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 B 2 along with a yellow flavonoid called crocin, a bitter glycoside called picrocrocin, and the volatile, aromatic substance safranal.

What Is Saffron Used for Today?

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

Dosage

In the studies of depression described above, saffron was used at a dose of 30 mg daily of an alcohol-based extract.

Safety Issues

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.