The Mediterranean herb saffron, long used in cooking, is made from the dried stigma (top of the female portion) of the Crocus sativa flower. Each flower has only three small stigmas, and it requires about 75,000 flowers to produce one pound of saffron. As a cooking herb, saffron is valued for its intense orange-yellow color and its subtle flavor. Medicinally, it has been used since ancient times for strengthening digestion, relieving coughs, smoothing menstruation, relaxing muscle spasms, improving mood, and calming anxiety. Saffron contains vitamin B2 along with a yellow flavonoid called crocin, a bitter glycoside called picrocrocin, and the volatile, aromatic substance safranal.

The best evidence for medicinal effects of saffron involve treatment of depression. According to five preliminary double-blind studies, use of saffron at 30 mg daily is more effective than placebo and equally effective as standard treatment for major depression.1-3,14, 15 However, all these studies were small and preliminary, and were performed by a single research group in Iran. Larger studies and independent confirmation will be necessary to determine whether this expensive herb is truly effective for depression.

Other proposed uses of saffron have even weaker supporting evidence. Test-tube and animal studieshint that saffron and its constituents may help prevent or treat cancer,4-9 reduce cholesterol levels,10 protect against side effects of the drug cisplatin,11 and enhance mental function.12