Mental health conditions are common in Australia. In fact, approximately 30% of Australian adults will experience mental illness at some point during their lifetime. Furthermore, every year one in five adults experiences a mental health difficulty. One of the most common mental health problems is depression, which is characterised by a low mood, loss of interest in daily activities, feelings of helplessness, and/ or self-loathing.
Despite the prevalence of depression in Australia today and the prescription rates of anti-depressants, there are some natural compounds that have demonstrated positive effects in helping people overcome feelings of depression. Two of the most commonly used natural anti-depressants are St. John’s Wort and S-adenosylmethionine, which is also known as SAM-e.
The major problem with St. John’s Wort is the fact that it interacts with so many medications, making it difficult for many people to use on a regular basis. Furthermore, SAM-e is extremely expensive, making it cost-prohibitive for many people. Nevertheless, researchers have discovered an effective, non-interacting, and cost-effective compound that may assist people suffering from depression. It is the spice, saffron.
Even though saffron is the world’s most expensive spice (around $11,000 per kilogram), only tiny amounts are required to provide a therapeutic effect. In fact, only 30mg per day can assist people suffering from depression.
Acts as an antioxidant
Has anti-inflammatory effects
Depression is associated with reduced antioxidant levels in the body as well as elevated levels of oxidative stress. A recent meta-analysis (a statistical approach to combine the results of several studies) found that depression is associated with lower levels of several antioxidant enzymes including, superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT), and glutathione peroxidise (GP). The meta-analysis also found that markers of oxidative stress, such as malondialdehyde (MDA), were elevated. Increased oxidation, specifically in the brain, is thought to contribute to increased inflammation, increased immune response, disruption of neurotransmitter balance, and increased neurodegeneration.
Nonetheless, the active ingredients in saffron have demonstrated powerful antioxidant effects in many studies.
Inflammation is strongly associated with depression because levels of various inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, and tumour necrosis factor-a, are elevated in people suffering from depression.
However, several components of saffron have demonstrated strong anti-inflammatory effects.
Neurotransmitter imbalances are thought to be associated with depression due to evidence from various tryptophan-depletion studies (these studies induced depressive symptoms in people with a history of depression). Furthermore, the popularity and effectiveness of certain anti-depressant medications, collectively known as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), also support the neurotransmitter-imbalance theory.
Even though the research is limited, it appears that components of saffron may have an impact on specific serotonin receptors in the brain.
Changes in HPA activity is associated with depression, with many depressed people exhibiting increased HPA activity as well as elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Problems with the HPA axis affects neurotransmitter availability, oxidative stress, and inflammation, and may even lead to greater neurodegeneration (death of brain cells).
It appears that saffron may help to modulate the HPA response by lowering its response to stress.
Our mitochondria are the powerhouses of our cells are involved in the production of energy. Compromised mitochondrial activity can, therefore, affect energy levels and our ability to complete many daily tasks. Studies have shown that mitochondrial activity is reduced in people with depression.
Saffron can support mitochondrial function and therefore may improve mood by its positive effects on mitochondrial activity.
Depression is associated with lower levels of neurogenesis (the production of new brain cells), neuroplasticity (the creation of new neural pathways), and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) (a protein that helps to support the survival of neurons).
The active ingredients in saffron have been shown to boost BDNF as well as promote neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, therefore providing a neuroprotective effect on the brain.