Saffron is a spice from the Crocus sativus flower, which is a cousin of the lily. The saffron derives from the stigma and styles — called threads — within the flower itself.
Saffron is very expensive due to the difficulty of harvesting it. Farmers must harvest the delicate threads from each flower by hand.
The dried stigmas (thread-like parts of the flower) are used to make saffron spice. It can take 75,000 saffron blossoms to produce a single pound of saffron spice. Saffron is largely cultivated and harvested by hand. Due to the amount of labor involved in harvesting, saffron is considered one of the world’s most expensive spices. The stigmas, and sometimes the petals, are also used to make medicine.
Saffron is used for depression and Alzheimer disease. Women use saffron for menstrual cramps and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Men use it to for early orgasm (premature ejaculation) and infertility. Saffron is used for many other conditions, but there is no good scientific evidence to support many of these uses.
Some people apply saffron directly to the scalp for baldness (alopecia).
In foods, saffron is used as a spice, yellow food coloring, and as a flavoring agent.
In manufacturing, saffron extracts are used as fragrance in perfumes and as a dye for cloth.
Possibly Effective for
- Alzheimer’s disease. Taking a specific saffron extract by mouth for up to 22 weeks seems to improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Saffron might work about as well as the prescription drug donepezil (Aricept).
- Depression. Research shows that taking saffron or saffron extract by mouth for 6-12 weeks improves symptoms of major depression. Some studies show that saffron might be as effective as taking a prescription antidepressant, such as fluoxetine, imipramine, or citalopram. Early research in patients already taking an antidepressant shows that taking crocin, a chemical found in saffron, for 4 weeks reduces symptoms of depression more than taking the antidepressant alone.
- Menstrual discomfort. Some research shows the taking a specific product containing saffron, anise, and celery seed reduces pain during the menstrual cycle.
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Some research shows that taking a specific saffron extract improves symptoms of PMS after two menstrual cycles.
Insufficient Evidence for
- Age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Early research shows that taking saffron for up to 6 months might lead to small improvements in vision for people with AMD.
- Improved sexual function in people taking antidepressants. Taking an antidepressant can make some people lose interest in sex. Early research shows that taking saffron for 4 weeks improves satisfaction with sex in men and women taking an antidepressant. But it doesn’t seem to improve desire for sex or orgasm.
- Increased blood sugar levels in people taking medications for schizophrenia (antipsychotics). Some antipsychotic drugs can increase blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Early research shows that taking saffron for 12 weeks can prevent this increase in blood sugar. But taking saffron doesn’t seem to prevent the increase in blood cholesterol.
- Anxiety. A small study shows that taking saffron for 12 weeks can reduce anxiety symptoms in some people.
- Asthma. Early research shows that drinking an herbal tea containing saffron and other herbal ingredients reduces asthma symptoms in people with allergic asthma. It’s unclear if this effect is due to saffron or the other ingredients in the tea.
- Athletic performance. Early research shows that taking saffron, or a chemical from saffron called crocetin, can decrease fatigue and improve muscle strength in men during exercise.
- Erectile dysfunction. Early research shows that applying saffron to the skin can improve symptoms of erectile dysfunction. Some research has also shown that taking saffron by mouth can benefit men with erectile dysfunction. But other research shows that taking saffron by mouth is not beneficial. More research is needed to understand if saffron is useful for treating erectile dysfunction.
- Sore muscles due to exercise. Early research shows that taking saffron might prevent sore muscles in men who do not typically exercise.
- Glaucoma. Early research shows that taking saffron for 4 weeks, in addition to regular treatment, might reduce some of the symptoms of glaucoma.
- High blood pressure. Early research shows that drinking black tea containing saffron three times daily for 8 weeks does not reduce blood pressure in people who have diabetes and high blood pressure.
- Male infertility. Some research shows that saffron might improve sperm function in men. But other research has not shown this benefit.
- Depression after giving birth (postpartum depression). Early research shows that taking a specific saffron product for 6 weeks works as well as fluoxetine for reducing symptoms of depression in women after giving birth. Other early research shows that taking saffron for 8 weeks might reduce symptoms of depression in breastfeeding women. But it’s not clear if saffron caused this effect or if the depression went away on its own.
- Early male orgasm (premature ejaculation).
- “Hardening of the arteries” (atherosclerosis).
- Stomach gas.
- Other conditions.
More evidence is needed to rate saffron for these uses.