When most people think of supplements for eye health, lutein, zeaxanthin, or maybe even some other AREDS2 nutrients (zinc, vitamin C, vitamin E, etc.) come to mind. But there are other nutrients that, while perhaps a little less well-known, show a lot of promise in preserving vision and preventing/slowing the progression of certain eye diseases. One that’s receiving a lot of buzz lately is saffron.
Saffron is nothing new. You’ve likely heard of it, perhaps because you’ve cooked with it. Grown in parts of Asia and Europe, saffron is one of the world’s most expensive spices—selling for an estimated $1,500 per pound.
It’s harvested from saffron crocus, a purple flower that blooms for only about three weeks a year, in the fall. To produce a single gram requires about 150 flowers and a lot of labor, which explains its hefty price tag. But for foodies, it’s worth it as saffron adds a rich aromatic flavor to dishes that many find delicious.
Aside from its culinary applications, saffron has been used medicinally since ancient times for conditions of the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts, liver, spleen, heart, and brain. Also, dyes made of saffron were used to color both clothing and makeup. It’s even been said that Cleopatra indulged in saffron-infused baths before meeting a suitor.
Today, research shows that saffron does in fact have some key healing and protective properties. Most of these benefits stem from saffron’s powerful antioxidant compounds, including crocin and crocetin (both pigments responsible for saffron’s coloring), safranal (which gives it its delicious taste and aroma), and kaempferol (found in the flower petals).
Let’s take a look at some of the ways saffron can benefit your health.
Saffron and Eye Health
Most notable are saffron’s vision benefits and its ability to prevent or slow the progression of some eye diseases.
The crocin and crocetin, in particular, have strong protective effects on the cells in the retina, helping to reduce retinal cell damage and restore function in cells damaged by oxidative stress that could lead to age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
In one study of 29 people with early AMD, taking 20 mg of a saffron supplement for just over a year (average 14 months) improved visual acuity and retinal sensitivity, and those results remained consistent over the long term.
In another more recent study that followed 100 people with mild-to-moderate AMD, researchers concluded that saffron supplementation improved visual function and amplified the effects of AREDS nutrients in the participants using those as well.
Saffron supplementation also appears to lower ocular pressure in patients with glaucoma. In a study of 34 participants with open-angle glaucoma, half received 30 mg/day of saffron extract and the other half took a placebo for one month, as an adjunct therapy to their standard treatment.
Examination after three and four weeks showed that intraocular pressure was significantly decreased in the saffron group compared to the placebo group.
Preliminary research even shows that saffron may prevent the development of glaucoma in the first place. The researchers wrote that saffron supplementation, “was able to decrease the neuroinflammation associated with increased intraocular pressure, preventing retinal ganglion cell death.”
Saffron for Stress, Anxiety, Mood, & More
Saffron is sometimes called the “sunshine spice,” not only because of its coloring but because it has been shown to brighten mood and lessen symptoms of stress and anxiety.
In one study, 128 people who reported low mood (but not diagnosed with depression) were given either 22 mg or 28 mg of saffron, or a placebo, to take daily for four weeks. Those taking the 28 mg dose saw a notable decrease in negative mood and symptoms related to stress and anxiety.
Some research shows that saffron produces the same effects as prescription antidepressants, but with no side effects. According to a meta-analysis, saffron supplementation significantly reduced depression symptoms compared to placebo. And compared to those taking antidepressants, saffron was determined to be similarly effective in reducing depression symptoms.
In those already taking prescription antidepressants, saffron can be a wonderful adjunct therapy. In an eight-week study of 160 participants, half were given saffron and the other half placebo to take in addition to their prescription antidepressants. Those using the saffron experienced a “greater improvement in depressive symptoms.”
Other potential benefits of saffron include a reduction of PMS symptoms, better sleep quality, healthier cholesterol and fasting blood glucose levels and even enhanced libido and sexual function. (Maybe Cleopatra was onto something?)
How to Use Saffron
To reap these rewards, you can try cooking with saffron—though it may break your bank eventually! That’s why supplementation is your best bet. Most studies suggest that 30 mg is the appropriate and most effective daily dosage to experience serious clinical benefit.
Saffron supplements are available as standalone products, or you can often find saffron in eye formulas combined with several of the other clinically-proven AREDS nutrients.