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8 Benefits and Side Effects of Saffron (7 Contraindications To Be Noted)[Updated Feb/2023]

Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world and is widely used in the manufacture of cosmetics and the preparation of food because of its unique smell, color and fragrance, as a colorant, flavoring agent and fragrance.

In addition, in traditional medicine, saffron has a variety of pharmacological effects, often used as a sedative, antispasmodics, aphrodisiac, sweating, expectorant, stimulant, stomach medicine, anticancer drug, digestive aid and cold medicine

What are the benefits and side effects of saffron in empirical medicine? See the article for details


What is Saffron?

Saffron is a perennial stemless herb belonging to the iris family that is cultivated in countries such as Iran, Greece, Spain, China and Turkey.

The commercially valuable part of crocuse is its stigmas, each flower has only three stigmas, and it takes 3 years from seed to flowering, thus adding to its rarity.

The chemical composition of crocuse is 63% sugar, 12% protein, 10% water, 5% crude fiber, 5% fat and 5% minerals.

Its medicinal value depends on the presence of three major secondary metabolites: crocin, picrocrocin and safranal.


What are the proven benefits of saffron?

  1. Saffron is beneficial to liver function

Liver enzyme, which is detectable in serum, is one of the most commonly used blood tests by clinicians. Biochemical markers of liver dysfunction, including aspartate aminotransferase (AST), alanine aminotransferase (ALT), alkaline phosphatase (ALP), and γ-glutamyl aminotransferase (GGT).

They range from screening for liver diseases (e.g., viral hepatitis to fatty liver) to monitoring drug side effects to determining response to treatment for specific liver diseases.

A systematic literature review and meta-analysis (12 randomized controlled trials, 608 participants) noted that saffron supplementation had no significant effect on liver function measures compared with placebo, including aspartate aminotransferase (AST), alanine aminotransferase (ALT), and alkaline phosphatase (ALP). Note 1

*Conclusion: Saffron is not significantly helpful in improving liver function, but due to significant heterogeneity between samples, more studies are needed to confirm its benefit

  1. Saffron improves cardiovascular disease risk factors

Worldwide, cardiovascular disease ranks first among the top ten causes of death, with most occurring in people over 60 years of age and 80% in those over 85 years old.

Proper management of risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, such as dyslipidemia, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, etc., can significantly reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Among these risk factors, the prevalence of dyslipidemia (65.74%) in patients aged 64 to 2 years was higher than that of hypertension, diabetes, and obesity, with individual prevalence of 50%, 19.5%, and 30.1%, respectively.

A systematic literature review and meta-analysis (11 randomized controlled trials, 622 participants) suggested that saffron-related extract supplementation (intervention time of 28 to 90 days, daily dose of 30 mg) reduced diastolic blood pressure, body weight, and circumstance. Note 1

In addition, when subgroup analysis based on study quality found that fasting plasma glucose levels were significantly reduced, high-quality studies were most pronounced.

*Conclusion: Saffron may be of positive help in improving some cardiovascular disease risk factors, but more high-quality studies are needed to support this due to insufficient number of studies, high risk of bias, confounding factors, heterogeneity and other factors

  1. Saffron is beneficial to blood lipid regulation

Dyslipidemia is a systemic lipid metabolism disorder characterized by a decrease in total blood cholesterol, triglycerides, low-density lipoproteins, and/or high-density lipoproteins.

It is a major component of metabolic syndrome, including abdominal obesity, systemic inflammation, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar.

A systematic literature review and meta-analyses (14 randomized controlled trials, 788 participants) noted that crocuse/crocin or crocus extract reduced total cholesterol and triglycerides (but had no significant effect on body weight and LDL cholesterol concentration). Note 1

*Conclusion: Saffron may bring positive help to blood lipid regulation, but due to the heterogeneity of the studies included and the small sample size, more long-term large trials are still needed to support it

  1. Saffron is beneficial for depression

Depression is a potentially life-threatening disease that affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide. About one in five adults has experienced depression, and women are twice as likely as men to develop depression.

The psychopathology of depression consists of three main symptoms: low mood or depression, anhedonia, low energy, or fatigue. Other symptoms such as sleep and psychomotor disorders, feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, suicidal tendencies, and autonomic disorders are also common.

A meta-analysis (11 randomized controlled trials of 500 people with mild to moderate depression) noted that saffron was significantly better than placebo (as measured by the HAM-D, BDI scale) for improving depression and was not inferior to SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as fluoxetine, citalopram), but the optimal dose and duration of treatment were unclear. Note 1

The mechanism behind this may be related to regulating levels of certain chemicals in the brain, including serotonin and inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin at synapses.

*Conclusion: Saffron may have a positive effect on improving depression, but more large randomized trials are needed to support this due to the possible risk of bias

  1. Saffron is beneficial for erectile dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction can be defined as the inability to achieve or maintain an erection in order to achieve satisfactory sexual performance.

