Saffron, the expensive, thread-like spice, works as well as a popular medication in treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- The herb saffron may be a safe and effective treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), rivaling Ritalin in effectiveness
- Children with ADHD were randomly assigned to receive either 20 to 30 milligrams a day (mg/d) of methylphenidate (Ritalin) or 20 to 30 mg/d of saffron capsules
- The treatments worked equally well, with changes in Teacher and Parent ADHD Rating Scale scores statistically the same, which suggests both methylphenidate and saffron had the same effect on ADHD symptoms
- Therapeutically, saffron has been shown to enhance memory while also possessing antidepressant, antianxiety and neuroprotective effects that may be valuable in the treatment of ADHD
The herb saffron may be a safe and effective treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).1Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology February 11, 2019 This common neuropsychiatric disorder affects up to 7% of school-age children, causing a mix of symptoms including difficulty concentrating and hyperactivity to mood swings and short attention span.
In up to 60% of cases, symptoms persist into adulthood,2Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology February 11, 2019 where the disorder is linked to social problems, low self-esteem and low quality of life. It’s also known to affect academic achievement.
The standard, first-line approach to treating ADHD is medication, typically central nervous system stimulants such as methylphenidate (Ritalin). However, such drugs may cause side effects such as difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite and nausea. In some cases, the side effects, such as sleep loss, may be so severe that they undermine any benefits of the drug.3Pediatrics November 23, 2015
What’s more, an estimated 30% of children do not respond to Ritalin,4J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1996 Apr;35(4):409-32 and others give up the medication due to its side effects. Oftentimes, the drug treatment does not even lead to meaningful improvements.
In a study that analyzed the effects of drug versus behavioral treatment on homework performance in children with ADHD, the drug treatment led to no significant improvements in homework completion or accuracy compared to placebo.5Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology September 12, 2016
“So far, the outcome with these approved medications for ADHD are often unsatisfactory and there is an empty place to be filled by alternative medications, in particular herbal medicines,” researchers wrote in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology.6Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology February 11, 2019
They noted that herbal medicine is still used for health care for upward of 80% of the world’s population, making saffron a reasonable choice for ADHD treatment.
Saffron Works as Well as Ritalin for Treating ADHD
In a six-week, randomized double-blind study, 54 children between the ages of 6 and 17 years were randomly assigned to receive either 20 to 30 milligrams a day (mg/d) of methylphenidate or 20 to 30 mg/d of saffron capsules.7Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology February 11, 2019
The treatments worked equally well, with changes in Teacher and Parent ADHD Rating Scale scores statistically the same, which suggests both methylphenidate and saffron had the same effect on ADHD symptoms.
“Short-term therapy with saffron capsule showed the same efficacy compared with methylphenidate,” the researchers noted, adding that the frequency of adverse effects was also similar between the two groups.
Saffron, known as the world’s most expensive spice by weight, has traditionally been valued for its antispasmodic, antiseptic, antidepressant, anticancer and anticonvulsant effects, and the researchers noted that saffron’s active compounds are known to “increase the reuptake inhibition of dopamine and norepinephrine and are N-methyl D-aspartic acid (NMDA) receptor antagonists and GABA-α agonists.”
Therapeutically, they add, saffron has been shown to enhance memory while also possessing antidepressant, antianxiety and neuroprotective effects that may be valuable in the treatment of ADHD.
“Taken together, since saffron is a ‘putative’ antidepressant and antidepressant agents are acceptable for treatment of ADHD, we hypothesized that saffron intake would be of benefit in these patients,” the researchers wrote. “In addition, having the ability to affect both monoaminergic and glutamatergic systems also qualify saffron as a possible candidate for the treatment of ADHD due to malfunction of these circuits in this disorder.”8Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology February 11, 2019
What Else Is Saffron Good For?
Saffron (Crocus sativus), a spice that resembles orange threads, is perhaps most widely known for adding a unique, pungent flavor to everything from risotto to meat and vegetable dishes and desserts. However, it’s been valued for its medicinal properties since ancient times, which we now know are due to at least four active ingredients, which include crocin, crocetin, picrocrocin and safranal.9Eur J Drug Metab Pharmacokinet. 2018 Aug;43(4):383-390
Crocetin, in particular, is known to penetrate the blood-brain barrier and reach the central nervous system, suggesting it can be effective in neurodegenerative disorders.10Eur J Drug Metab Pharmacokinet. 2018 Aug;43(4):383-390 Further, as mentioned, saffron has antidepressant properties, which are similar to those of antidepressant drugs, but with fewer reported side effects.11J Affect Disord. 2018 Feb;2[27:33]0-337
Saffron also benefits cognitive function, with a 2010 study involving patients with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease founding those taking 15 mg of saffron twice a day for 16 weeks demonstrated “significantly better outcomes on cognitive function” than those receiving a placebo.12Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics October 2010; 35(5); 581-588
Saffron also shows benefits in preventing high blood pressure,13Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences November 2015; 18(11): 1143-1146 reducing the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome14Drug Res (Stuttg). 2015 Jun;65(6):287-95 and treating metabolic syndrome.15J Sci Food Agric. 2017 Apr;97(6):1679-1685 According to a study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture:16J Sci Food Agric. 2017 Apr;97(6):1679-1685
Saffron is an extensively used food additive for its colour and taste and has been widely used in traditional as well as modern medicine to treat several illnesses including cardiovascular diseases …
It has been proved that saffron has an important role in the management of metabolic syndrome because of its marvelous activities including antidiabetic, antiobesity, hypotensive and hypolipidemic properties.
