Taking a two-month supplement of crocin, an antioxidant found in the cooking spice saffron, helped to reduce signs of inflammation in people with multiple sclerosis (MS) who took part in a small study in Iran.
However, crocin had no effect on symptoms of depression or anxiety compared with a placebo, somewhat inconsistent with previous findings that showed saffron may bring additional mental health benefits to women with MS who engage in exercise.
The study, “Effects of crocin on inflammatory biomarkers and mental health status in patients with multiple sclerosis: A randomized, double-blinded clinical trial,” was published in the journal Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders.
MS occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and causes damage to the fatty myelin sheath that protects nerve cells, leading to inflammation. This leads to a range of symptoms, from balance and movement problems to fatigue and mental health strain.
Saffron contains natural antioxidant crocin
The Middle Eastern spice saffron contains crocin, a natural antioxidant that can protect nerve cells from damage. An earlier study out of Iran showed that taking a saffron supplement while engaging in a three-month exercise program may ease depression.
Now, another team of researchers in Iran wanted to find out whether taking crocin tablets as a supplement for eight weeks (about two months) would reduce the levels of inflammation in the body along with symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The study included 45 people, ages 18 to 55, with a diagnosis of MS. They were randomly split into two groups: one group of 25 people took a daily supplement of 30 mg of crocin (15 mg twice a day) for eight weeks, while the other group, of 20 people, took a placebo.
At the study’s start, the two groups had similar blood levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation in the body.
However, after eight weeks, mean C-reactive protein levels were significantly lower in people who took the crocin supplement compared with those who took the placebo (3.98 vs. 5.64 nanograms per milliliter).
The blood levels of malondialdehyde and nitric oxide, two markers of oxidative stress, were similar between the two groups. Oxidative stress occurs when harmful oxygen-containing molecules outweigh the body’s defenses through antioxidants.
The Beck Depression Inventory scores symptoms of depression on a scale from 0 to 63, with a higher score indicating more severe depression. The two groups scored similarly on the test, with their mean score pointing to mild symptoms of depression.
Anxiety was assessed using the Beck Anxiety Inventory, which also scores symptoms on a scale from 0 to 63. Over the eight weeks, the total score dropped from a mean 16.36 (moderate anxiety) to 14.24 (mild anxiety) in people who took the crocin supplement.
‘Supplementation for 8 weeks may not be sufficient to improve mental health’
However, after the eight weeks, the crocin and placebo groups scored similarly on the anxiety test, suggesting the crocin supplement had little effect on symptoms of anxiety.
“Supplementation for 8 weeks may not be sufficient to improve mental health, and future clinical studies with higher sample sizes and various doses and durations are recommended,” the researchers wrote.
Moreover, saffron contains many compounds other than crocin. “While some studies suggest that the effect of saffron could be attributed to its crocin, safranal, picrocrocin, and flavonoids,” the researchers wrote, “the synergism [combined effects] between all the compounds could at least in part explain some of the conflicting findings on the efficacy of saffron extract and its ingredients on oxidative stress, inflammation, and psychiatric disorders.”