Many factors can disrupt the normal physiological mechanisms involved in erections, except for the most common forms of aging, including psychology (depression, anxiety), neurological (peripheral nervous system lesions, epilepsy, demyelinating disorders, brain or spinal cord injury), hormones (low testosterone, high prolactin, and abnormal thyroid hormones), blood vessels (atherosclerosis), medications (hypertension, antidepressants, estrogens, antiandrogens), lifestyle (marijuana use, alcoholism, smoking), and other diseases.

A literature review and meta-analysis (including 6 randomized controlled trials) showed that saffron had a significant positive effect on all dimensions of the Erectile Function questionnaire, including erectile function, orgasmic function, overall satisfaction, satisfaction with sexual intercourse, and libido. Note 2

However, the improvement of semen-related parameter values (sperm density, morphology, and motility) has been inconsistencies and remains to be confirmed.

*Conclusion: Saffron may have a positive effect on improving male sexual dysfunction, but more research is needed to support this due to the heterogeneity and methodological flaws of the included studies

  1. Saffron is beneficial for type 2 diabetes

Diabetes mellitus is a group of chronic metabolic diseases characterized by an increase in blood sugar due to the body’s inability to produce insulin or resistance to insulin action, or both.

Diabetes affects many different organ systems in the body and, over time, can lead to serious complications.

Common microvascular complications include damage to the nervous system (neuropathy), damage to the renal system (nephropathy), and damage to the eyes (retinopathy).

Macrovascular complications include cardiovascular disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease, in which peripheral vascular disease can lead to bruises or injuries that do not heal, gangrene, and eventually amputation.

An 8-week randomized trial of 54 people with type 2 diabetes noted that oral saffron extract capsules reduced fasting blood glucose compared with placebo, but no significant improvements in other indicators such as lipids, blood pressure, and glycosylated hemoglobin. Note 3

*Conclusion: In patients with type 2 diabetes, oral saffron extract can improve glycaemic control by lowering fasting blood glucose, but more large trials are needed to support the results.

  1. Saffron is beneficial for PMS

Premenstrual syndrome or Premenstrual dysphoric disorder is one of the most common clinical complaints in women of childbearing age, usually showing symptoms 5 days before menstruation and disappearing at the end of menstruation, and the severity of symptoms varies from person to person.

Psychological symptoms of PMS include irritability, depression, crying, and anxiety; Physical symptoms include abdominal swelling, breast tenderness and headaches.

A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial (2-month trial of 50 PMS patients) showed that oral saffron extract capsules were effective in reducing PMS symptoms (as measured by the Total Premenstrual Daily Symptoms and Hamilton Depression Rating Scale scale) with no significant side effects. Note 4

The mechanism behind it may be related to the serotonin-initiating effect (serotonergic) of saffron.

*Conclusion: Saffron extract has a positive effect on improving PMS, but limited by small sample sizes, more large trials are needed to support this

  1. Saffron is beneficial for Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer disease is the most common cause of dementia in Western societies. In the United States, approximately 550 million people are affected, and an estimated 24 million people worldwide are affected.

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by progressive cognitive decline, which usually begins with an impaired ability to form recent memories, but inevitably affects all intellectual functions, leading to the gradual loss of basic functions of daily living, as well as premature death.

Pathologic findings include diffuse and neurotic extracellular amyloid plaques and tangles of intracellular nerve fibers with reactive microglial hyperplasia, dystrophic neurites, and loss of neurons and synapses.

The underlying causes of these multifaceted changes are unknown, but age, genetic and non-genetic factors are thought to play an important role.

One randomized and placebo-controlled trial (16 weeks, 46 people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease) noted that saffron extract capsules produced significant improvements in cognitive function compared to placebo (as measured by ADAS-cog and CDR scales) and that there was no significant difference in adverse events observed between the two groups. Note 5

*Conclusion: For patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, the use of saffron extract capsules can help improve cognitive function, but limited by small sample sizes, more experiments are needed to support this

Are there any side effects of saffron?

Saffron is considered a safe supplement when used in appropriate doses, but possible side effects or adverse reactions include: dry mouth, anxiety, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, changes in appetite, headaches, irritability, allergic reactions.

High doses can cause poisoning, including yellow skin , eyes and mucous membranes; Vomiting, dizziness, bloody diarrhea, bleeding from the nose, lips and eyelids, numbness, etc., can be severe and even fatal.


Safety precautions

1. Do not use if you have been allergic to ryegrass, olive and Salsola, which may induce allergic reactions (such as urticaria, nasal congestion or difficulty breathing)

2. Use by pregnant women may cause uterine contractions or bleeding, which may lead to miscarriage. Note 6

3. Do not use by lactating women (due to unknown safety)

4. Do not use in patients with bipolar disorder, which may trigger excitatory and impulsive behavior (mania)

5. Do not use in patients with cardiovascular disease, saffron may affect the speed and intensity of heartbeat, which may lead to worsening symptoms

6. Do not use for patients with low blood pressure, taking saffron may aggravate hypotension

7. High doses (200 to 400 mg/day) may result in a slight decrease in red blood cells and platelets (but these changes are within the normal range). Note 7


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