Saffron, the most expensive spice in the world is derived from the dry stigmata of the plant Crocus Sativus. The plant is a bulbous, perennial with globular corms, 15-20 cm high. It has 6 to 10 leaves present at anthesis, one to two flowers with a lilac-purple colour with perianth segments of 3.5 – 5 cm and style branches of 2.5 – 3.2 cm. The yellow style is deeply divided into three branches and the stigmata are bright red. Flowers are arising directly from the corms. Flowers have tri-lobed stigma, which along with the style tops yield the saffron of commerce.
ORIGIN AND DISTRIBUTION
Saffron is a native of Southern Europe and cultivated in Mediterranean countries, particularly in Spain, Austria, France, Greece, England, Turkey, Iran. In India, it is cultivated in Jammu & Kashmir and in Himachal Pradesh. Saffron thrives best in warm sub-tropical climate. In Spain, it is grown in dry temperate conditions with an annual rainfall below 40 cm. It grows at an elevation of 2000 mtrs MSL. Photoperiod exerts a considerable influence in the flowering of saffron. An optimum period of 11 hours illumination is desirable. Unusually low temperature coupled with high humidity during flowering season affects flowering of the crop. Spring rains boost production of new corms. Slightly acidic to neutral, gravelly, loamy, sandy soils are suitable for saffron cultivation.
Saffron is used as a culinary seasoning and to colour, cottage cheese, chicken and meat, rise, mayonnaise, liquors and cordials. It is also used in speciality breads, cakes, confectionaries, Mughlai dishes. Saffron is also used as a perfume in cosmetics. In medicine saffron is used in fevers, melancholia, and enlargement of liver and spleen. In Ayurvedic medicine it is used to heal arthritis, impotence and infertility. It has wide range of uses in Chinese and Tibetan medicines.
Saffron is high in antioxidants, which help protect our cells against free radicals and oxidative stress. Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress as a major cause of age-related diseases and cancer.
Among 150 plus compounds present in Saffron, The more powerful components are crocin, crocetin and safranal.Studies have demonstrated antitumor and cancer preventive activities of saffron and its main ingredients. In a study Crocin present in saffron was found to be a promising saffron compound to be assayed as a cancer therapeutic agent.
Another study demonstrated that crocin, significantly inhibited the growth of colorectal cancer cells. Crocin significantly suppressed the proliferation of human lung adenocarcinoma cells and enhanced the chemo sensitivity of these cells to both cisplatin and pemetrexed.
Saffron has been used in traditional medicine against Alzheimer’s disease. Compounds in saffron, such as crocin, appear to reduce inflammation and oxidative damage in the brain, which may lead to beneficial effects.
In a study it was demonstrated that after 16 weeks, saffron produced a significantly better outcome on cognitive function. The study suggests that at least in the short-term, saffron is both safe and effective in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s Disease.
In another study Saffron capsule 30 mg/day (15 mg twice per day) was found to be effective similar to donepezil in the treatment of mild-to-moderate AD after 22 weeks while having fewer digestive side effects.
A study revealed that saffron supplementation significantly reduced depression symptoms compared to the placebo control. Saffron stigma was found to be significantly more effective than placebo and equally as efficacious as fluoxetine and imipramine. Saffron petal was significantly more effective than placebo and was found to be equally efficacious compared to fluoxetine and saffron stigma. Additionally, fewer people experienced side effects from saffron compared to other treatments.
While these findings are promising, longer human studies with more participants are needed before saffron can be recommended as a treatment for depression.
Reduce PMS Symptoms:
Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) is a common health problem in women in reproductive age. The findings of a study conducted support the existence of physiological and psychological effects of saffron odour in women. Results indicate that saffron odour exert some effects in the treatment of PMS, dysmenorrhea and irregular menstruation. The report to suggest that saffron odour may be effective in treating menstrual distress. Another study found that simply smelling saffron for 20 minutes helped reduce PMS symptoms like anxiety and lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Saffron may also increase sex drive and sexual function in both males and females. In a 4 week studied carried on Thirty-six married male patients with major depressive disorder whose depressive symptoms had been stabilized on fluoxetine and had subjective complaints of sexual were randomly assigned to saffron (15 mg twice per day) or placebo for 4 weeks. By week 4, saffron resulted in significantly greater improvement in erectile function and intercourse satisfaction. Saffron is a tolerable and efficacious treatment for fluoxetine-related erectile dysfunction.
