Saffron for Depression
Saffron, a popular Middle Eastern spice, may be effective for treating mild to moderate depression, according to a study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology (2005;97:281–4).
Depressive disorders affect about 19 million Americans each year. People who are depressed may experience excessive weight loss or gain, sleepiness or insomnia, feelings of worthlessness, decreased pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed, difficulty thinking and concentrating, persistent sad mood, and thoughts of suicide or death. Women are twice as likely as men to develop depression. People with other illnesses such as heart disease, hormonal disorders, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease are also more likely to suffer from depression.
Depression is usually treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medications. Fluoxetine (Prozac™) and paroxetine (Paxil™) are antidepressants that increase the level of serotonin in the brain, causing an elevation in mood. Often, more than one type of drug may be prescribed at the same time to help alleviate depression; however, some people cannot tolerate the side effects of antidepressant drugs, which may include anxiety, loss of appetite, and sexual dysfunction. Because of this, herbal remedies such as St. John’s wort are becoming increasingly popular as alternatives to prescription medications for the treatment of depression.
Saffron is a culinary spice used in many Middle Eastern dishes. It has also been used in traditional Persian medicine to relieve stomachaches, ease the pain of kidney stones, and treat depression. Some studies suggest that saffron may also have anticancer and memory-enhancing properties.
Like other medications used to treat depression, saffron may exert its antidepressant activity by increasing the levels of certain chemicals in the brain, including serotonin. Crocin and safranal are believed to be the active components of the plant. The new study compared the effects of saffron with fluoxetine on the symptoms of mild to moderate depression. Thirty-eight people aged 18 to 55 years completed the six-week trial. The participants were given either 30 mg of dried extract of saffron standardized to contain about 0.7 mg of safranal or 20 mg of fluoxetine per day. Depressive symptoms were rated using the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression before the study and at one, two, four, and six weeks.
At the end of the study, both the saffron and fluoxetine treatments resulted in significant improvements in depressive symptoms, with no difference in the amount of improvement between the two groups. The frequency of side effects was similar in the two groups; however, there were no reports of sexual dysfunction, tremor, or sweating in the saffron group.
This is the first scientific study to investigate the use of saffron in treating depression. While the findings are promising, more studies are needed to further evaluate the safety and effectiveness of saffron as a fluoxetine alternative.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She is a co-founder and practicing physician at South County Naturopaths, Inc., in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp teaches holistic medicine classes and provides consultations focusing on detoxification and whole-foods nutrition.
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