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Will Precious Saffron Save Your Eyesight?

Some scientific studies back up a reader's claim that saffron supplements can help keep macular degeneration from running rampant.

A diagnosis of a chronic condition that could lead to a severely diminished quality of life is terrifying. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) can result in a significant loss of vision. Consequently, people who learn they have this condition often look for ways to mitigate its effects. We heard from one reader who discovered that saffron, a precious spice in every sense of the term, might help. People would take it in addition to established prescription treatments and specific vitamins.

Saffron Supplements for Macular Degeneration:

Q. I was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration in 2014. Immediately, I read up on what I could do to prevent blindness. In addition to taking AREDS2, I found that there is a supplement that can reduce, prevent, and even IMPROVE this condition.

The supplement is saffron. Clinical studies have shown that it is anti-inflammatory and helpful for macular degeneration.

I started taking saffron soon after diagnosis and in six months my eyesight IMPROVED. It has been stable since.

I order mine from New Zealand. Some eye vitamin supplements also have been adding saffron to the formula because of this research.

What Does the Science Say About Saffron?

A. Your story intrigued us because we weren’t aware that saffron is being used to treat age-related macular degeneration (AMD). This condition leads to a loss of sharp vision in the center of the retina (the macula). As a result, people find it hard to focus on the details of items in front of them-faces, signs or pages in a book.

Researchers have been investigating the antioxidant spice saffron for its ability to protect the retina. So far, the clinical trials have been promising but small (Piccardi et al, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, July 18, 2012; Marangoni et al, Journal of Translational Medicine, Sep. 25, 2013; Lashay et al, Medical Hypothesis, Discovery & Innovation Ophthalmology Journal, Spring 2016). These studies demonstrate that saffron as a supplement (20 mg/day) can stabilize the retina for up to six months in people with early-stage AMD. We’d love to see larger, well-designed studies on this interesting supplement.

What About AREDS?

You mentioned AREDS2, a supplement formulation on which the research foundation is stronger. The acronym stands for Age-Related Eye Disease Study. This study demonstrated that a particular antioxidant vitamin-mineral formulation could slow the progression of AMD (Evans & Lawrenson, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, July 31, 2017). It contains contains vitamin C (500 mg), vitamin E (400 IU), beta carotene (15 mg) and zinc (80 mg) with copper (2 mg).

The AREDS2 study confirmed the value of the formulation and showed that adding lutein, zeaxanthin and fish oil did not make a significant difference. Nonetheless, some experts believe that lutein and zeaxanthin are preferable to beta-carotene in a multivitamin supplement designed to delay macular degeneration (JAMA Ophthalmology, Feb. 2014).

Saffron and Hesperidin to Combat Macular Degeneration:

Q. Several years ago I was diagnosed with the early stages of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). My eye doctor prescribed Avastin injections into the eye. Later, he changed the injection to Eylea.

In addition, I started taking both saffron and hesperidin supplements to reduce inflammation and leaky blood vessels. So far, this regimen is working well for me. I am still driving, something I was told would not be possible if my vision deteriorated.

My eye doctor is convinced that Eylea is solely responsible. He rolls his eyes when I mention the supplements. Is there any science to support these natural remedies?

A. Aflibercept (Eylea) is FDA-approved for treating wet AMD. In this condition, blood vessels in the retina begin to leak. The resulting fluid buildup at the back of the eye impairs vision, especially in the middle of the visual field. Aflibercept slows or stops the growth of tiny, malformed blood vessels in the retina. As these tend to leak, preventing their proliferation helps maintain vision.

The FDA has not approved the supplements you mention for treating AMD. However, European researchers have found evidence supporting saffron. For example, Italian scientists found that saffron stabilizes vision both in rats exposed to harmful light and in people with AMD (Antioxidants, July 17, 2019).

Spanish researchers considered studies of saffron against retinal disease (Neural Regeneration Research, Aug. 2020).

They concluded,

“This review showed that saffron extracts could be considered promising therapeutic agents to help in the treatment of ocular neurodegenerative diseases.”

In addition, French investigators report positive results from crocin and crocetin, derived from saffron (Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, Dec. 8, 2020). These compounds help prevent the development of small, weak blood vessels in the retina (Frontiers in Pharmacology, April 30, 2021).

There has been much less research on hesperidin, a flavonoid found in citrus fruit. Hesperidin and the related compound diosmin have been used to treat blood vessel disorders (European Journal of Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics, Oct. 23, 2021). They appear to be relatively safe, but you should make sure your eye doctor continues to monitor your progress.

Another Reader Asks for an Update on Saffron:

Q. I have macular degeneration, for which my doctor recommended special vitamins (AREDS) and injections in my eye every three months. A friend mentioned reading in your column that saffron might be helpful. Can you tell me more?

A. Because age-related macular degeneration (AMD) can rob people of their vision, your eye doctor must monitor your progress closely. The vitamins he or she suggested proved effective in the large clinical trial that established their value (Age Related Eye Diseases Study) (Archives of Ophthalmology, Oct. 2001).

You should not consider saffron as a replacement for your prescribed treatment and vitamins, but as a supplement to them. A review of research (Neural Regeneration Research, Dec. 2020) concludes that saffron improved visual function in individuals with AMD. The dose in the seven clinical trials reviewed ranged from 20 to 50 mg a day.

What Do You Eat?

In addition, investigators have analyzed the diets of AREDS participants and found a few foods and dietary patterns that may contribute to AMD (Chiu et al, Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, March 1, 2017).  For example, a higher proportion of volunteers who followed a “steak pattern” heavy on meat and potatoes progressed to severe AMD. Meanwhile, those who favored a “breakfast pattern” featuring cold breakfast cereal were less likely to develop advanced degeneration. Surprisingly, peanuts were also associated with less risk of advanced AMD.

In another meta-analysis, scientists found that people eating fish were less likely to have their AMD progress (European Journal of Nutrition, Aug. 2019). On the other hand, drinkers imbibing wine or spirits were at higher risk.

A recent review suggests that people following a Mediterranean diet rich in fish, vegetables such as broccoli, nuts like walnuts and tigernuts and spices, especially saffron, are less prone to vision loss from AMD (Foods, May 28, 2021).

Turn Down the Light?

Exposure to bright light can stress the cells of the retina. Recently a study in rats found that exposure to bright light was damaging, but an antioxidant formulation comparable to AREDS plus rosemary was protective (Wong et al, Molecular Vision, Oct. 10, 2017).

Rosemary and saffron are both popular spices in Mediterranean-style diets. In summary, perhaps we should all be adding them to our food, for the sake of our eyes.

If you have tried saffron, rosemary or another supplement in addition to the AREDS vitamins and drugs your doctor has prescribed for AMD, let us know about the results you are seeing.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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