Depression and anxiety are two common mental health problems with high economic and social costs. Currently, a number of treatments are available for patients with depression and anxiety disorders such as psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy and antidepressant drugs.
Actually, Depression is one of the most commonly diagnosed psychological disorders. Symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD) include excessive weight loss or gain, sleepiness or insomnia, feelings of worthlessness, anhedonia, difficulty thinking and concentrating, a persistent sad mood, and thoughts of suicide or death for a two-week period or longer.
Approximately 1 in 5 adults report experiencing one episode of depression in their lifetime, with women being twice as likely to develop depression.
Due to safety concerns and side effects of many antidepressant medications, herbal psychopharmacology research has increased, and herbal remedies are becoming increasingly popular as alternatives to prescribed medications for the treatment of MDD in the last several years. Of these, the spice saffron (from the indigenous southwest Asian plant Crocus sativus L.) has emerged as a promising herbal compound for the treatment of depression based on findings from recent clinical trials. Although saffron is propagated in several regions, Iran produces about 90% of the world’s saffron and generates most of the research into its potential medical uses.
Does saffron improve mood?
Similar to antidepressants, saffron may exert its antidepressant effect by modulating the levels of certain chemicals in the brain, including serotonin (a mood-elevating neurotransmitter). Although it has been proposed that saffron increases serotonin levels in the brain, the exact mechanism of action for this is unknown. More specifically, saffron extract might inhibit serotonin reuptake in synapses. Inhibiting synaptic serotonin reuptake keeps serotonin in the brain longer, thereby enhancing its positive effects while combating depression. This proposed mechanism is supported by animal studies, which demonstrated antidepressant properties in extracts sourced from multiple parts of the saffron plant.
These medicinal properties of saffron may be attributed to a number of its compounds such as crocetin, crocins, and safranal, which have strong antioxidant and radical scavenger properties to protect against a variety of reactive radical oxygen species and pro-inflammatory cytokines. However, the specific components of saffron that affect mood states and improve symptoms of depression have not been identified.
Studies on Saffron for Mood Support
A number of studies indicate that the stigmaـ of the plant (the top of the plant where the pollen is, which is technically called the ‘saffron’) and petal of Crocus sativus plant both have similar mood benefits. Animal studies show the compounds safranal and crocin in the crocus plant may exert anti-depressant effects by keeping balanced levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (Hosseinzadeh et al., 2004).
Studies in humans show there is a benefit to both anxiety and depression. An 8-week double-blind randomized Iranian trial of 40 adult depressed outpatients were randomly assigned to receive either a capsule of petal of the Crocus plant at 15 mg in the morning and evening or Fluoxetine (Prozac) at 10 mg in the morning and evening, for a 8 weeks. At the end of the trial, petal the Crocus was found to be as effective as the drug. Fluoxetine (Prozac) had an 85 percent responder rate with 17 of 20 patients and crocus showed a similar 75 percent (Basti et al., 2007).
In another six-week comparison to imipramine (an older style tricyclic antidepressant drug), researchers found significantly better results when patients were given a Hamilton Depression scale, which is a well-known questionnaire used to assess mood (Akhondzadeh et al., 2005).
The latest 2014 review of studies analyzed 14 studies that used saffron as an anti-depressant. This review even found saffron to be an agent effective to help Alzheimer’s, showing it more effective than the placebo, and as effective as donepezil (Aricept), which is the main conventional medication for this difficult-to-treat condition of aging. Some studies also showed benefit to help with weight loss (by reducing the need to snack) while others showed help with premenstrual syndrome (Moshiri, 2014).
How much saffron should I take for depression?
Research shows that taking saffron or saffron extract by mouth for 6-12 weeks improves symptoms of major depression. Some studies show that saffron might be as effective as taking a prescription antidepressant, such as fluoxetine, imipramine, or citalopram. Early research in patients already taking an antidepressant shows that taking crocin, a chemical found in saffron, for 4 weeks reduces symptoms of depression more than taking the antidepressant alone. However, taking saffron might not help for all types of depression. The following doses have been studied in scientific research:
For depression: 30 mg of a saffron extract or 100 mg of saffron daily for up to 12 weeks.