Updated 6/18/2016, 6/22/2016 & 7/2/2016..
Reading about the health properties of saffron has driven home what I’ve been learning about the differences between our woeful Western diet (often called the Standard American Diet, or SAD – how unfortunately apt is that?) and the traditional, spice and herb rich diets of India, Persia, and other Middle Eastern cultures.
Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of the Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus. Saffron is so highly prized for culinary and medicinal uses, as an ingredient in perfumes and dyes, and so labor intensive to grow and harvest, it’s often referred to as ‘red gold’.
80% of the world’s saffron is grown in Iran. While there last fall, we saw beautiful heaps of saffron stigmas (called threads) for sale in the bazaars we visited – and it often appeared as an ingredient in our food. I bought some lovely saffron filaments from this spice merchant (and his son?) in the vast and beautiful Grand Bazaar in Esfahan.
I could happily have spent days exploring this bazaar (Qeysarriyeh Bazaar in Farsi) – and also the bazaars in other cities we visited: Hamadan, Tabriz, Zanjan, Shiraz, and Yazd! Each is different and quite wonderful in its own way.
I also saw small patches of saffron crocuses growing in the dry soil on the much trod paths in front of desert monuments such as Naqsh-e Rustam – four tombs carved into the side of a cliff embellished with intricate relief carvings. King Darius I (550-486 BCE), the builder of nearby Persepolis, is in the first tomb. The other tombs are attributed to Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II. Wish now I’d taken a photo of these brave little crocuses to show you.
To my amazement, I saw saffron crocuses growing in the dry, tamped down soil in front of the tombs at Naqsh-e-Rustam, Iran
“Saffron’s use is ancient. Saffron-based pigments have been found in 50,000 year-old paintings in northwest Iran. It conjures romance, royalty, and delicacy wherever it appears. Alexander the Great bathed in saffron to cure battle wounds. Cultivated saffron emerged in late Bronze Age Crete, bred from its wild precursor by selecting for unusually long stigmas making the plant sterile. Called Kumkum or Kesar in Ayurveda, it also appears as an important medicinal herb in many ancient texts including Ayurveda, Unani, and Chinese Medicine.” (Joyful Belly Ayurveda, 2016)
The first known mention of saffron appeared in a 7th century BCE Assyrian botanical reference. Since then, documentation of saffron’s use in the treatment of some 90 illnesses as been found. (Srivastava, 2010)
A detail from the “Saffron Gatherers” fresco of the “Xeste 3” building, one of many frescos depicting saffron found at the Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri, on the Aegean island of Santorini
In Sanskrit, ayur means ‘life’ and veda means ‘wisdom’. The aim of Ayurveda, an ancient form of traditional medicine originating in India over 5,000 years ago, is to create a state of harmony in the body – physical balance, mental balance, and emotional balance. In Ayurveda, this understanding of health is called swastya (a Sanskrit word meaning health). Being in a state of swastya helps us live with good energy, enhances immunity, prevents the onset of ill health, and nurtures the body back into good balance if it does fall sick.
Swastya also includes the idea of being firmly established in one’s self. (Art of Living Retreat Center, 2015)
As a psychotherapist who focuses on mind-body balance, this approach makes a lot of sense to me.
Dhanvantari , the deity associated with Ayurveda
Ayurveda sees the body as having three basic energies, called doshas
Vata: kinetic energy
Pitta: energy transformation
Kapha: cohesive energy
Balance among the three doshas produces swastya, a state of health.
SAFFRON IN AYURVEDIC MEDICINE
“Saffron helps pacify all three doshas. It improves immunity, increases energy, helps fight phlegm and respiratory disorders, improves vision and reduces inflammation. Its tonic can lower cholesterol, improve digestion and help treat spleen ailments, insomnia, impotency, premenstrual syndrome and neurodegenerative disorders.” (Sharma, 2016)
PSYCHOTROPIC MEDICATIONS FOR DEPRESSION
Modern psychopharmacology has been marketing a variety of antidepressants world wide for more than 50 years. The use of these antidepressant medications in the US has increased by 400% in the last 28 years – over 11% of Americans age 12 and older now take them. (Downey, 2013)
The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2003 that 1 in 10 adult Americans described themselves as depressed and the World Health Organization estimated that depression is expected to be the world’s second-leading cause of disability by 2020, second only to cardiovascular disease. (Swartz, 2003)
This dire situation is compounded by yet another: Taking these psychotropic medications is often accompanied by at least one of many physiological adverse side effects – anxiety, agitation, emotional numbness, suicidal thoughts, improper bone development, improper brain development, insomnia, constipation, weight gain, gastrointestinal bleeding, sexual dysfunction, and more. (Downey, 2013) & (Kresser, 2008)
Seems to me that experiencing any of these side effects would be quite depressing, especially for people who are feeling depressed to begin with.
On top of all this, taking antidepressant drugs often doesn’t resolve the original depression.
SAFFRON FOR DEPRESSION
If depression is a problem for you, you might want to look into an alternative to pharmaceutical antidepressants with their undesirable side effects and try an age old remedy from Ayurvedic Medicine: saffron.
There is compelling scientific evidence that saffron (Crocus sativus) is as effective as some pharmaceutical antidepressants for alleviating depression – without the unpleasant side effects. And for people not wanting to give up their existing antidepressants, saffron has been found to work as a highly effective adjunct therapy to block adverse sexual side effects.
Saffron also has been shown to treat other conditions for which antidepressants are often described – such as anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Downey, 2013)
Traditional Persian medicine prized saffron for relieving depression. Now 21st century research has studied saffron extract and found it produces a powerful antidepressant benefit. (Downey, 2013) & (Dharmananda, 2005)
SAFFRON FOR ANXIETY
Research findings demonstrate that constituents in saffron known as crocins reduce anxiety without adverse reactions. (Downey, 2013)
SAFFRON FOR OCD
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are often treated with combinations of antidepressants.
Research evidence has suggested a functional interaction between the crocins found in saffron and the serotonin-neurotransmitter system, leading scientists to study the effect of saffron on OCD. In an animal model of this condition, crocin compounds from saffron substantially reduced both obsessive and compulsive symptoms without significant adverse effects. (Downey, 2013)
UNCONTROLLED EATING AND SNACKING
Neurotransmitter imbalances, particularly low levels of serotonin, have been shown to increase vulnerability to food cravings, overeating and obesity.
Appetite-suppressing medications can cause numerous, sometimes deadly side effects—including heart valve damage, birth defects, liver injury, and increased blood pressure.
Scientists conducted a clinical trial using a saffron extract with 60 mildly overweight female volunteers, at least half of whom suffered with compulsive snacking behavior.
Study subjects were randomly given either daily doses of 176.5 mg of patented saffron extract or a placebo. They were all instructed to maintain their normal dietary habits and all between-meal snacking was recorded.
“Over 8 weeks, the number of snacking events for the placebo group decreased by 28%. In the saffron group, between-meal snacks decreased by 55% and they reported a reduced feeling of the “need” to snack!
“After 8 weeks and without any dieting, the saffron group had lost an average of 2 pounds and reported increased energy and alertness. These small weight loss results show how its takes more than reduced snacking to achieve meaningful weight loss.”
The subjects experienced no unwanted side effects. (Downey, 2013)
SAFFRON FOR ASTHMA
Asthma is an autoimmune disease in which lung tissue becomes inflamed, resulting in a narrowing of the airways. Saffron reduces inflammation so helps open the airways. (Downey, 2013) & (HealthyLifeInfo.com, 2014)
SAFFRON FOR INSOMNIA
The compound safranal in saffron has been found to increase total sleep time without any negative impact on motor coordination. (Downey, 2013).
SAFFRON FOR CANCERS
Western Medicine generally treats cancers, which cause over 7.5 million deaths each year, with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
“Recent scientific evidence, both in vitro and in vivo, has suggested that saffron extract and its main active constituents can help inhibit carcinogenesis and tumor genesis. Rodent studies further demonstrate that saffron can reduce the serious negative effects of the anticancer drug Platinol® (cisplatin). These anticancer findings have prompted extensive current research on saffron and its components, including safranal and crocin, as promising preventive agents against cancer.” (Downey, 2013)
Saffron’s biochemical compounds zea-xanthin, lycopene, α- and β- caroteneaffron have also been shown to be helpful for cancer prevention. These compounds act as immune modulators to protect the body from cancer. (Gyanunlimited, 2016)
SAFFRON FOR ALZHEIMER’S
An enormous increase in the number of people developing Alzheimer’s is expected, eventually reaching nearly 15 million within 40 years.
