Crocus salivus, saffron flower
Crocus salivus, saffron flower

Saffron is the spice derived from the three stigmas (red colored threads about 25-30 mm long) of the crocus flower. Not the same crocus we grow here in the States, which blooms in the spring, but a crocus grown predominantly in the Middle East. This variety of crocus (Crocus sativus) blooms in the Fall. The world’s largest  producer of saffron is Iran. Because it takes thousands of flowers to produce an ounce of saffron, it is very expensive at about $30. USD an ounce.

saffron threads
saffron threads

Saffron has been used in traditional folk medicine for asthma, as an aphrodisiac, and anti-convulsive. More recently, saffron has been the subject of study for the treatment of depression and has been touted as a suppressor of appetite for the purposes of weight loss. Other studies include cholesterol control, cancer treatment, psoriasis management, neural health, and retinal health of the eye.

Saffron Supplements

Saffron supplements are sold as extracts of saffron. The active ingredients are the caratenoids; crocin (color) and crocetin (color). These are thought to act as antioxidents, which scavenge for free radicals. There are two other active ingredients, safranal winch gives the spice saffron it aroma and picrocrocin which gives saffron its taste. These active ingredients have some analgesic (pain relieving)and anti-inflammatory actions.

Studies gave patients 20 mg/day. A search of literature does not indicate the actual percentages of the active ingredients. There are no recommended daily values.  Most commercial supplements indicate 88mg saffron extract per capsule. Some will indicate the amount of safranal as .3%.  Directions usually indicate that one capsule should  be taken twice daily. How this compares to the dosages taken by study participants is not clear.

Saffron and the Eye

There have been several studies, many of which are animal studies, to evaluate the affect of saffron on the photoreceptors of the neural retina of the eye. The photoreceptors are those specialized nerve cells that respond to light energy to give us vision.  Several well known studies on human responses to anti-oxidants to reduce the progression of macular degeneration have shown positive results.  Studies of saffron indicate that it may have a neuro-protective capability for the photoreceptors. Animal studies have shown that it can help maintain photoreceptor function. Another animal study suggested that saffron may affect gene expression. This could be an important finding for those with hereditary forms of retinal disease (hereditary macular degeneration, Stargardt’s disease, and  retinitis pigmentosa.) There has also been evidence, by human studies, that saffron increases retinal sensitivity in those with the early stages of macular degeneration.

The importance of saffron as a supplement for ocular health
is still in the research stages. The mechanism by which saffron extracts have beneficial effects on the retina and vision is still not completely understood.

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