The sight-saving spice that’s more precious than gold

My aunt developed age-related macular degeneration (AMD) when I was just a kid.

It was a relatively “new” disease then and only starting to gain recognition from the medical establishment. So doctors had little to offer her… and we all watched helplessly as her eyesight steadily and irreversibly slipped away.

Of course, we know a lot more about AMD now. Like how to fight it with targeted nutrition—whether it’s by following an antioxidant-rich Mediterranean-style diet—or by taking therapeutic doses of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, zinc, and copper.

These solutions may not sound particularly exciting or cutting-edge. But they work—and that’s a big deal.

Ultimately, diseases like AMD are the reason I’m so adamant about giving old standbys their due. All too often, people write off powerful nutrients as “boring” or “ineffective” just because they’ve been around for a bit.

But every once in a while, you come across that rare ingredient that has it all—the sexy backstory, the sterling reputation, and the support of brand new, breakthrough research. And sometimes, it’s hiding in your own kitchen.

That’s certainly the case with saffron—an exotic, fragrant, delicate spice that’s instantly recognizable to any seasoned foodie. But as it turns out, saffron also happens to deliver a knockout punch to AMD.

From the pirate ship to your pantry

When Hippocrates said “let food be thy medicine,” there’s a good chance he was talking—at least in part—about saffron. That’s how long healers have been using Crocus sativus—the flower from which saffron is derived.

Ancient Greek frescoes depict saffron harvests. Alexander the Great reportedly bathed in it after battle to heal his wounds. And sailors would set off on harrowing expeditions just to get their hands on the priceless spice.

In fact, pirates would often ignore silver and gold, and steal saffron shipments instead. It was a symbol of wealth and status, used to dye the robes of royalty. 

Of course, nowadays, saffron isn’t starting any wars. But it’s still valuable. And it’s no wonder, considering it takes roughly 80,000 handpicked flowers to yield just one pound of saffron!

This exotic spice is especially renowned in culinary circles—and is used most often to lend flavor to seafood or rice dishes.

But its medicinal properties remain every bit as impressive as they were back in Hippocrates’ time. Perhaps even more so—since now, saffron has the benefit of cold, hard science to back it up.

And while ancient doctors may not have been hip to this benefit, saffron is turning out to be an essential tool for saving your eyesight from the devastating effects of AMD.

The mechanics of macular degeneration

In order to understand what makes saffron so effective, it helps to have a basic understanding of how AMD steals your vision.

As the name suggests, macular degeneration destroys your macula. This is the most sensitive part of your retina, located in the back part of your eye. It’s filled with the light-sensing cells responsible for sharp, central vision.

There are two main types of macular degeneration—dry AMD and wet AMD. The former is by far the most common, accounting for roughly 90 percent of all cases. It’s a slow-moving disease that causes the critical sensory cells in your macula to break down and die.

Wet AMD is marked by the growth of abnormal blood vessels beneath your macula. This results in a leakage of blood and fluid. Both of which damage the macula a lot more quickly than dry AMD. (Typically, a person will start off with dry AMD, but one in 10 people will progress to wet AMD.)

Research shows that saffron benefits patients in the early stages of both types of AMD—due at least partly to abundant amounts of antioxidant carotenoids crocin and crocetin. And it appears to work its magic by protecting macular cells against blindness by boosting their sensitivity to light.

Saffron wakes up your retina—and brings the world into focus

Let’s start with some short-term findings: As part of a small 2010 study, 25 patients with early, dry AMD received either a 20 mg saffron supplement or a placebo every day for two consecutive three-month periods.

Results from a focal electroretinogram (fERG)—a test that measures the activity of retinal cells in response
to light—revealed much higher sensitivity in the macula after saffron supplementation.1 Saffron also delivered significantly sharper vision at a distance among early AMD sufferers. (Which is no small feat after just 90 days.) 

Eager to see what saffron could do over a longer treatment period, these researchers completed a follow-up study in 2012. And the outcome was every bit as promising—with results showing even greater improvements in visual acuity and retinal sensitivity that lasted the full 14-month trial.   

Also noteworthy? A 2013 trial from the same research team showed that these benefits are consistent among all AMD patients, regardless of any genetic risk factors influencing the disease.3

A larger six-month trial from a different group of scientists—this one, published in 2016—shows that the benefits of saffron are no fluke. This time, 60 patients with either wet or dry AMD were given 30 mg of saffron or a placebo daily.

Comprehensive testing after three and six months showed significant increases in retinal sensitivity to light. And among patients with wet AMD, significant decreases in apparent blood vessel abnormalities.4 

Why cooking with saffron just won’t cut it

The one thing you may have noticed from all this research is that the studies relied on saffron in supplement, not spice, form. And there’s a good reason for that.

If you’ve ever cooked with saffron, you know it’s not cheap. And like I mentioned earlier, its main purpose is to add subtle flavor to a dish—not to overwhelm the plate. So you’re never going to be able to get the full benefit of saffron from cooking with it.

But thanks to high-quality saffron extracts—which are available both in combination formulas and as stand-alone supplements—you don’t have to. I recommend taking 30 mg of a standardized extract every day.

References:

  1. Falsini B, et al. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2010;51(12):6118-24.
  2. Piccardi M, et al. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:429124.
  3. Marangoni D, et al. J Transl Med. 2013;11:228.
  4. Lashay A, et al. Med Hypothesis Discov Innov Ophthalmol. 2016 Spring;5(1):32-38.

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