The natural extract (derived from crocus sativus) is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and currently used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases, Alzheimer’s, and several cancers. However, additional psychoactive properties suggest it could have remedial potential for ADHD.
Saffron stimulates the secretion of dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline neurotransmitters associated with ADHD and may improve cognitive, emotional, and behavioural abilities (“executive dysfunction”), as well as sleep patterns, explain the authors of a recent study published in Nutrients.
“Children with ADHD frequently suffer from sleep disturbances and daytime sleepiness. Given that saffron improves sleep quality, latency, and duration, saffron may address both issues by improving both ADHD core symptoms and sleep,” they assert.
ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental conditions affecting children, adolescents, and adults globally. Symptoms include hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsiveness and are habitually treated with a combination of pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy, and psychoeducation.
Medication can include stimulants (such as methylphenidate and lisdexamphetamine) or non-stimulants (atomoxetine guanfacine), but these are not very popular with parents due to side effects.
Conversely, saffron is a relatively familiar natural spice traditionally used as an additive and food colourant and, conceivably, broad appeal.
Trials with saffron extract on adolescents and adults have reported superior ADHD outcomes when consumed in combination with methylphenidate, compared to methylphenidate alone, the authors say, although none of these used objective measures for ADHD symptoms or assessed executive functions.
“This is relevant because approximately 50% of children and adolescents with ADHD have executive dysfunction. Furthermore, to our knowledge, there is no previous literature specifically testing the potential use of saffron in the treatment of executive dysfunction,” they comment.
The non-randomised study employed objective measures and subjective, psychometric scales to analyse the core ADHD symptoms and executive functions to determine saffron efficacy compared with methylphenidate.
Subjects were aged seven to 17 years and administered either an evening dose of Saffr’activ saffron extract (30 mg/day) before or during a meal or extended-release methylphenidate (1 mg/kg daily) in the morning for three months. Both groups received psychoeducation over the study period.
ADHD severity was established with an 18-item questionnaire (SNAP-IV) and executive functions evaluated using the Behavioural Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF-2).
Meanwhile, sleep quality was measured with the Sleep Disturbance Scale for children (SDSC) and impulsivity and sustained attention with Conners’ Continuous Performance Test (CPT-3).
Statistically relevant improvements
Both treatments demonstrated statistically relevant improvements in core ADHD symptoms and executive functions and were comparable in relation to efficacy, however, while saffron improved sustained attention, methylphenidate reduced impulsivity. Treatments were well tolerated and neither reported significant side effects.
Saffron had a marked effect on improving time to sleep and was more effective in treating hyperactivity and executive functions, with one potentially related to the other, the authors assert.
“The improvement in the executive functions was moderate, compared with the mild improvements in core ADHD symptoms. It is possible that the improvement in ADHD measures is at least in part due to the improvement in executive functions.”
They postulate that therapeutic effects could be attributed to the extract’s powerful antioxidant, anti-tumour, and anti-inflammatory properties “that may explain the emerging literature testing its role in neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases”.
Overall – and despite study limitations - the evidence demonstrates the efficacy and safety of saffron extract, compared to methylphenidate, in a sample of children and adolescents with ADHD, they add.
Published online September 28, 2022: http://doi.org/10.3390/nu14194046
‘Effectivity of Saffron Extract (Saffr’Activ) on Treatment for Children and Adolescents with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A Clinical Effectivity Study’
Authors: Hilario Blasco-Fontecilla, Esther Moyano-Ramírez, Olga Méndez-González, María Rodrigo-Yanguas, Marina Martin-Moratinos and Marcos Bella-Fernández