Saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, is used in many dishes, from paella to bouillabaisse. But like many spices, saffron offers even more benefits than flavor and aroma.
Saffron is a brightly colored spice from the Crocus sativus plant used not only in cooking but also for health purposes. It's been used in medicine and cuisine for centuries, with records of its use by Greeks and Romans in traditional medicine. i Iran supplies the world with most of the saffron available, but it also comes from Greece, Morocco, Spain, and India. ii
Traditionally, saffron has been used for mood and sleep support. Today, research is investigating saffron's potential health benefits in more depth. This article provides an overview of some of the evidence-based uses of saffron for wellness.
What are the Health Benefits of Saffron?
A fascinating aspect of herbs and spices is how many health-promoting chemical compounds they contain in such a small volume—and saffron is no exception. While research shows that saffron contains more than 150 compounds—including polyphenols and flavonoids—crocin and safranal are the most well-studied.iii
Crocin is a biologically active carotenoid. Its antioxidant activity helps the body scavenge free radicals that may otherwise contribute to oxidative stress and adversely impact health. iv Safranal is an oil that lends saffron its signature scent and flavor, but it also has antioxidant properties.v
Saffron's purported uses in traditional medicine are widespread, but the following benefits are the most widely researched:
Supports Positive Mood and Emotional Balance
Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that influence our moods. They help us feel energized, alert, relaxed, and emotionally balanced. For example, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps with feelings of happiness and well-being, while dopamine is connected to pleasure.
Saffron may support positive mood and emotional balance by contributing to healthy levels of these feel-good neurotransmitters. 1 Some research suggests that crocins may prevent the reuptake of these neurotransmitters, which means the brain doesn't absorb them as quickly, increasing their availability in the brain and positively influencing mood.vi
One study found that after six weeks, saffron improved mood scores better than placebo, with no observed side effects. vii In a trial examining healthy people who self-reported occasional feelings of low mood (including sadness or low energy), saffron supplements supported mood and stress-related indicators of low mood compared to a placebo. 6
Helps Support Relaxation
Closely connected to mood is relaxation. Occassional mental and emotional stress can make it hard to relax, impacting focus, decreasing motivation, and influencing overall well-being.
Saffron extract may support relaxation and feelings of calm, possibly due to an interaction with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors and binding sites.1 GABA is an important brain chemical that helps us to relax and feel calm.
Saffron may influence healthy GABA levels by helping the body use it more efficiently.2 One study found that after eight weeks, people who took saffron noted positive changes in emotional well-being and felt significantly more relaxed. Participants in this study also had a more restful sleep, also supporting mood. viii Another study found similar results after 12 weeks, where those who took saffron capsules twice a day had better mood scores than those who took a placebo. ix
Supports Healthy Libido
There are so many reasons libido can change daily, weekly, or monthly depending on stress, hormones, and other factors. A healthy libido means different things for different people at different stages of their lives, but it can be an essential part of physical and emotional well-being.
For centuries, saffron has been used in traditional medicine as it has been associated with supporting healthy libido and sexual performance in both men and women. A small study found that women who took saffron noted improved scores for libido after four weeks. x
Mood and relaxation are also important parts of a healthy sex life, as stress and tension can change libido for some people. Since saffron appears to support healthy relaxation and mood levels, this may be another way it can help.
Helps Maintain Comfort Before and During Menstruation
Studies on saffron suggest it may help keep you more comfortable around your menstrual cycle. These benefits are again thought to be related to safranal and crocin and their ability to help support healthy dopamine and serotonin levels in the body. xi
Dopamine and serotonin are linked to low mood and other menstrual cycle-related discomforts. Serotonin levels fluctuate during the menstrual cycle, and low serotonin levels have been associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS). It is believed that these fluctuations in serotonin, along with the influence of sex hormones like estrogen, can contribute to mood changes and irritability.xii
As a result, supporting these neurotransmitters with saffron could help. One study found that after taking saffron twice daily over two menstrual cycles, participants noted support for healthy mood and body discomfort. xiii Another study found that after two cycles, saffron further supported menstrual cyclecomfort. xiv
Does Saffron Have Any Side Effects?
Anytime you start a new supplement, discussing it with your doctor or healthcare practitioner is a good idea to ensure it's right for you. Herbs and botanicals have potent properties, so knowing the potential for reactions or interactions with other medications is essential.
In general, saffron has a favorable safety profile with few side effects. Some people may experience mild digestive upset if taking a high dose of saffron, so it's best to consult your healthcare practitioner to determine the best amount for you. 12
Saffron: A Natural Option for Mood and Relaxation Support
Saffron is an ancient spice with a long history of use in traditional medicine and cooking. It's thought to have some incredible benefits, including supporting mood, relaxation, libido, and comfort during the menstrual cycle.
As with any supplement, speaking to your doctor or healthcare practitioner before beginning to ensure it's right for you is essential. If you're looking for ways to naturally support mood and relaxation, saffron may be an option worth looking into.
Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian and freelance health writer. She has a master's degree in nutrition and over ten years of experience as a registered dietitian.
+The views expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Pure Encapsulations®.