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The Spice for Memory Enhancement?

Part three of the Heal with Saffron series

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We’ve all been there: forgetting where we left our keys or the name of that neighbour down the street. While a certain amount of forgetfulness is normal, it’s important to support our brain health to prevent more serious memory loss. That’s where the spice saffron comes in: not only does it impart flavour to your foods, but research suggests it may also help enhance memory too.

This article, the third of the three-part Heal with Saffron Series, explores the ways in which saffron can enhance memory. Part one explored its use for anxiety, and part two examined its use to boost mood and lessen depression.

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Memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease

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Memory loss

Brain aging is characterized by memory loss and cognitive decline that may be due, at least in part, to a process known as oxidative stress—an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. While aging and genetics can play a role in memory loss, diet and lifestyle supported with the supplementation of saffron may help protect the brain from age-related health issues, including loss of memory.

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Dementia

When problems with memory loss, as well as language, problem-solving, or reasoning and judgment abilities, become severe enough to interfere with daily life, it is referred to as dementia. Dementia is caused by damage to nerve cells that impairs their ability to communicate.

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Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. In Alzheimer’s disease, high levels of proteins known as amyloid beta make it difficult for brain cells to remain healthy and communicate with each other. A region of the brain known as the hippocampus is the centre for learning, and memory is often the first part of the brain to be damaged by Alzheimer’s disease.

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Emerging research for memory and Alzheimer’s

Lauren Hauswirth, new product development manager at Genuine Health, explains that saffron contains antioxidants that may help reduce oxidative stress and help protect the body from inflammation and reactive oxygen.

Animal research supports her claim while demonstrating saffron also contains a compound known as crocetin and its glycoside crocin, which have been found to cross the blood-brain barrier and may promote the clearance of amyloid-B plaques from the brain. This is potentially great news for those who want to protect their memory and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, although more human trials are needed to confirm these effects.

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What is the blood-brain barrier?

A protective barrier between the brain’s blood vessels and the cells and other components that make up brain tissue, the blood-brain barrier provides a defence against pathogens and toxins in the blood.

In one small study of patients with mild cognitive impairment published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers found that participants taking saffron over the one-year study period had cognitive improvement, while those taking the placebo did not.

Another study published in the journal Human Psychopharmacology found that saffron extract administered over one year demonstrated comparable effectiveness to the Alzheimer’s drug memantine in reducing cognitive decline in patients with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease.

Saffron extract (30 mg) also produced a significantly better outcome on cognitive function than the placebo in a small study of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease over 16 weeks.

The saffron compounds crocetin and its glycoside crocin seem to have neuroprotective effects, which entails protecting nerve cells from injury and degeneration. In one animal study involving crocin published in the International Journal of Molecular Medicine, scientists found that crocin substantially improved memory and cognition and concluded that “crocin demonstrates good prospects in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease ...”

Research published in the European Journal of Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics found that crocetin from saffron penetrates the blood-brain barrier to reach the central nervous system and has a neuroprotective and memory-enhancing effect.

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Multiple sclerosis and memory loss

Memory loss is also implicated in conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS). Research published in the journal Research in Pharmaceutical Sciences observed a reduction in memory impairment and oxidative stress in the hippocampus regions of the brain in mouse models of MS after treatment with a saffron stigma extract. More research into the application of saffron for MS is needed.

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Supplementing with saffron

Hauswirth recommends 28 mg of a saffron standardized extract known as Affron. A typical dose in clinical trials was 30 to 200 mg of saffron daily. Five grams or higher is believed to create toxicity and should be avoided.

Consult your health care practitioner prior to taking saffron, and avoid saffron supplements during pregnancy. Always choose a reputable brand to ensure you’re getting pure saffron.

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A history of saffron as medicine

Saffron was first recorded as a traditional medicine in the Ebers Papyrus, a compilation of Egyptian medical texts, more than 3,500 years ago, where it was reportedly mentioned as a “cheering cardiac medicament.”

Saffron was also mentioned in the Chinese materia medica Pun Tsaou and in the English leechbook, or healing manual, of the 10th century. Used as a perfume in Greek and Roman theatres, courts, and baths, saffron was even sprinkled through the streets of Rome when Nero made his entry into the city.

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Simple lifestyle adjustments for brain health

Memory, one of the brain’s many functions, may be improved through a number of lifestyle adjustments including

·         reducing consumption of sugar and refined carbs

·         limiting alcohol

·         getting adequate sleep

·         engaging in regular physical and mental exercise

·         meditating

·         consuming an anti-inflammatory diet with the addition of curcumin and cocoa and supplementation with fish oil, vitamin D, and, as research increasingly demonstrates, saffron

This article was originally published in the January 2024 issue of alive magazine.

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