The Mediterranean herb saffron, long used in cooking, is made from the dried stigma (top of the female portion) of the Crocus sativa flower. Each flower has only three small stigmas, and it requires about 75,000 flowers to produce one pound of saffron. As a cooking herb, saffron is valued for its intense orange-yellow color and its subtle flavor. Medicinally, it has been used since ancient times for strengthening digestion, relieving coughs, smoothing menstruation, relaxing muscle spasms, improving mood, and calming anxiety. Saffron contains vitamin B2 along with a yellow flavonoid called crocin, a bitter glycoside called picrocrocin, and the volatile, aromatic substance safranal.
The best evidence for medicinal effects of saffron involve treatment of depression. According to five preliminary double-blind studies, use of saffron at 30 mg daily is more effective than placebo and equally effective as standard treatment for major depression.1-3,14, 15 However, all these studies were small and preliminary, and were performed by a single research group in Iran. Larger studies and independent confirmation will be necessary to determine whether this expensive herb is truly effective for depression.
Other proposed uses of saffron have even weaker supporting evidence. Test-tube and animal studies hint that saffron and its constituents may help prevent or treat cancer,4-9 reduce cholesterol levels,10 protect against side effects of the drug cisplatin,11 and enhance mental function.12
In the studies of depression described above, saffron was used at a dose of 30 mg daily of an alcohol-based extract.
Saffron appears to be safe.4 One study found no serious adverse effects among healthy volunteers given up to 200 mg/day of saffron for one week.16 It is often said that very high doses of saffron can cause abortion and possible toxic symptoms, but there is no scientific documentation of these supposed effects. However, the so-called meadow saffron, Colchicum autumnale, is highly toxic, and sometimes people mistake one for the other.
Safety in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or people with severe liver or kidney disease has not been established.
1. Akhondzadeh S, Tahmacebi-Pour N, Noorbala AA, et al. Crocus sativus L. in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. Phytother Res. 2005;19:148–51.
2. Noorbala AA, Akhondzadeh S, Tahmacebi-Pour N, et al. Hydro-alcoholic extract of Crocus sativus L. versus fluoxetine in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized pilot trial. J Ethnopharmacol. 2005;97:281–4.
3. Akhondzadeh S, Fallah-Pour H, Afkham K, et al. Comparison of Crocus sativus L. and imipramine in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a pilot double-blind randomized trial [ISRCTN45683816]. BMCComplement Altern Med. 2004;4:12.
4. Abdullaev Jafarova F, Caballero-Ortega H, Riveron-Negrete L, et al. In vitro evaluation of the chemopreventive potential of saffron [in Spanish]. Rev Invest Clin. 2003;54:430–6.
5. Escribano J, Alonso GL, Coca-Prados M, et al. Crocin, safranal and picrocrocin from saffron ( Crocus sativus L.) inhibit the growth of human cancer cells in vitro. Cancer Lett. 1996;100:23–30.
6. Abdullaev FI, Espinosa-Aguirre JJ. Biomedical properties of saffron and its potential use in cancer therapy and chemoprevention trials. Cancer Detect Prev. 2004;28:426–32.
7. Molnar J, Szabo D, Pusztai R, et al. Membrane associated antitumor effects of crocine-, ginsenoside- and cannabinoid derivates. Anticancer Res. 2000;20:861–7.
8. Abdullaev FI, Riveron-Negrete L, Caballero-Ortega H, et al. Use of in vitro assays to assess the potential antigenotoxic and cytotoxic effects of saffron ( Crocus sativus L.). Toxicol In Vitro. 2003;17:731–6.
9. Garcia-Olmo DC, Riese HH, Escribano J, et al. Effects of long-term treatment of colon adenocarcinoma with crocin, a carotenoid from saffron ( Crocus sativus L.): an experimental study in the rat. Nutr Cancer. 2000;35:120–6.
10. Xu GL, Yu SQ, Gong ZN, et al. Study of the effect of crocin on rat experimental hyperlipemia and the underlying mechanisms [in Chinese]. Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi. 2005;30:369–72.
11. el Daly ES. Protective effect of cysteine and vitamin E, Crocus sativus and Nigella sativa extracts on cisplatin-induced toxicity in rats. J Pharm Belg. 1998;53:87–93.
12. Abe K, Saito H. Effects of saffron extract and its constituent crocin on learning behaviour and long-term potentiation. Phytother Res. 2000;14:149–52.
13. Noorbala AA, Akhondzadeh S, Tahmacebi-Pour N, et al. Hydro-alcoholic extract of Crocus sativus L. versus fluoxetine in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized pilot trial. J Ethnopharmacol. 2005;97:281–4.
14. Moshiri E, Basti AA, Noorbala AA et al. Crocus sativus L. (petal) in the treatment of mild-to-moderate depression: A double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. Phytomedicine. 2006 Sep 14 [Epub ahead of print]
15. Akhondzadeh Basti A, Moshiri E, Noorbala AA, et al. Comparison of petal of Crocus sativus L and fluoxetine in the treatment of depressed outpatients: a pilot double-blind randomized trial. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2006 Dec 14 [Epub ahead of print].
16. Modaghegh MH, Shahabian M, Esmaeili HA, et al. Safety evaluation of saffron ( Crocus sativus) tablets in healthy volunteers. Phytomedicine. 2008 Aug 5.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board Last Updated: 12/15/2015