Another study carried out on women observed saffron may safely and effectively improve some of the fluoxetine-induced sexual problems including arousal, lubrication, and pain.
Helps Weight Loss:
According to research, saffron may help curbing appetite and thus prevent from snacking and thus help in Weight loss. Saffron elevates your mood, which in turn reduces your desire to snack.
In an eight-week study, it was observed that taking a saffron extract supplement helped significantly reduce appetite, total fat mass, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a retinal neurodegenerative disease. Both oxidative stress and chronic inflammation seem to play a significant role in the pathogenesis of AMD. Risk factors as smoking, aging or a low antioxidant intake.
In a study conducted it was observed that Saffron supplementation modestly improved visual function in participants with AMD. Given the chronic nature of AMD, longer-term supplementation may produce greater benefits. In another study it was observed that short-term saffron supplementation improves retinal flicker sensitivity in early AMD.
Crocin analogs isolated from Saffron significantly increase the blood flow in the retina and choroid and to facilitate retinal function recovery. Increased blood flow due to vasodilation presumably improves oxygenation and nutrient supply of retinal structures.
Protects Heart Health:
Saffron has been reported to help lower cholesterol and keep cholesterol levels healthy. Animal studies have shown saffron to lower cholesterol by as much as 50%. Saffron has antioxidant properties; it is, therefore, helpful in maintaining healthy arteries and blood vessels. Saffron is also known to have anti-inflammatory properties, which are beneficial to cardiovascular health. The people of Mediterranean countries, where saffron use is common, have lower than normal incidence of heart diseases. From saffron’s cholesterol lowering benefits to its anti inflammatory properties, saffron may be one of the best supplements for cardiac health.
In another study conducted on quails, results showed that Crocetin could reduce the levels of serum total cholesterol, triglyceride, low density lipoprotein cholesterol and inhibit the formation of aortic plaque. Crocetin could also reduce malondialdehyde and inhibit the descending of nitric oxide in serum. The results suggested that Crocetin could inhibit the formation of atherosclerosis in quails, which might be related to the hypolipidemic effects along with the antioxidative properties of Crocetin.
May Help Diabetes:
One study conducted on rats it was observed that saffron decreased blood glucose, malondialdehyde, nitric oxide, total lipids, triglycerides, cholesterol levels significantly.
The components of saffron which exert an antidiabetic response are crocin, crocetin, and saffranal. These are known to have an insulin-sensitizing effect. Furthermore, the antioxidant properties of saffron can help with hyperglycemia as well as oxidative stress.
Improves Bone Health:
Osteoporosis is a systemic skeletal disease characterized by reduced bone mass and microarchitectural deterioration of bone tissue with a consequent increase in bone fragility and susceptibility to fractures.
In one study conducted on rats, Crocin was shown to revitalize cartilage and decrease bone deterioration along with inflammation and oxidative damage, which may be accredited to crocin’s antioxidative nature. Considering that recent studies have revealed the critical role of oxidative stress in the osteoporotic process, crocin’s antioxidative properties may help improve osteoporosis.
In a study based on data collected from 55 participants, with self-reported poor sleep, Saffron intake was associated with improvements in sleep quality in adults with self-reported sleep complaints. Saffron intake was well tolerated with no reported adverse effects.
Word of caution:
Saffron is generally safe with little to no side effects. In standard cooking amounts, saffron does not appear to cause adverse effects in humans. 30 mg of saffron per day have been shown to be enough to reap its health benefits. On the other hand, high doses can have toxic effects. At high doses (more than 5 g/die day), it should be avoided in pregnancy owing to its uterine stimulation activity. As always, consult a medical professional or before taking saffron in supplement form.