Study finds anti-depressant potential in saffron, botanical expert calls results ‘encouraging’

By Adi Menayang contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty Images / Katarzyna Bialasiewicz
Getty Images / Katarzyna Bialasiewicz

Related tags: Clinical trial

Saffron fared better than a placebo in improving depression symptoms among mothers with mild post-partum depression, say researchers at the Mashhad University of Medical Sciences in Iran.

The study was published​ this month in the journal Phytomedicine. ​The researchers, led by Dr. Jamshid Tabeshpour, found that the 30 study participants supplemented with 15 mg of saffron daily showed more improvements at the end of the intervention period compared to the 30 new mothers who took the placebo, based on responses in their Beck Depression Inventory questionnaire, the most widely used psychometric test measuring severity of depression.

The intervention period lasted eight weeks, during which study participants were not allowed to receive any other behavior therapy.

More than a quarter of Iranian new mothers are estimated to be affected by post-partum depression, the researchers argued, citing a study from 2013​.

“Numerous adverse effects of antidepressants as well as the attitudes of breastfeeding mothers, who prefer to consume herbal medicine rather than chemical drugs, encouraged us to assess the effects of saffron (Crocus sativus L.) on mothers suffering from mild-to-moderate postpartum depressive disorder,”​ they added.

Not the first to show saffron’s mental health benefits

Most of the saffron supplements available are marketed for weight management and satiety, but there is also building science surrounding the spice’s mental health benefits.

“This is not the first study that investigated the effects of saffron in patients with mild-to-moderate depression,”​ Stefan Gafner, chief scientific officer of the American Botanical Council, told NutraIngredients-USA, commenting independently on the study.

“Researchers from the University of Florida, Gainesville have published a meta-analysis of clinical trials on the topic​, which included five studies in which saffron was compared to placebo (two studies) or to conventional anti-depressant treatment (three studies).

More than $1,000 a pound

320px-Safran-Weinviertel_Niederreiter_2_Gramm_8285

A pound of saffron can cost $1,500, according CNN Money​. In comparison, a pound of organic turmeric root powder can sell for around $10 on Amazon.

“Not all studies were carried out with saffron stigma (which is the rather expensive saffron plant part used as a spice), but quite a few were done with the saffron petals, which are much less costly,”​ said Stefan Gafner, chief scientific officer of the American Botanical Council.

“But even if the stigma are used, as in the trial by Tabeshpour et al., the dosage of 30 mg/day is so low that it is possible to manufacture an affordable saffron supplement.”

Photo: Hubertl/Wikimedia Commons

“The meta-analysis suggests that saffron (the dosage was 30 mg/d of powdered saffron – the same as in the clinical trial by Tabeshpour et al.) is significantly better than placebo in improving symptoms of depression and more or less equivalent to standard pharmaceutical antidepressants (i.e., imipramine or fluoxetine).”

He added: “So this new study adds on to the existing evidence for the benefits of saffron for people suffering from mild to moderate depression.”

‘Encouraging results, warrants further investigation’

Saffron is notorious for being the most expensive spice in the world due to its labor intensiveness and small geographic distribution.

The researchers selected saffron not only because of existing literature supporting its mental health benefits, but also because 90% of the world’s saffron is produced in the country.

“Its plant products can be easily prepared, and it is an important crop from a medicinal perspective. However, as far as we know, no studies have yet examined the effects of saffron on post-partum depression breastfeeding mothers,” ​they wrote.

According to Gafner, the spice warrants more studies on its mental health benefits. "Knowing several friends who suffered from post-partum depression, I am encouraged by the research into this topic, and am happy to see this clinical study published on the potential benefits of saffron for this disease," ​he said.

“I believe that these are encouraging results, which warrant further investigation,”​ he said. “All five studies in the meta-analysis had a fairly low number of patients (between 30-38), and while ​[this] most recent study include 60 women with mild-to-moderate post-partum depression, it would be nice to have one/several larger studies to confirm these findings.”

“The fact that the ingredients used in the clinical trials were powdered saffron stigma or saffron petals rather than a proprietary extract makes it easier to produce a products equivalent to those tested in these studies,” ​he added.

Source: Phytomedicine

Published online ahead of print, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.phymed.2017.10.005

A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial of saffron stigma (Crocus sativus L.) in mothers suffering from mild-to-moderate postpartum depression

Authors: J. Tabeshpour, et al.

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