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Saffron has been given the name ‘Red Gold’ because of its numerous health benefits. For over 2 to 3 millennia, saffron or Kesar has been used as herbal medicine. In the present day, the benefits of saffron include treating several conditions like respiratory diseases, mental illness, erectile dysfunction, and gynecological problems, skin problems among others.
Saffron is a perennial stemless herb cultivated in a few countries - Iran, Greece, Spain, and India. If you know about Saffron, you know that it’s the most expensive spice in the world. But why? The red-colored stigma of the light purple flower is the spice that is coveted across the world. It takes about 70,000 flowers to make half a kilogram of pure saffron; it is the strenuous cultivation, harvesting, and handling process that makes it cost more than 1 Lakh rupees per kilogram.
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Saffron has been called the sunshine spice since it equals the benefits of citalopram, fluoxetine, and imipramine – common drugs used to treat depression. Patients with depression used as subjects of a study reacted rather well to controlled doses of saffron for a year. With a high rarity of side effects, saffron successfully reduced anxiety and depression in individuals. The effects of saffron supplements have been found to have the efficacy equal to that of the drug Prozac. Several studies use saffron instead of antidepressant medications. It regulates serotonin levels in the brain by working like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs. However, further studies are required to understand the use of saffron for depression treatment.
Saffron consists of a compound known as ‘crocin’ that slackens the growth of cancer cells without inhibiting the growth of healthy cells. The benefits of saffron in treating and fighting cancer are associated with its constituents such as carotenoids that have anti-cancer properties. Crocin is one such carotenoid known to prevent leukemia and breast cancer. Saffron fights enzymes active in cancer cells. A compound known as crocetin acid found in saffron destroys cancer stem cells, which reduces the possibility of recurring cancer. Studies have found that crocin might make cancer cells sensitive to chemotherapy drugs.
Saffron supplements reduce cravings, curb appetite, and aid weight-loss. The positive effects on the serotonin levels in the brain might help in preventing compulsive eating that leads to weight gain. A study in which women took saffron supplements for 8 weeks reported reduced caloric intake. Those who consume saffron witness a decrease in snacking habits. However, the direct benefits of saffron are in relation to uplifting mood, which reduces the impulsive need to eat unnecessarily.
There are only a few foods or supplements that improve sexual functions in humans without side effects. Saffron is one of them; since it has no ill effects, males with erectile dysfunction might be treated with saffron, however marginally. Additionally, it is beneficial for the male reproductive system. It may have positive effects on sperm morphology and motility in infertile men. It aids male infertility treatment even though it doesn’t improve sperm count. Most importantly, crocin found in saffron might help reverse damage to the male reproductive system due to nicotine abuse.
Saffron is packed with a variety of plant compounds that have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants such as crocin, crocetin, safranal, and kaempferol protects cells against oxidative stress and damage caused by free radicals. Studies have confirmed that saffron was used in ancient Egypt to cure inflammation. It has been found to have positive effects on acute kidney injuries due to induced ischemia. Other studies claim that saffron treats fever, cures toothache, improves blood flow, and promotes cell repair and formation. The compound kaempferol is associated with reduced inflammation and cancer-fighting properties.
As it turns out, saffron benefits for skin are innumerable. It is widely used in facial products. Adding a few strands of saffron to a glass of milk can give your skin a glow like never before. However, there is no evidence to support it, expecting mothers are often given milk with saffron to improve the complexion of the child. Moreover, saffron can be added to bathwater, which might help give you a fairer complexion.
Saffron has antifungal properties that help treat acne, blackheads, and blemishes. 10-12 strands of saffron with 5-6 basil leaves make a good paste to treat pimples and acne. Saffron with milk helps in eliminating blemishes from the skin.
Adding a few ingredients like water, coconut oil or olive oil, a teaspoon of milk, and some sugar with saffron can act as an exfoliating pack. It improves the blood flow to the dulled areas, improving the condition of the skin. It can also help tone the skin post scrubbing; just soak a few strands of saffron in rose water and apply it on your face. Finally, saffron can also be used to treat dry skin and heal wounds and scars.
Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by the increase of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. Saffron has been found to inhibit this aggregation; it improves mental function and therefore, helps against Alzheimer’s disease. Patients administered with 30 mg of saffron every day witnessed improvement in cognitive functions, which equaled the effects to the drug donepezil.
Saffron has also been found to decrease post menstrual symptoms (PMS). Moreover, it is advantageous during the early stages of age-related macular degeneration.
Like most other things, the benefits of saffron can be reaped when consumed in moderation. Here are a few side effects that saffron might have.
Consuming inordinate amounts of saffron orally during pregnancy can lead to uterus contractions and even miscarriage. It might also affect the process of breastfeeding. Therefore, consult your doctor before consuming saffron during pregnancy.
Saffron has been known to change the heartbeat, which is why you should consult your doctor before consuming saffron if you’re taking medication for a disease of the heart.
Consuming saffron might lower blood pressure, which can be harmful in case you already have low BP. You should avoid taking saffron if you’re taking medication for high blood pressure. In any case, don’t take it without the knowledge of your physician.
Since saffron is known to improve mood by regulating serotonin levels, it might not be the best food for those diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. It might make them more excitable and increase impulsive behavior. Therefore, it would be best to avoid it.
Finally, since saffron is extremely expensive, you must check the ingredients of saffron powder before buying since manufacturers might add unacceptable ingredients.