Saffron has been used medicinally for 4,000 years, to treat at least 90 different illnesses. But in supplements today, it’s become an evidence-based, natural mood booster that rivals pharmaceuticals without their side effects. “It’s known for its cheerfulness-promoting properties so it’s one of the happiest botanicals,” says Nick Bitz, ND, a naturopathic physician and expert in botanical medicine and Ayurveda. And research backs up the claim, in people of all ages.
Did You Know?
Saffron was used to make red pigment in cave paintings that date back 50,000 years.
Well-designed studies of depressed adults have compared saffron supplements with either a placebo or antidepressant drugs. When researchers at Jacksonville University in Florida analyzed the results, they found two things: Saffron was clearly more effective than a placebo, and it was just as effective as antidepressants—even for major depression—without adverse effects. Drugs used as comparisons included the Prozac variety and tricyclic antidepressants.
Another study found that saffron is a safe remedy for postpartum depression, among new moms who are breast-feeding. Antidepressant drugs can be dangerous for both mother and baby, but saffron proved to be a safe and effective alternative.
Milder Mood Issues
Research by Australian, Spanish, and British scientists found that in adults, saffron supplements relieved low mood that was not severe enough to be diagnosed as depression. It also improved symptoms related to stress and anxiety.
Mood-boosting herbs are not typically tested on teenagers, but Australian and Spanish researchers did just that. In a group of teens between the ages of 12 and 16, they found that 14 mg of a saffron extract (Affron), taken twice daily, safely improved both depression and anxiety.
How Saffron Works to Boost Mood
Antidepressant medications have a narrow target, such as a specific neurotransmitter. Saffron exerts an influence in many ways, including on neurotransmitters, but it also affects about 20 different pathways, and various hormones and enzymes.
With saffron, says Bitz, “You’re not going to push one pathway really strongly, which then, inadvertently, always creates a side effect.” Taking a typical 28–30 mg supplement dose is much like eating a serving of traditional Spanish paella, a dish flavored with saffron spice.
Saffron has no known adverse effects or harmful interactions with any type of medication. For people who are trying to get off antidepressants, saffron can be taken at the same time, and may help with the process of weaning off the drugs.
Although mood boosting is the main evidence-based use of saffron, it can also have beneficial effects on weight loss (see sidebar), PMS, vision, sleep, the heart, immunity, the respiratory system, digestion, and skin. Bitz calls these other benefits “secondary.” Because the chief effect of saffron is on the central nervous system, he explains, it can have a beneficial influence on many areas of the body.
What to Expect from Taking Saffron
Studies generally test saffron for 4–12 weeks, but Bitz has found that many people experience a mood lift with only one dose. Although some may need to take it daily to maintain a cheerful mood, others may find that occasional use is all they need.
Satiereal and Weight Loss
In addition to its mood-boosting effects, saffron may also help you shed pounds. A study of healthy but overweight women found that as well as lifting mood, a specific type of saffron extract known as Satiereal reduced the urge to snack and enhanced weight loss.
How to Choose and Use Saffron Supplements
- For mood boosting: Bitz recommends choosing a supplement that contains a concentrated saffron extract that’s been tested for purity and efficacy, such as a trademarked or patented saffron ingredient—check product Supplement Facts. Affron (the most widely studied extract) and Saffr’Activ are some examples. The effective dose is 28–30 mg daily.These supplements can be taken at any time of day, with or without food, but some people experience digestive upset when taking herbs on an empty stomach. If a morning cup of java is part of your daily routine, saffron can be taken at the same time. Bitz has found that saffron is synergistic with coffee.
- To balance mood and stress: In Ayurveda, saffron is often taken with adaptogens, herbs that have an overall balancing effect by increasing energy or calming stress, as needed. Saffron enhances the effects of adaptogens such as ashwagandha or rhodiola.
- To help with weight loss: Satiereal is a different type of saffron extract designed to increase satiety and reduce the urge to snack. Take about 90 mg before or with breakfast and another 90 mg at dinner.