Doctors commonly prescribe antidepressants for Alzheimer’s patients even though the published data strongly suggest antidepressants are not helpful and often cause adverse reactions.
A double-blind, randomized, and placebo-controlled trial testing the efficacy of saffron for Alzheimer’s patients demonstrated that saffron improved both cognitive and clinical profiles after 16 weeks in subjects with mild to moderate Alzheimers – without side effects. (Downey, 2013)
MORE ABOUT SAFFRON
Picking saffron on in Shahn Abad village in northeast Iran
The saffron crocus is native to Iran and Southwest Asia. It takes stigmas from 50,000 to 75,000 Crocus sativus blossoms (an acre of flowers) to make a pound of the spice. ‘Saffron’ derives from the Arabic za’faran, meaning yellow – possibly the Arabized form of the Persian word zarapan, meaning ‘golden stamens’ or ‘golden feathers’. Sumerians, Persians’ predecessors in the 3rd millennium BCE, called saffron ‘perfume of the gods’. (Batmanglij, 2011)
Hand separating saffron filaments from crocus flowers
Saffron from Crocus sativus possesses a number of medicinally important properties, such as:
- Anti-inflammatory effect
- Anti-convulsant effect
- Anti-tussive effect
- Protection against cancers (anti-genototoxic and cytotoxic effects)
- Anti-anxiety effect
- Relaxant property
- Anti-depressant effect
- Positive effect on sexual functioning
- Improvement of memory and learning skills
- Increased blood flow in retina and choroid (the pigmented vascular layer of the eyeball between the retina and the sclera)
- Anti-oxidant effect to deter coronary artery disease
- Reduction in sensitivity to painful stimuli (anti-nociceptive effects)
– (Srivastava, 2010)
See Crocus sativus L.: A comprehensive review for additional (and thorough) information on saffron: its chemical constituents, pharmacological actions, uses, formulations, toxicity studies, and contraindications.
SAFFRON AS A NUTRITIONAL SUPPLEMENT
David Miller, MD, the highly knowledgeable nutritional supplements guru at LifeThyme Market on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village (NYC), recommends this (and only this) version of saffron:
Life Extension Optimized Saffron with Satiereal, Veggie Caps: 1 capsule/day for 6 weeks. Take after your largest meal OR the meal containing the most fat. (Miller, 6/7/2016)
NOTE ADDED ON 6/22/2016:
I had time to stop by LifeThyme yesterday and have another talk with Dr Miller about this saffron supplement. This is what he said:
It’s OK to take saffron longer than 6 weeks. In fact, it can be taken long term if it works for you. If you start taking 1 capsule/day and want to increase to 2 capsules/day, that’s OK. The reason he’d said to take it for six weeks is that six weeks is, as with antidepressants, usually long enough to tell whether it’s working and he wanted my patient to let him know at that point how she’s doing on the saffron supplement.
If it’s not working by six weeks and you’re otherwise doing OK on it, take for another few weeks. As with antidepressants, it can take longer than six weeks for some people to feel a therapeutic effect. Saffron works for mood much like an SSRI – but without the side effects of pharmaceuticals. (MILLER, 6/21/2016)
COMPREHENSIVE INFORMATION ON SAFFRON RESEARCH TO DATE
For comprehensive information compiled by Examine.com on findings from saffron research to date, see Summary: All Essential Benefits/Effects/Facts & Information. (Examine.com, 2016)
It would be wise to inform yourself more fully by taking a look at this article before starting on saffron.
HOW AYURVEDA AND FOOD AS MEDICINE CAME TO BE REPLACED BY WESTERN MEDICINE AND PHARMACEUTICALS
After 5,000 years of Ayurvedic practice in India and Sri Lanka, Ayurveda was viewed as ‘primitive’ by the British when the subcontinent became a colony of great Britain and was supplanted by Western Medicine during the British Raj between 1858-1947. After India regained its independence from Britain in 1948, Ayurvedic medicine enjoyed something of a renaissance there but Western Medicine and its approach of reducing symptoms went on to be considered the gold standard around the world while Ayurveda was looked down upon as an ‘alternative’ approach – unsophisticated and inferior.
