According to the Centers for Disease Control, 10 percent of people over the age of 12 in the United States suffer from depression. By the year 2020, statisticians predict that the mental health problem will become the second most common cause of disability. Living with depression also often means that these individuals alleviate their symptoms by taking prescription antidepressants. Approximately 90 percent of the patients using the medications endure one or more of the many side effects associated with the formulations. The range of effects vary from constipation, sexual dysfunction and weight gain to exacerbated anxiety and thoughts of depression. In lieu of these reactions, many seek herbal remedies that may include saffron.
Saffron is a flowering plant that grows in Iran, southern Europe, Mexico, Morocco and Spain. Each Crocus sativus plant bears blue-violet, lily-like flowers that contain three reddish-orange stigmas. During their short growing season, the stigmas are removed by hand, dried and made into the saffron spice. The laborious effort makes the spice extremely expensive. In addition to being used as a food flavoring, cultures from ancient times included the spice as one of many herbal medications. Ancient Persians in particular favored the spice as a treatment of depression. However, until recently there has been little scientific evidence to confirm saffron's medicinal properties.
In 2001, a group of researchers concluded that the spice alleviated depression symptoms in laboratory mice. They then devised a study to evaluate saffron's mood elevating ability on humans. The scientists gathered 40 adult volunteers who were all diagnosed as having depression. Over the course of six weeks, half of the group received 30 milligrams of saffron in divided doses. The other group received a placebo. At the end of the trial, the participants who took saffron demonstrated significant symptomatic improvement compared to the control group. The researchers concluded that saffron proved to be an acceptable form of treatment for mild to moderate depression. Saffron also did not cause any adverse effects.
Saffron vs. Prescription Antidepressants
Researchers were then curious as to how effective saffron performed compared to leading antidepressant prescription medications. The first trial compared 15 depressed patients receiving 30 milligrams of saffron daily with 15 patients taking 100 milligrams of imipramine daily. At the end of six weeks, the saffron proved as effective as the prescription antidepressant, which caused dry mouth and sleepiness in the participants who received the medication.
Researchers then sought to learn how saffron compared with fluoxetine. A group of 40 adults diagnosed with depression participated in the second study. Half received 30 milligrams of saffron in daily divided doses while the other half received 20 milligrams of the prescription medication daily in divided doses. At the end of the six-week study, patients from both groups experienced an equal degree of symptomatic relief. However, the group taking saffron suffered no side effects from the spice.