Saffron: Uses and Risks

Saffron comes from a type of crocus flower. It's a common spice in Mediterranean cooking. Because it's hard to harvest -- it takes 75,000 flowers to get a pound of saffron -- it's one of the world's most expensive spices. It's been used as a traditional treatment for thousands of years.

Why do people take saffron?

Oral saffron supplements may help with Alzheimer's disease, some studies show. One small study found it worked as well as standard drugs in slowing down the symptoms. More research is needed.

Saffron may also help with depression. Several small studies showed that it seemed to work as well as a common antidepressant in helping symptoms. Larger studies need to be done to see if this would be a safe and effective treatment.

Saffron is an antioxidant. Early lab and animal studies are being done to see if it can help fight or prevent certain types of cancer.

Saffron may help with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and painful periods. It may also help with other conditions, such as high cholesterol, but we don't have any clear evidence yet.

Ideal doses for saffron have not been set for any condition, although studies  have been done using 30 mg of the extract a day, or 15-200 milligrams of dried saffron daily. Ingredients in supplements may vary widely. This makes it very hard to set a standard dose.

Can you get saffron naturally from foods?

Saffron is a common spice. You can buy it in large grocery stores or specialty markets.

What are the risks?

Tell your doctor about any supplements you're taking, even if they're natural. That way, your doctor can check on any potential side effects or interactions with medications.

  • Side effects. Using saffron supplements in the short-term seems safe for most people. They may cause side effects like anxiety, appetite changes, upset stomach, sleepiness, and headache. Using saffron in high doses or for long periods of time may be risky. Some people are also allergic to saffron.
  • Risks. Saffron may trigger mood swings in people with bipolar disorder. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use saffron.
  • Interactions. When used as a supplement, saffron may cause problems for people on blood pressure medicine or blood thinners. Check with your doctor before using it if you are taking medication.

Supplements are not regulated by the FDA in the same way that food and drugs are.  The FDA does not review these supplements for safety or efficacy before they hit the market.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on July 19, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Fundukian, L.J., editor, The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 3rd edition, 2009.

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database: "Saffron."

NYU Langone Medical Center: "Saffron."

Rakel D. Integrative Medicine, 3rd edition, Saunders, 2012.

Akhondzadeh, B. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, March 30, 2007.

Natural Standard: "Saffron (Crocus sativus)."

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