For years, researchers have been nibbling around the idea that saffron, the prized culinary spice that can be taken as a supplement, is a remedy for depression. But now the evidence is big. In a review of seven randomized controlled trials published in ­Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, researchers concluded that saffron supplements are just as effective as antidepressant drugs for treating mild-to-moderate depression.

Why that matters: Prescription ­antidepressants can cause side effects including weight gain, digestive upset, low libido, insomnia and anxiety, while saffron is associated only with occasional mild symptoms such as dizziness or nausea. It’s very safe at recommended doses (see below), although pregnant women should check with their doctors first.

Saffron works in several ways. Its active ingredients safranal and crocin boost the neurotransmitter serotonin, as do most antidepressants. But saffron also reduces neuroinflammation, the chronic, low-grade brain inflammation that underlies many cases of depression and reduces levels of stress hormones. Best practices…

Use the right kind of saffron supplement. Look for a product standardized to at least 2% safranal (it also will contain crocin), such as Saffron Extract from Swanson Superior Herbs (about $20 for a two-month supply). Most studies used 30 milligrams (mg) daily—the dosage that I typically prescribe. Note: Saffron can be toxic, but only at doses of 1,500 mg or more. (Include saffron in your diet, too—it might help and tastes great.)

Combine saffron with other natural remedies. In my view, saffron should be part of a natural, nondrug protocol. I often prescribe omega-3 fatty acids and 5-HTP. (Check with your doctor first, especially if you are taking other medications.) Saffron often starts to work in a week or two on its own, but it is especially effective when combined with these other remedies.

If you already take an antidepressant, don’t stop on your own. What you might try is to gradually reduce your drug dose under a physician’s supervision while taking saffron and other natural remedies mentioned above. This process can take several months.

Adopt an antidepression lifestyle. That includes regular exercise…a non-inflammatory diet that eliminates sugar, white flour, wheat and gluten, and maximizes fresh foods from the perimeter of the supermarket…seven to eight hours of sleep a night…spending quality time with family and friends.

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