Here’s a brief video on the history of Ayurveda with its emphasis on achieving and maintaining balanced health and how it came to be replaced by Western Medicine with its focus on reducing symptoms of disease and neglect of how to achieve health.
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the Developed World’s looking down on traditional healing techniques is pure hubris. We’re the ones hell bent on destroying our own health along with the health of the entire planet. Maybe ‘primitive’ knowledge offers us something we desperately need.
ADDED ON 7/2/2016
FOR THOSE WANTING MORE INFORMATION ABOUT SATIEREAL SAFFRON
I asked Dr David Miller why it was only the satiereal form of saffron he recommends so he sent me the following articles to explain.
See pages 64-71 in the current issue of Herbalgram (Journal of the American Botanical Council) for this article about saffron: Saffron: The Salubrious Spice – Emerging Research Suggests Numerous Health Benefits. (Woolven & Snider, 2016).
And see Satiereal: Women Taking Satiereal Report Decreased Hunger. (PLT Health Solutions, undated).
Art of Living Retreat Center. (2015). Ayurveda 101: The Aim of Ayurveda. See: https://artoflivingretreatcenter.org/8-limbs-ayurveda-aim-of-ayurveda/?keyword=ayurvedic&campaignid=339107161&adgroupid=22739666521&feeditemid=&cname=&targetid=kwd-13050861&gclid=CKbi3armrc0CFVclgQodPtMEmw
Batmanglij, N. (2011). Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies. See: https://www.amazon.com/Food-Life-Ancient-Persian-Ceremonies/dp/193382347X
Dharmananda, S. (2005). Saffron: An Anti-Depressant Herb. See http://www.itmonline.org/articles/saffron/saffron/htm
Downey, M. (2013). A Safer Alternative for Managing Depression. Life Extension Magazine. See: http://www.lifeextension.com/magazine/2013/7/a-safer-alternative-for-managing-depression/page-01
Examine.com. (2016). SAFFRON – Summary: All Essential Benefits/Effects/Facts & Information. See: https://examine.com/supplements/saffron/
Gyanunlimited. (2016). 31 Surprising Health Benefits of Zafaran (Saffron). See: http://www.gyanunlimited.com/health/31-surprising-health-benefits-of-zafaran-saffron/9146/
HealthyLifeInfo.com. (2014). Saffron Health Benefits. See: http://www.diethealthclub.com/health-food/health-benefits-of-saffron.html
Herb Wisdom. (2016). Saffron (Crocus Sativus). See: http://www.herbwisdom.com/herb-saffron.html
Joyful Belly Ayurveda. (2016). Saffron. See: http://www.joyfulbelly.com/Ayurveda/ingredient/Saffron/52
Kresser, C. (2008). The dark side of antidepressants. See: https://chriskresser.com/the-dark-side-of-antidepressants/
Miller, D. (6/7/2016). Personal communication.
Miller, D. (6/21/2016). Personal communication.
Petri, O. (2008). History of Ayurveda. (Video). See: https://youtu.be/l2Zw-vYn270
PLT Health Solutions. (undated). Satiereal. Women Taking Satiereal Report Decreased Hunger. See: http://www.plthealth.com/sites/plthomas.com/files/ckfinder/userfilesfiles/SATIEREAL%20Product%20Sheet_2016.pdf
Sharma, K. (2016). Saffron Benefits: Ayurveda’s Golden Spice. See: http://www.curejoy.com/content/saffron-ayurvedas-golden-spice
Srivastava, R. et al. (2010). Crocus sativus L.: A comprehensive review. Pharmacognosy Review, 4:8, 200–208. See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249922/
Swartz, H.A. & Rollman, B.L. (2003). Managing the global burden of depression: lessons from the developing world. World Psychiatry. 2003, 2:3, 162-3. See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1525095/
Woolven, L. & Snider, T. (2016). Saffron: The Salubrious Spice – Emerging Research Suggests Numerous Health Benefits. Herbalgram. (Journal of the American Botanical Council), 110, 64-71. See: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/pdfs/HG110-online.pdf
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