Food and Behaviour Research

Donate Log In

18 April 2019 - Questioning Answers - Saffron for ADHD?

Paul Whiteley


Saffron contains a myriad of different chemical compounds, some of which seem to have a variety of potential medicinal uses.

I'm very partial to a bit of 'left field' research on this blog. By 'left field' I mean research that is slightly unusual or atypical. I'd place the study findings by Sara Baziar and colleagues in that 'left field' category because they reported results - randomised double-blind study results - suggesting that: "Short-term therapy with saffron capsule showed the same efficacy compared with methylphenidate" when it came to managing some of the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Saffron a.k.a Crocus sativus L is a herb commonly cultivated in places like India and Greece. As with many herbs/spices, cooking represents but one potential use of saffron. It contains a myriad of different chemical compounds, some of which seem to have a variety of potential medicinal uses. Real pharmacognosy in action.

The starting point for the Baziar study was that although methlyphenidate (ritalin) is indicated for treating / managing many cases of ADHD, not everyone is suited to such a medicine or the side-effects that it can sometimes produce. So "alternative medication, like herbal medicine, should be considered." Enter then saffron, and some evidence that it might be a useful herb for various psychiatric complaints, to be pitted against methylphenidate in a sort of scientific head-to-head contest with ADHD symptoms in mind.

For 6 weeks, fifty or so children and young adults with "a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) diagnosis of ADHD" were randomly allocated to receive methylphenidate (MPH) "20-30 mg/d (20 mg/d for 30 kg)" or saffron capsules "20-30 mg/d saffron capsules depending on weight (20 mg/d for 30 kg)." At baseline, 3 weeks and 6 weeks researchers measured ADHD-related symptoms.

The results were unsurprisingly surprising. By that, I mean that there were no statistically significant differences between the two groups, bearing in mind the clinical effectiveness profile that methylphenidate use for ADHD has already established. So: "General linear model repeated measures showed no significant difference between the two groups on Parent and Teacher Rating Scale scores." Importantly too we are told that: "The frequency of adverse effects was similar between saffron and MPH groups."

The Baziar results don't immediately open the floodgates to saffron being used to 'manage ADHD' instead of a clinically-proven molecule like methylphenidate. It doesn't work like that. As far as I can see this seems to be the first time that saffron has been put under the scientific spotlight with ADHD mind (taking into account other 'herbal medicines' have been explored with ADHD in mind). We therefore need more data and some all-important replication. We need more data comparing saffron against methylphenidate and other intervention options for ADHD. And we also need more data on why? Why might saffron be a useful therapeutic option for some ADHD? What are the pertinent biological mechanisms at work?