By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus Sativus, a perennial spicy herb. The flower of C. Sativus is a light purple, but it is the stringy, red stigma (the female part of the flower that receives pollen) of the flower that is valued both as a spice, a medicine, and a dye.
Saffron is often known as red gold in the countries that produce it; harvesting its dried stigmas must be done by hand and is therefore highly labor-intensive. This makes saffron one of the world's most expensive spices. It takes 36,000 flowers to yield just 1 pound of stigmas. Over 200,000 dried stigmas, plucked from about 70,000 flowers, yield 500 grams of pure saffron, which can cost as much as $30 per ounce!
Around 300 tons of saffron are produced per year; most of this yearly total comes from Iran, which produces 76% of the world's saffron.
Saffron has been used in folk medicine and Ayurvedic medicine as a sedative, expectorant, anti-asthma, emmenagogue (to stimulate menstruation) and adaptogenic (promotion of corporal homeostasis).
What the ancients knew then has been proven by modern science today. Saffron has been shown to contain more than 150 powerful and aroma yielding compounds that have significant pharmacological and pharmaceutical uses, in addition to other industrial uses: in gastronomy, saffron extracts are used as a spice, yellow food coloring, and as a flavoring agent; in cosmetics, saffron is used as a fragrance in perfumes, candles, incense, and in aromatherapy; in textiles, it is used as a dye for cloth.
Here are the top 7 health benefits of this wonder plant.
A 2005 study led by Dr. Akhondzadeh at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran found that saffron was an effective treatment in mild to moderate depression: patients who had a baseline Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression score of 18 received either a capsule of saffron or a capsule of placebo for a 6-week study; the saffron treatment proved to be more effective than placebo, and at least equivalent to therapeutic doses of imipramine and fluoxetine, two synthetic anti-depressants.
2. Cancer Treatment
A 2014 study led by Dr. Saeed Samarghandian at the Neyshabur University of Medical Sciences in Iran found that saffron has a potential role in cancer therapy.
Specifically, compounds found in saffron such as crocin and crocetin have significant anti-cancer activity in breast, lung, pancreatic and leukemic cancer cells, exhibiting an inhibitory effect on intracellular nucleic acid and protein synthesis in malignant cells.
There's more good news. It was found that crocetin induced apoptosis (cell suicide) in human breast cancer cells.
3. Anti-Oxidant Properties
A 2005 study conducted by Dr. S. Chatterjee et al. at the Bhahba Atomic Research Center in Mumbai, India found that the crocin found in saffron had antioxidant properties, as a scavenger.
A scavenger is an agent added to a mixture in order to remove or de-activate impurities and unwanted free radicals. Dr. Chatterjee's study showed that crocin worked as a scavenger to remove oxidative and corrosive free radicals in the blood-stream.
4. Saffron Protects Your Heart
Saffron is something of a heart tonic. It supports cardiovascular functions and ameliorates palpitation.
A 2007 study at the China Pharmaceutical University by Dr. S.Y. He in Nanjing, China found that the crocetin in saffron reduced the levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and inhibited the formation of aortic plaque --- all risk factors for atherosclerosis.
5. Pain Therapy and Anti-Inflammation
Saffron can ease your pain. A 2002 study by Dr. H. Hosseinzadeh at the Mashhad University of Medical Sciences in Iran used the writhing test, a method used to induce pain by injection of chemical irritants in mice.
Afterwards, they showed that saffron eased the rat's sensation of pain significantly compared with placebo. The study also showed acute and chronic anti-inflammatory activity in rats injected with inflammatory chemicals.
6. Saffron Improves Memory and Learning
A study in 2000 at the University of Tokyo led by Dr. K. Abe found that saffron extract improved learning in memory in mice.
Specifically, saffron improved ethanol-induced impairments, and prevented ethanol-induced inhibition of the hippocampal long-term potentiation (strengthening of nerve impulses along neural pathways after repeated use) that underlies learning and memory.
The report concluded that saffron could be used a treatment for neuro-degenerative disorders accompanying memory impairment.
7. See Better with Saffron
Saffron has been used in folk medicines ranging from the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, to the Arabs in the preparation of collyrium, a liquid treatment for diseases in the eyes.
A 2013 study by Dr. Behjat Javadi et al. at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran backed this up, and found that saffron extract is effective for the enhancement of retinal blood flow and protection against oxidative retinal damage, which in turn helps to treat a range of ophthalmic disorders such as cataract, conjunctivitis, and to improve vision.