Saffron is a rare spice, historically praised for a whole range of health benefits in traditional medicine. In recent years natural herbal treatments are raising in popularity again, therefore; modern science has been researching the spice to evaluate the claimed benefits.
In this article, we will look at Saffron from the prospective of modern science in order to provide you with actual data about medicinal benefits of this precious spice.
Saffron spice is actually the stigma of a flower growing from Crocus Sativus L. plant. The plant grows in well drained sandy soils of warm subtropical climates. The stigma is carefully picked in fall season and dried for use in herbal remedies.
The stigma constitutes water, volatile oil, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, ﬂavonoids and raw fiber. It is rich with many powerful compounds that strongly affect human body as anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-apoptotic, anti-atherogenic, anti-hypertensive and hypolipidemic. The safe dose is less than 5 grams and above 9 grams can be lethal! The medicinal use includes healing heart diseases, brain disorders, digestive issues, cancer, weight loss and menstruation disorders due to following properties:
Saffron has carotenoids, flavonoids and anthocyanins which are known anti-oxidants. They include safranal, crocin, crocetin and picrocrocin.
Picrocrocin is responsible for bitter taste and makes up to 26% of the dry matter. Crocin creates the golden color and the exotic odor comes from safranal. Most research has showed that approximately 50% of crocetin and 70% of picrocrocin are bio available.
Crocin is transformed into crocetin after oral consumption and increases its level to 56–81 times higher in plasma. Crocetin is more potent than crocin and thus more effective in therapeutic applications.
The health protective effect of saffron may be due to modulation of oxidative stress, therefore; it has antidepressant, brain cell regenerative properties and aids with weight loss by reducing appetite. It may also improve mood, learning ability and memory and may be able to act as smooth muscle relaxant.
A study that researched many scientific literatures on antioxidant properties of the spice showed that pharmacological and biological effect of the spice is believed to be more than those of vegetables rich in carotenoids such as carrots and tomatoes. This might be due to glucose sugars attached to crocetin or polyphenolic compounds and higher number of double bonds. The antioxidant power of saffron turns it to a potent functional food.
Active compounds in saffron are scavengers and able to donate single hydrogen atom to free radicals in order to stabilize them. They protect against inflammatory cytokines and reactive oxygen species. These abilities makes them ideal to treat a wide range of inflammatory health issues including cardiovascular diseases, digestive issues, asthma, depression, insomnia and menstruation disorders.
Immunomodulatory properties of bioactive compounds in the spice were studied in a scientific paper published in The National Center for Biotechnology Information of US (NCBI). The results showed that most of the pharmacological activities of the spice are due to presence of crocin and crocetin. They can modulate MAPK and NF-κB pathways, decreases pro-inﬂammatory factor (TNF-α) in serum and increase anti-inﬂammatory factors. They can also control the expression of genes directing the pro-inflammatory cytokines, inducible enzymes, adhesion molecules, chemokines and acute phase proteins, all of which have important roles in most inflammatory responses of immune system. Therefore; saffron could be considered a promising immunoregulatory agent in healing of immune disorders.
Apoptosis or programmed cell death may be involved in some diseases and can be activated by stress factors such as inflammatory cytokines and oxidative stress. Therefore; Inhibiting apoptosis signaling pathways and suppressing cell death by antioxidants seems a promising solution to prevention and treatment of diseases such as cardiovascular issues.
Crocin can inhibit apoptosis by being efficient anti-platelet phytochemical, which protects the platelets from oxidative stress-induced apoptosis and inhibits platelets aggregation.
In a randomized, double-blind clinical study which was published in the Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine, saffron’s effect on treatment of cancer with liver metastasis was evaluated. Out of thirteen participants who were divided into two different groups, six quit, two responded completely to therapy and no response was observed in the placebo patients. Both groups underwent chemotherapy but group 1 was given a saffron capsule of 50 milligrams, twice daily while group 2 received a placebo capsule. CT scans we performed before and after treatment. This study shows that saffron might be effective in treating cancer patients.
Safranal and to some degree crocin are able to lower diastolic blood pressure, therefore; act as a hypotensive.
A scientific research published in NCBI showed that dietary saffron prevented increase in systolic blood pressure only after three weeks of treatment yet had no effect on normal test subjects.
Cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), triglyceride, and HDL-C are known predictors of cardiovascular risk. Cholesteryl ester transfer protein (CETP) is found in serum and plays an important role in modulation of plasma lipids profile. Inhibition of CETP can increase HDL-C level and decrease LDL-C, thus may be considered as a novel solution for reducing the cardiovascular disease risk.
Crocin and crocetin are able to significantly inhibit CEPT due to pancreatic lipase inhibitory properties, modulation of oxidative stress and decrease in lipoprotein oxidation.
A study that reviewed all scientific researches published in PubMed, MEDLINE, Cochrane Library, Embase and Google Scholar between 2000 and 2018 concluded that saffron with all its hypolipidemic compounds might be a potent response to cardiovascular diseases.
Safranal has proven antibacterial and antimicrobial properties while sterol oil has antifungal effect. This make saffron a potent antibiotic compared to available drugs.
In a study published in ScienceDirect, antibacterial effect of saffron was evaluated against 6 bacteria and results were promising.
Considering strong modulating effect of saffron on risk factors like oxidative stress, inflammation, hypertension and hyperlipidemia based on the various studies done by researchers, science can conclude that Saffron has valuable medicinal benefits and potent therapeutic power.