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Saffron Spice May Delay Mental Decline and Vision Loss


Saffron is best known as being the most expensive spice by weight. However, this bright-orange flavor enhancer may also become known for its health benefits as well. Recent research has linked saffron with delaying mental decline in cases of Alzheimer’s disease and with preventing the loss of sight in patients with Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD).

Saffron is an Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory

Researchers in Iran, publishing in the October 2009 issue of Psychopharmacology, gave 54 adults, aged 55 years and older, either a 30 milligram per day dose of saffron (in a capsule) or 10 milligrams per day of donepezil for a period of 22 weeks. Donepezil (brand name Aricept) is used to treat dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease. At the end of the study, saffron was found to be similarly effective to that of the prescription medication, but with fewer side effects (most notably vomiting).

Another study, published more recently in the October 2010 issue of the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, found that crocus sativus, the botanical name for saffron, was effective – at least in the short term – in inhibiting the aggregation and deposition of amyloid beta plaques in the brain, leading to significantly better outcomes on cognitive function in those with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease over those taking a placebo.

In February, researchers from the University of Sydney published findings that suggest that patients given saffron for a period of three months experienced improvements in vision while taking the pills. “But when they stopped…the effect quickly disappeared,” said lead researcher Professor Benedetto Falsini. Saffron appeared to work by regulating fatty acid content of cell membranes, making vision cells “tougher and more resilient.”

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Other clinical studies link saffron use with reduced depression symptoms and cancer prevention properties.

Saffron is a spice popular in Mediterranean cooking and used medicinally since the times of ancient India and the Middle East. It is rich in antioxidant compounds, including zeaxanthin (beneficial for the eyes) and lycopene (known to protect the prostate gland). It is also rich in compounds called gallic acid which is both an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory.

Read: Cooking with Anti-Cancer Herbs and Spices

Saffron is expensive because it is hand-picked before spreading onto a sieve and cured over heat to dry and deepen the flavor. It takes about 70,000 flowers to make up one pound of spice. In cooking, though, it only takes a little to create a very flavorful dish. Try a pinch in soups and stews or to flavor fish and rice dishes.

Source References:

  • Psychopharmacology, Volume 207, Number 4, October 2009
  • Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, Volume 35, Issue 5, October 2010
  • The VisionCentre at the University of Sydney