Saffron is a spice produced from the filaments of the flower of Crocus sativus, a member of the iris family commonly known as autumn crocus or saffron crocus. Once harvested, these filaments, the collective term for the bright red stigmas and styles within the flower, are referred to as threads and are usually sold as such. Because there are only three filaments in each flower, it takes a great many to produce a small amount of spice. This explains why saffron is historically the world’s most expensive spice.
Cultivation of saffron began in Greece thousands of years ago, where the spice is still prominent in the local cuisine. Saffron is also a popular seasoning in many Italian, Spanish and Indian dishes.
In traditional systems of medicine, saffron is used to counter inflammation and address gastrointestinal complaints by inducing spasms in the muscles of the intestinal tract to help move things along. It also has a long history of use in reducing symptoms of depression, a benefit that is gaining traction in clinical studies over the last decade. One of the key constituents of the plant is safranal, an organic compound responsible for saffron’s grass-like aroma and sharp taste. Another compound, crocin, gives the spice its bright color. Together, these phytochemicals appear to balance levels of important neurotransmitters involved in maintaining positive mood, namely serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Crocin is also a potent antioxidant and is believed to reduce oxidative stress in the brain, which is known to be an issue in people who experience mood disorders.
Tabeshpour J, Sobhani F, Sadjadi SA. et al; A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial of saffron stigma (Crocus sativus L.) in mothers suffering from mild-to-moderate postpartum depression. Phytomedicine. 2017 Dec 1;36:145-152.
Mazidi M, Shemshian M, Mousavi SH. et al; A double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial of Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) in the treatment of anxiety and depression. J Complement Integr Med. 2016 Jun 1;13(2):195-9.