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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.
Will Precious Saffron Save Your Eyesight?
Dried saffron stigmas on slate surface closeup

A diagnosis of a chronic condition that could lead to a severely diminished quality of life is terrifying. Age-related macular degeneration 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.

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).

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 “steak pattern” heavy on meat and potatoes was associated with progression to more severe AMD, while a “breakfast pattern” featuring cold breakfast cereal was linked to a lower prevalence of advanced degeneration. Surprisingly, peanuts were also associated with less risk of advanced AMD.

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.

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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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