women at doses of 200–400 mg.
Saffron may not be appropriate for long-term use or may need to be used at lower maintenance doses. Long-term use over 6 months may lower red and white blood counts, blood pressure, and appetite. While for some people these effects may be desirable, for others they may not. For this reason, it is best to be monitored by a health-care professional such as a naturopathic doctor.