Arthritis is a painful inflammation of the joints that affects 24 percent of adult Americans and is a leading cause of work disability, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It comes in various types, but the two most common are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Unfortunately, there is no cure for arthritis, although the symptoms can be managed to reduce the pain it causes. Doctors typically prescribe disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) to slow the progression of RA, for example. These medications work by suppressing the immune system to control inflammation, which heightens the risk of infection from other serious diseases.
In recent years, however, scientists in Iran have been pioneering an alternative treatment for arthritis that the researchers say has the advantage of being both natural and safe. By harnessing the anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties of saffron — the spice extracted from the saffron crocus flower — Iranian medical researchers are claiming a breakthrough in arthritic therapy for OA and RA sufferers alike.
Evidence From Iranian Trials
Clinical trials of the Iranian-manufactured, saffron-based herbal drug Krocina in 2020 and 2022, involving a total of 120 OA patients, found that Krocina significantly reduced C-reactive protein (CRP) levels in the blood, while also increasing the percentage of regulatory T cells (Tregs) and the gene expression of GATA-3, all of which are reliable indicators of an improved anti-inflammatory immune response to the disease.
Another study, carried out at the Iran University of Medical Sciences in 2020, concluded that saffron supplementation can “positively and significantly improve clinical outcomes in RA patients.” Results from that double-blind, placebo-controlled trial showed that 100mg of saffron extract, taken daily by RA sufferers over a period of 12 weeks, decreased not only the number of tender and swollen joints, but the intensity of the pain experienced by the subjects as well.
At the end of 2020, a comprehensive review of the data produced by these and other trials was published by the Tehran University of Medical Sciences. The authors summarized “conclusively” that saffron “is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory factor, which can be considered for the treatment of the patient suffering from the diseases that are associated with inflammation,” including RA and OA.
A team of Iranian scientists from universities in Mashhad and Kermanshah in Iran and the United Kingdom had made a similar assessment of saffron as an anti-arthritic agent the year before and presented their findings in BioFactors, an academic journal published by the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
Results of Non-Iranian Studies
Outside of Iran, however, scientific opinion on the efficacy of saffron therapy for arthritis has been mixed, ranging from ambivalent to generally favorable.
French researchers who conducted a meta-analysis of the available evidence in 2020 came to the conclusion that saffron may indeed have beneficial effects on arthritis, but that “the risk of bias of these studies is difficult to assess,” and the clinical data is too limited. A systematic review by Greek scientists in 2021 also expressed concern about bias in the Iranian clinical trials, and likewise determined that there is simply not enough proof that saffron is effective in relieving the symptoms of rheumatic diseases.
The Chinese scientific community, on the other hand, has been more enthusiastic.
A 2017 article, written by Chinese researchers and published in the peer-reviewed American medical journal Inflammation, presented evidence from rodent testing that crocin — one of the main active ingredients in saffron — “attenuates osteoarthritis [OA] symptoms through alleviating oxidative stress and inflammation, suggesting that crocin is a potential medicine for osteoarthritis therapy.” This further confirmed the results of previous laboratory experiments at Zhejiang University.
More recently, in 2018, findings from a preclinical study at Cangzhou City Central Hospital in China’s Hebei Province led a team of doctors to a similarly positive assessment of crocin’s therapeutic potential for RA sufferers. The study’s authors observed that “crocin is able to alleviate arthritis and suppress inflammatory responses,” and is, therefore, a “promising anti-arthritic agent” that “could be an efficient treatment for RA.”
Verdict and Final Thoughts
All things considered, saffron extract shows real promise as a therapy for those suffering the painful and often debilitating effects of arthritis, and its safety profile is clearly superior to that of the pharmaceutical drugs commonly prescribed for long-term symptom management.
Since the available data indicates that crocin is the chemical constituent primarily responsible for saffron’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties, consumers should look out for good quality saffron supplements that are standardized for high crocin content.