Saffron improves mood.
There is conflicting evidence from the scientific and medical literature in relation to the claim that saffron can improve mood in patients with depressive disorders.
Saffron is commonly recommended as a safe and effective alternative to antidepressants in online fora. Saffron [stigma of Crocus sativus L] is the most expensive spice in the world. Iran is the main producer of saffron and supplies about 90% of saffron globally.
In 2013, researchers from Florida published a comprehensive meta-analysis in the Journal of Integrative Medicine on the effect of saffron on the mood of patients with depression (1). Following a thorough review of the literature the researchers identified five randomized clinical trials relevant to the impact of saffron on mood.
Two of the studies compared saffron capsules at a dose of 30 milligrams per day for 6 weeks as compared to placebo in patients with depression (2, 3). Both studies found that saffron resulted in statistically significant improvements in the depression score as compared to the mood of matched controlled patients who were receiving placebo.
Two other studies compared saffron capsule at a dose of 30 milligrams per day to the antidepressant fluoxetine at a dose of 20 milligrams per day. The study took place over a period of 6 weeks. Both of these studies found that saffron was as effective as fluoxetine in improving depression scores (4, 5).
The fifth and final study included in the meta-analysis compared saffron capsules at a dose of 30 milligrams per day to the antidepressant imipramine at a dose of 100 milligrams per day (6). This study was conducted in 30 patients over a 6 week period. Again this study found that saffron was as effective as imipramine in improving the depression score in patients with depression.
The main side effects of saffron noted in the studies were headache and nausea.
Based on the data available at the time of the review the authors of the meta-analysis concluded that saffron is an effective short-term strategy for improving mood in patients with mood disorders. The authors of the meta-analysis noted several limitations of the meta-analysis including the fact that all five studies came from a single research center in Iran, only enrolled small numbers of study participants (<40) and had short-term outcome data (6 weeks).
The authors of the meta-analysis recommended that larger clinical studies in settings outside of Iran be conducted to verify the study result. They also recommended that longer term studies to specifically assess the safety profile of saffron would be essential prior to any recommendations on the more widespread use of saffron for the treatment of mood disorders.
Earlier this year investigators from Australia published the results of trial which met some of the study design recommendations laid out by the authors of the meta-analysis (7). The study compared placebo, low dose curcumin extract (250 mg twice daily), high dose curcumin (500 mg twice daily) or low dose curcumin (250 mg twice daily) plus saffron 15 mg twice daily in 123 patients with depression. The study took place over twelve weeks.
All treatments arms resulted in greater improvements in depressive symptoms compared to placebo. However there was no extra benefit from the addition of saffron to the curcumin. No major adverse events were reported in any of the treatment arms.
In summary, the data is inconclusive about the effects of saffron on mood.