Saffron, Sunshine Spice for Brain Health

saffron spice with flower mental health benefits

The exotic spice saffron, long-honored and known for being the most expensive spice in the world because of the labor involved in harvesting it, also is known for more. Saffron has potent powers for supporting and promoting brain health and boosting mood. 

What is saffron?

Saffron is harvested by hand from the saffron crocus or Crocus sativus flower. The term “saffron” refers to the thread-like structures, or stigmas, of the flowers. Harvesting these threads is challenging, which is why one pound of saffron can cost between $500 and $5,000. 

This spice is a rich source of various antioxidants, including crocetin, crocin, kaempferol, and safranal. These compounds have been credited with a number of health benefits, especially those affecting emotional health and cognitive function. That’s why the nickname “sunshine spice” has been given to saffron—because using it can brighten your spirits.

Read about the latest research on gut-brain health

Saffron and brain health

Daniel G. Amen, MD, author of Memory Rescue: Supercharge Your Brain, Reverse Memory Loss, and Remember What Matters Most, has called saffron “nature’s antidepressant.” This vivid crimson spice has been shown to help with a variety of emotional and mental health challenges. 

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In a five-study (2 placeboes, 3 antidepressants) review, for example, saffron supplements were significantly more effective than placebo in managing individuals who had mild-to-moderate depression. In the three studies that compared saffron with antidepressants, the spice and the drugs provided similar benefits in reducing depression symptoms.

In a 2018 review, investigators evaluated laboratory and clinical evidence concerning the use of saffron in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions. They noted that “saffron and its active constituents possess antidepressant properties similar to those of current antidepressant medications such as fluoxetine, imipramine, and citalopram, but with fewer reported side effects.” 

Read about causes of depression: sustained stress changes the brain, brings sadness

Saffron and especially its most active component, crocin, have also been found to provide other benefits for the brain.

  • They help prevent spatial learning impairment and memory problems related to chronic stress, according to an animal study.
  • Saffron was found to be as efficient as imipramine in a double-blind, randomized trial.
  • 30 mg per day of crocin helped enhance the effects of antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) in patients with mild-to-moderate depression and without significant side effects.
  • In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study, 56 healthy adults with subclinical low mood, anxiety, and/or stress were given either a saffron extract or a placebo. Those who used the supplement had reduced depression scores and an improvement in social relationships after the eight-week study.
    health benefits of saffron

Saffron rice recipe

Want to enjoy the delicious taste of saffron while also benefiting from its healing powers? Try this recipe.

Grind 1/8 teaspoon saffron threads in a spice mortar to a powder. Add the remaining threads to the powder and pour the hot water into the mortar. Soak the saffron for 5 minutes. In the meantime, rinse the rice in a colander and drain. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the onion. Saute for about 10 minutes. Add the rice to the pot and saute for one minute. Pour the saffron liquid over the rice. Add the vegetable stock and salt. Bring to a boil and stir. Return to a boil for 30 seconds. Cover the pot and reduce heat to simmer for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and keep the pot covered. Allow the rice to sit and steam for an additional 10 minutes. Fluff rice before serving.

Bottom line

Saffron has demonstrated that it can help support brain health and manage mental health issues such as stress, depression, and anxiety as well as some of the common antidepressants on the market. More research is needed to determine the optimal dosing of saffron for mental health and brain health.

Akhondzadeh S et al. Comparison of Crocus sativus L. and imipramine in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a pilot double-blind randomized trial [ISRCTN45683816]. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2004 Sep 2; 4:12.
Amen Clinic. 8 mood foods that fight depression. Amen Clinic
Ghadrdoost B et al. Protective effects of saffron extract and its active constituent crocin against oxidative stress and spatial learning and memory deficits induced by chronic stress in rats. European Journal of Pharmacology 2011 Sep 30; 667(1-3):222-29 
Hausenblas HA et al. Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) and major depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Journal of Integrative Medicine 2013 Nov; 11(6):377-83
Jackson PA et al. Effects of saffron extract supplementation on mood, well-being, and response to a psychosocial stressor in healthy adults: A randomized, double-blind, parallel group, clinical trial. Frontiers in Nutrition 2021 Feb 1
Shafiee M et al. Saffron in the treatment of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders: Current evidence and potential mechanisms of action. Journal of Affective Disorders 2018 Feb; 227:330-37.
Siddiqui MJ et al. Saffron (Crocus sativus L.): As an antidepressant. Journal of Pharmacy & Bioallied Sciences 2018; 10(4): 173–80. 
Talaei A et al. Crocin, the main active saffron constituent, as an adjunctive treatment in major depressive disorder: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, pilot clinical trial. Journal of Affective Disorders 2015 Mar 15; 174:51-56.
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Lisa Roth Collins, RHN
Lisa Roth Collins is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist (RHN) and is the Marketing Manager at She is passionate about health and wellness and tries her best to make healthier choices every day for herself and her family. Her journey to natural health was driven by her own struggles with digestive discomfort, depression, and anxiety. Lisa returned to school in 2014 to study nutrition at the Canadian School for Natural Nutrition. She threw herself into her studies so she could learn as much as she could to help herself feel better and thrive. Upon completing the program and being certified as an RHN, Lisa began her work at Naturally Savvy where she has been able to help so many people learn to make healthier choices for themselves. Through her work, she has connected with so many incredible people in the industry whether other authors, influencers, or brands. Plus, she is affectionately known as "Techie Spice" because of her ability to wrap her head around technology. Every day she gets up with a renewed sense of energy and ready to make a difference. You can read all of Lisa's content here. In her spare time, Lisa loves to try new recipes, make delicious and nourishing meals, and she is an avid reader. For more information about Lisa, check out her profile on here.