From better sleep to a boost in libido, the well-known spice saffron has a plethora of health benefits to help get you through this season and beyond

If you’ve ever enjoyed food infused with the delicately floral aroma of saffron, then you’re already familiar with this subtly sweet spice. 

Saffron has long been a staple of Middle-Eastern, Mediterranean and Asian cooking. But, did you know that this fragrant, brightly coloured spice also has many health benefits? 

Known as the world’s most expensive spice, the saffron plant (crocus sativus), which grows mainly in Iran, Spain, France, Italy and India, has been used medicinally for centuries.

The latest research shows it may help to improve mood, alleviate depression, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, plus it helps you sleep better. 

The saffron flower has lilac petals with crimson stigmas, or ‘threads’ (which catch pollen).  These are the parts used to produce the spice. The flowers can only be hand-picked for three weeks during the autumn.

saffron is a versatile spice that can also help to support your health this winter

The stigmas are then gently extracted and dried in the sun. It takes 1000 flowers to produce 5gm of saffron. As a result, saffron is also known as ‘red gold’, due its high cost.  

‘As well as being a culinary delicacy, saffron is a versatile spice that can also help to support your health this winter, especially in terms of mood, tiredness and overall emotional balance,’ says Rob Hobson, Consultant Nutritionist at Healthspan.

‘Saffron contains several bioactive compounds, including crocin and safranal which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.’

Studies suggest that these compounds can help to protect your body from oxidative stress which can lead to health problems.   

Health Benefit #1 Natural Mood Booster

Saffron is often called the ‘sunshine spice’, partly due to its vibrant colour, but also for its beneficial effect on mood.

In a recent meta-analysis (Planta Medica, 2019) that looked at nine clinical trials, it was found that taking a 30mg saffron daily supplement, for 12 weeks, reduced the severity of mild to moderate depression. 

It was shown to be significantly more effective than a placebo and just as good as antidepressant drugs.

In another study (Journal of Affective Disorders, 2018) that looked at depression and anxiety, it was found that taking 30mg of saffron daily was as effective the antidepressant medications fluoxetine, imipramin and citalopram.  

Try: Healthspan Saffron, £15.95 for 60 capsules. Also contains niacin (B3) and vitamin B6 (to help reduce fatigue and tiredness which can accompany low mood).

READ MORE: 6 healthy spices with proven body benefits

Health Benefit #2 Lowers blood pressure

High blood pressure this can raise your risk of stroke, heart attack and kidney failure.  So, keeping blood pressure within healthy levels is important.

You can do this through exercise, healthy diet, losing weight and reducing stress, but taking saffron supplements may also help.

Saffron is anti-inflammatory, it is also high in antioxidants, including crocin, picrocrocin, crocetin and safranal. These protect the body from oxidative stress that may lead to cell damage and disease, including hypertension.    

Saffron is anti-inflammatory, it is also high in antioxidants

In a recent meta-analysis (Nutrients, 2021), that involved 249 men and women, it was shown that saffron supplements may help to reduce high blood pressure.

Participants (in eight studies), all of whom had high blood pressure, took between 15 – 1000mg saffron, for 1 to 12 weeks. The review showed that taking daily saffron supplements resulted in a significant decrease in systolic blood pressure (-0.65 mmHg) and diastolic blood pressure (1.23 mmHg).

To keep tabs on your blood pressure – try: Omron Comfort Blood Pressure Monitor with cuff, £60.

Health Benefit #3 Enhances Emotional Wellbeing

Are you prone to anxiety, stress and low mood? If so, taking saffron supplements may help to enhance your emotional wellbeing, according to a new study (Frontiers in Nutrition, 2020). 

The study showed that when 56 healthy men and women (aged 18 – 54) took 30 mg saffron extract daily, for eight weeks, they reported reduced depression scores and improved social relationships.

These results suggest that saffron extract appears to improve subclinical depressive symptoms and resilience to stress (that may trigger psychiatric disorders) in healthy individuals.  

Try: Viridian Saffron, £20.15 for 30 (30mg) capsules. Formulated using hand-picked saffron from Iran, in a base of alfalfa, spirulina and bilberry with no artificial ingredients.

READ MORE: Healing with herbal teas  – a nutritionist’s guide

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Health Benefit #4 Better Sleep

If you suffer from insomnia or other sleep issues, taking saffron may help.  In one study (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 2020) it was shown that when 55 healthy adults (aged 18 – 70) with poor sleep, took saffron supplements of 14mg twice a day, for 28 days, they experienced an improvement in sleep quality.

Most of the changes occurred in the first seven days and there were no side effects (which can occur with medication).

In a more recent meta-anlysis (Sleep Medicine, 2022) it was also shown that saffron supplementation improved sleep quality.

Try: Saffron Tea (before bed), Azafranda Tea, £9.89 for 25 tea bags.  

Health Benefit #5 Boosts libido

It’s normal for sexual desire to fluctuate at times. But, what do you do if a lacklustre libido seems to be an ongoing problem? 

Latest research suggests that saffron may be helpful for sexual dysfunction in both men and women.

A recent study (Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine, 2022) showed that when a group of women, aged 18 to 55, who were suffering with severe female sexual dysfunction, such as problems with desire, arousal, and orgasm, took 15mg saffron capsules twice daily, for six weeks, they experienced a significant increase in desire, lubrication and sexual satisfaction, compared to those taking a placebo. 

saffron supplementation has a beneficial effect on erectile dysfunction

In an earlier meta-analysis (Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine, 2019) it was found that saffron had a significant positive effect on sexual dysfunction in both men and women.

In another meta-analysis (Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine, 2018) it was shown that saffron supplementation has a beneficial effect on erectile dysfunction and sexual desire in men. 

READ MORE: 17 herbs to help your health 

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Health Benefit #6 Healthy Cholesterol Levels

Want to keep your cholesterol levels in check? A new review, published inThe Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, 2022, shows that saffron can lower levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol by 39% to 50%, in as little as three weeks.

The review analysed six studies, on animals (rodents) who were given 40mg of saffron per kilogram of bodyweight daily. The results found that saffron extract is nearly as effective in reducing cholesterol levels as standard therapies, such as orlistat and metformin. 

In an earlier meta-analysis that looked at 6 studies, involving 291 adults, results showed a significant reduction in total cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

There was also a significant increase in levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol following supplementation with saffron.   

Try: Boots Pharmaceuticals Cholesterol Home Test Kit, £13.50.

Health Benefit #7 Protects your eyesight

The antioxidants in saffron may help to protect your eyesight and help to slow down the progression of age related macular degeneration (loss of central vision).  These are the findings of a recent study (Italian Journal of Medicine, 2017).

The study split 54 participants (men and women) with dry age-related macular degeneration into two groups.  One group took 50g of saffron daily for three months. Measurements were taken before and after the trial. 

those who took saffron, experienced a significant improvement in vision

Results showed that after three months, those who took saffron, experienced a significant improvement in vision (being able to distinguish shapes, details and outlines better), compared to the control group.

This suggests that the short-term intake of saffron may slow down the progression of dry ARMD and help improve vision.  

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