Why your ‘Mood’ Genes Love Saffron

Key mechanisms affecting your mood

When it comes to depression, it is believed that there are several biological mechanisms which affect your mood: inflammation (the actions of the immune system), oxidative stress (an imbalance between the pro-oxidant and antioxidant factors in cells in favour of pro-oxidants, which can cause damage to the DNA), and the behaviour of growth hormones. The activity of these factors can contribute to the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain, which control your overall mood, as well as pathophysiology of disorders like depression and anxiety.

Saffron has been shown in multiple studies to have antidepressant properties1,2,3. How? Well, a recent study demonstrated that saffron extracts affect the activity of genes involved in serotonin and dopamine signalling, which are critical pathways affecting mood4.

Saffron’s nutrigenomic role

Scientific and Nutrigenomics studies show that saffron - and its active components Crocin, Crocetin and Safranal - can play a role in affecting known mood regulators.

There are tonnes of examples of genes and proteins that Saffron’s components are thought to regulate, either directly or indirectly. For instance, Saffron extract reduces the expression of the serotonin transporter gene (SERT or 5-HTT) which is involved in recycling serotonin, and increases the expression of dopamine in the brain.

Serotonin and dopamine are known as ‘happy chemicals’; serotonin is a mood stabiliser, and dopamine is a ‘reward’ chemical, playing an important role in motivating behaviour4,7.

Saffron can also modulate the expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines (such as TNF-α and interleukins), which are signalling molecules released by immune cells to increase local (brain) and systemic inflammation5, which has been linked to depression. Its anti-inflammatory activity is mainly attributed to the potent antioxidant properties of Crocetin and Crocin5.

The most coveted spice

  • Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. Pound for pound it’s even costlier than gold
  • Each plant produces only three of its distinctive red stigma, which are dried to produce the spice. The stigma are hand-picked on the day the plant comes into blossom
  • Saffron has been used worldwide for centuries by many different cultures for its colour, fragrance, seasoning, and medicinal properties
  • In Medieval times selling below-par saffron was illegal
  • The bulk of this precious spice today comes from Iran - whilst some is grown across the Mediterranean and Asia Minor

Further reading

  1. Mazidi, M. 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. 13, 195–199 (2016).
  2. Hausenblas HA, Saha D, Dubyak PJ, Anton SD. Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) and major depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. J Integr Med. 2013;11(6):377-383. doi:10.3736/jintegrmed2013056
  3. Shahmansouri, N. et al. A randomized, double-blind, clinical trial comparing the efficacy and safety of Crocus sativus L. with fluoxetine for improving mild to moderate depression in post percutaneous coronary intervention patients. J. Affect. Disord. 155, 216–222 (2014).
  4. Monchaux De Oliveira, C.; Pourtau, L.; Vancassel, S.; Pouchieu, C.; Capuron, L.; Gaudout, D.; Castanon, N. Saffron Extract-Induced Improvement of Depressive-Like Behavior in Mice Is Associated with Modulation of Monoaminergic Neurotransmission. Nutrients 2021, 13, 904.
  5. Zeinali, M., Zirak, M. R., Rezaee, S. A., Karimi, G. & Hosseinzadeh, H. Immunoregulatory and anti-inflammatory properties of Crocus sativus (Saffron) and its main active constituents: A review. Iran. J. Basic Med. Sci. 22, 334 (2019).
  6. Mousavi, Z. & Bathaie, Z. Historical uses of saffron: Identifying potential new avenues for modern research. Avicenna J. Phytomedicine 1, 57–66 (2011).
  7. Khazdair MR, Boskabady MH, Hosseini M, Rezaee R, M Tsatsakis A. The effects of Crocus sativus (saffron) and its constituents on nervous system: A review. Avicenna J Phytomed. 2015;5(5):376-391.


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