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Saffron is a spice with a strong fragrance and distinctive color. The spice is also rich in antioxidants, which may have many health benefits.

Early evidence suggests that saffron may boost mood, increase libido, and fight oxidative stress. Saffron is generally safe for most people to consume, and it is very simple to add it to the diet.

In this article, learn more about the possible health benefits of saffron.

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The antioxidants in saffron may help fight against oxidative stress.

Saffron is a spice from the Crocus sativus flower, which is a cousin of the lily. The saffron derives from the stigma and styles — called threads — within the flower itself.

Saffron is very expensive due to the difficulty of harvesting it. Farmers must harvest the delicate threads from each flower by hand.

They then heat and cure the threads to bring out the flavor of the saffron. This extra labor makes saffron one of the most expensive spices in the world.

The benefits of saffron may include:

Providing antioxidants

The majority of the health claims surrounding saffron relate to its high levels of specific antioxidants.

According to a 2015 review, the main active antioxidants include:

  • crocin
  • picrocrocin
  • safranal

Other compounds include kaempferol and crocetin.

These antioxidants help fight against oxidative stress and free radicals in the body.

As oxidative stress and free radicals play a role in the development of many health conditions, including cancer and heart disease, antioxidants such as these may help protect a person's health.

Preventing nervous system disorders

The antioxidants in saffron may play a role in protecting the body from disorders affecting the nervous system.

Research from 2015 notes that compounds in saffron, such as crocin, appear to reduce inflammation and oxidative damage in the brain, which may lead to beneficial effects.

A study in the journal Antioxidants noted that saffron might theoretically help with Alzheimer's symptoms due to both its memory-enhancing properties and its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

People with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer's who took saffron for 22 weeks had cognitive improvements that were comparable with those of people who took the drug donepezil, and they also experienced fewer side effects.

While this is early evidence to support the medicinal use of saffron, researchers suggested that future clinical trials could help back up these claims.

Boosting mood

There is also growing evidence that saffron may help improve mood and be a useful addition to treatment for depression.

A study in the Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science found that a saffron extract increased dopamine levels in the brain without changing the levels of other brain hormones, such as serotonin.

Other research suggests that taking 30 milligrams (mg) of saffron each day could cause similar effects as drugs that treat mild-to-moderate depression, such as imipramine and fluoxetine.

Although some people recommend using saffron as a complementary therapy for improving mood, it is too early to recommend it for treating depression symptoms.

Promoting libido

Saffron may also increase sex drive and sexual function in both males and females.

Researchers reviewed the effects of saffron on male infertility problems and noted that while it had a positive effect on erectile dysfunction and overall sex drive, it did not change the viability of the semen.

An older study from 2012 looked at the effects in women who had reported experiencing sexual dysfunction due to taking the antidepressant fluoxetine.

Women who took 30 mg of saffron each day for 4 weeks had increased sexual desire and vaginal lubrication compared with those who took a placebo instead.

Reducing PMS symptoms

Saffron may also act to reduce the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

The authors of a 2015 review looked at the research on saffron and symptoms of PMS. Women between the ages of 20 and 45 years who took 30 mg of saffron each day had fewer symptoms than those who took a placebo.

Additionally, women who simply smelled saffron for 20 minutes had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their system, which may also contribute to a reduction in PMS symptoms.

Promoting weight loss

There is also some evidence to suggest that saffron may help promote weight loss and curb the appetite.

A study in the Journal of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Research found that taking a saffron extract helped people with coronary artery disease reduce their body mass index (BMI), total fat mass, and waist circumference.

People who took the supplement also had a reduced appetite compared with those in the placebo group.

In general, the consumption of saffron carries little risk. Cooking with saffron is a great way to add it to the diet without the risk of consuming too much of this spice.

Taking up to 1.5 grams of saffron each day is generally safe, but eating too much can be toxic. Researchers consider 5 g to be a toxic dose.

Very high dosages may be more dangerous for certain groups of people. For instance, the authors of one study note that pregnant women should avoid having more than 5 g per day of saffron as it has a stimulating effect on the uterus.

Allergic reactions are a possibility. Anyone who experiences symptoms of an allergic reaction after taking saffron should see a doctor.

One simple way to supplement a meal with saffron is to add a few strands to a cup of hot water. Doing this pulls most of the flavor from the saffron. A person can then add both the water and saffron to a savory dish at the end of cooking.

Saffron is also becoming more available as a supplement, generally in the form of powdered stigmas in capsules. It is important to read the instructions on the packaging and speak to a doctor before taking any new supplements.

Saffron is an ancient and expensive herb. It contains some antioxidant compounds, which may help reduce the risk of certain chronic conditions that have an association with oxidative stress.

There is little evidence to suggest that these antioxidants are any more beneficial to the body than the ones that a person can get simply by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Although more research on these effects is necessary, saffron may also help improve the mood, boost sexual function, and reduce PMS symptoms in some people.

SHOP FOR SAFFRON

Saffron is available as a spice or supplement or in the form of bulbs to grow at home. Look for them in health food stores or online: