Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects approximately 3%–7% of school age children and about 4% of the adult population. The standard therapy consists of stimulant drugs such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) which produce a “dopaminergic effect,” meaning they act on neurons to promote an increased release of dopamine. Many parents of ADHD children are aware that a small amount of a highly caffeinated beverage like coffee or even soda has a very different effect on the brain in children than it does adults. Instead of resulting in jitters or fidgeting as an adult might experience, the child will usually display increased concentration and focus. Unfortunately, the improvement is short-lived and there are obvious adverse health risks from indulging in these drinks.
Pharmaceutical central nervous system stimulants like methylphenidate may be effective but they also present unwanted effects, such as appetite loss and insomnia. Sometimes, antidepressant medications are added to treatment, which can also lead to risks in children from hypotension to mood swings, even thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
Enter Crocus sativus, also known as saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.
Historically, saffron has been used in various traditional systems for its antidepressant, anticonvulsant, antispasmodic and antiseptic effects. Several human and animal-based studies demonstrate that the spice enhances memory, while providing antianxiety and antidepressant effects. It also appears to offer a neuroprotective action. Scientists believe that the compounds in saffron trigger reuptake inhibition of dopamine and norepinephrine, and are N-methyl D-aspartic acid receptor antagonists and GABA-α agonists.
In a new study conducted by the Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran, researchers observed the effects of saffron compared to methylphenidate in 54 ADHD patients aged 6 to 17 years for six weeks. The researchers, who published their findings in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology in February 2019, report that saffron therapy was as effective as methylphenidate with no significant difference between the treatment groups in frequency of side effects.
The study authors note that while these results are promising, they are also preliminary findings and more studies are needed. However, it does seem that saffron may one day soon provide relief of ADHD symptoms effectively and safely, especially for the approximate 30% of people who cannot tolerate stimulant medications like methylphenidate, or who do not respond to them.
Baziar S, Aqamolaei A, Khadem E, et al. Crocus sativus L. Versus Methylphenidate in Treatment of Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Randomized, Double-Blind Pilot Study. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology 11 Feb 2019.