Environmental Factors Known to Influence ADHD
Saffron is just one natural treatment that shows promise for treating ADHD — there are many others as well. It’s important to understand that ADHD does appear to lead to changes in the brain, with children with the disorder having smaller overall brains, as well as reduced volume in five specific brain regions: the nucleus, putamen, nucleus accumbens, amygdala and hippocampus.17The Lancet Psychiatry February 15, 2017
The differences in volume were slight and seemed to become less magnified by adulthood, which suggests ADHD may be characterized by delayed development in certain brain regions. The biggest size difference occurred in the amygdala, which is associated with emotions and hasn’t previously been widely linked to ADHD.18CNN February 15, 2017
That being said, there are many factors involved, including nutrition and exposure to toxins in the environment. Environmental and lifestyle factors likely influence both the diagnosis of this disease (as well as trigger ADHD-like symptoms) and its progression or healing. For instance:
- Children with higher levels of the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD
Vetiver Oil and Other Natural Treatments for ADHD
Beyond saffron, what else may work to reduce the symptoms of ADHD? Chamomile, another medicinal plant, has been shown to improve both hyperactivity and inattention in youth with ADHD.19Phytomedicine. 2009 Apr;16(4):284-6 In addition, essential oils have repeatedly been shown to do so, particularly vetiver oil (vetiver is a type of Indian grass).
In one study, when children inhaled the oil three times a day for 30 days they had improved brain wave patterns and behavior and did better in school.20Holistic Nursing Practice. January 2020 Eighty percent of the children also improved when using cedarwood essential oil similarly.
Improvements in brain activity were revealed via electro-encephalograph (EEG), which measures electrical impulses moving through the brain. This allowed researchers to determine whether the children’s brains were functioning primarily in a beta (i.e., alert) state or a theta state (i.e., lack of focus).
Improvements in beta-theta ratios were noted following the use of vetiver essential oil, while parents also noted improvements in symptoms. Another study, published in the Journal of Intercultural Ethnopharmacology, also showed vetiver essential oil to have particular promise for ADHD.
The animal study revealed changes in brain activity suggestive of increased alertness,21Journal of Intercultural Ethnopharmacology January-February 2016 while research on human subjects revealed faster reaction times and stimulation of sympathetic nerve activity following inhalation.22Biomed Res. 2012;33(5):299-308 Inhalation via a diffuser or applying the diluted oils topically to the skin are two effective ways to use essential oils for ADHD.
Exercise and Diet Must Be Addressed in ADHD
If your child is struggling with ADHD or ADHD-like symptoms, I recommend consulting with a holistic physician who is experienced in treating ADHD using natural methods. Toward this end, addressing both exercise and diet will be essential.
Exercise enhances cognitive performance and brain function, especially during tasks requiring greater executive control.23Pediatrics. 2014 Oct;134(4):e1063-71 Executive control is the ability to maintain focus, working memory and cognitive flexibility (or switching between tasks), and is often impaired in children with ADHD.24Pediatrics. 2014 Oct;134(4):e1063-71
Exercise appears to benefit cognitive, behavioral and socio-emotional functions in children and adults with ADHD.25J Neural Transm (Vienna). 2017 Feb;124(Suppl 1):3-26 As for diet, I recommend addressing the following factors:
- Too much sugar — High-sugar foods and starchy carbohydrates lead to excessive insulin release, which can cause falling blood sugar levels, or hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia, in turn, causes your brain to secrete glutamate in levels that can cause agitation, depression, anger, anxiety and panic attacks.Besides that, sugar promotes chronic inflammation in your body, and many studies have demonstrated the connection between a high-sugar diet and worsened mental health.
- Gluten sensitivity — The evidence suggesting that gluten sensitivity may be at the root of a number of neurological and psychiatric conditions, including ADHD, is quite compelling. One study went so far as to suggest celiac disease should be added to the ADHD symptom checklist.
Getting back to saffron, more research is needed to confirm its effects on ADHD, but so far the results look promising. If you have a child with ADHD who has not responded to other treatments and lifestyle changes, talk to your holistic practitioner about whether this herbal remedy could be helpful for your child.
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