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Saffron as Effective as Some Antidepressants

October 17, 2014

The spice saffron was as effective as the antidepressants fluoxetine and imipramine in reducing symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression in adults, according to a meta-analysis published in Human Psychopharmacology.

“Overall, saffron presents as a promising natural option for the treatment of mild-to-moderate depression with initial clinical research supporting its efficacy, at least in the short term,” researchers wrote.

Retailing at up to $11,000 per kilogram, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Derived from the saffron flower Crocus sativus, saffron has demonstrated anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antiplatelet effects, as well as a potential for preventing and treating Alzheimer’s disease and macular degeneration, researchers reported.

To evaluate its effectiveness as an antidepressant, researchers conducted a clinical review of six studies that included 230 adults (118 women and 112 men) ages 18 to 60 with major depressive disorder of moderate severity. Two of the trials compared the effectiveness of saffron with placebo; the remaining four compared saffron with antidepressants. 

In the pair of randomized, double-blind trials that compared 30 mg per day of saffron with a placebo control, saffron demonstrated large treatment effects. Researchers reported a Cohen’s d effect size of 1.51 and 1.76, which they noted was similar to a 1.62 overall effect size calculated in another recent meta-analysis.

In the four randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials that compared 30 mg per day of saffron with two antidepressants, saffron was similarly effective (researchers calculated a null effect size) in reducing depressive symptoms compared with 20 mg per day of fluoxetine and 100 mg per day of imipramine, according to the meta-analysis.

In all the studies examined, the 30 mg daily dose of saffron—similar to levels of the spice used in some cuisines—was divided equally among two doses. Saffron is generally considered safe in amounts up to 5 g daily, although investigators warned that people with blood coagulation disorders or who take anticoagulants should exercise caution in using saffron since research is inconsistent on its effect on blood coagulation and platelet aggregation.   

After a week of treatment, saffron produced statistically significant improvements in depressive symptoms, researchers noted. Improvements continued through the length of treatment. However, no study in the meta-analysis lasted longer than eight weeks.

“Future research is required to determine optimal dosages and duration of treatment,” researchers wrote, “and the long-term efficacy and safety of this exotic spice.”

—Jolynn Tumolo


1. Lopresti AL, Drummond PD. Saffron (Crocus sativus) for depression: a systematic review of clinical studies and examination of underlying antidepressant mechanisms of action. Human Psychopharmacology. 2014 Sept. 22. [Epub ahead of print].

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