Saffron Put to the Test for Alzheimer’s

The spice saffron is pitted head-to-head against the leading drug for severe Alzheimer’s disease.

What’s the latest on treating memory disorders with the spice saffron? As I discuss in my video Saffron Versus Memantine (Namenda) for Alzheimer’s, “saffron has been widely used in the Persian traditional medicine for memory problems,” but it wasn’t put to the test until a study showed that Alzheimer’s dementia symptoms continued to worsen on placebo but got better on saffron over a 16-week period, as you can see at 0:21 in my video. The researchers concluded that saffron is “safe and effective in mild-to-moderate AD [Alzheimer’s disease] patients,” at least in the short term. What about head-to-head against the leading drug used for such patients? Saffron appeared to work just as well—but with significantly less vomiting, a common side effect of the drug in this study. So, that’s where we were as of 2010. What’s the update?

In 2013, we got the first glimpse of a potential mechanism. Alzheimer’s disease involves “brain nerve cell destruction.” Our brain cells can be killed by the buildup of either tangles or amyloid plaques, where aggregates of a protein called amyloid beta “act as a poison.” But, as you can see at 1:13 in my video, adding crocin, the red pigment found in saffron, significantly reduces this amyloid clumping in a petri dish, which is an effect that can be plainly seen under an electron microscope. So, the component of saffron that makes it so colorful appears to have “the ability to prevent amyloid formation.” What about the tangles? Crocin also seems to be able to block the tangles in vitro, as demonstrated once again with electron microscopy. Perhaps this is why saffron helps in Alzheimer’s disease, but this was just for mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s. Does that mean you have to catch it early? What about moderate-to-severe Alzheimer’s? 

We didn’t know, until a study compared saffron head-to-head against the leading drug for severe Alzheimer’s. Once again, saffron seemed to work just as well, as you can see at 2:01 in my video. In fact, one might consider saffron worked even better because there haven’t been any serious adverse effects attributed to saffron, whereas the drug is associated with increased risk of sleepiness, weight gain, confusion, hypertension, nervous system disorders, and falling.

The saffron study wasn’t funded by supplement or spice companies—just noncommercial public grants. But, all the studies were done in Iran, which controls about 90 percent of the saffron crop. So, promoting saffron consumption may be of national interest, just like the New Zealand government funds research on kiwifruit—though who else is going to fund studies on a simple spice?


For more on herbal approaches to dementia, check out:

What else can saffron do? See:

In health, 

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Amla (dried Indian gooseberry) vs. Lipitor for Lowering Cholesterol

Extracts of amla (Indian gooseberry) were pitted head-to-head against cholesterol-lowering statin drugs and the blood thinners aspirin and Plavix.

Indian gooseberries, otherwise known as amla, have been touted as everything from a cancer fighter to a hair tonic to a refrigerant. (A refrigerant? Like Freon?) Amla’s even been labeled a snake venom detoxifier—but based on what kind of research? I discuss this in my video Flashback Friday: Amla vs. Drugs for Cholesterol, Inflammation, & Blood-Thinning.

Yes, dietary intake of both turmeric and amla “increases life span”—of fruit flies. Do we really care about the effect of amla on the lifespan or the “sexual behavior,” for that matter, of fruit flies? How do you even study the sexual behavior of fruit flies? Why, just introduce “a virgin female and bachelor male…into an Elens-Wattiaux mating chamber,” don’t you know? (Can you imagine having an insect mating chamber named after you? And it looks like there were two people fighting over naming rights so they had to go with both!) 

Okay, so the virgin female and bachelor male are in the chamber. Now it’s just a matter of getting out a stopwatch. As you can see at 1:06 in my video Amla vs. Drugs for Cholesterol, Inflammation, and Blood-Thinning, 20 minutes is the average “copulation duration,” but it was almost a half-hour on amla. What’s more, amla dropped the “mating latency,” the time from when they were introduced to each other in the chamber to when they started getting busy, from ten down to seven seconds. Seconds? They don’t mess around! Well, actually, they do mess around—and quite rapidly. 

And, on amla, they lay more eggs and more of those eggs hatch into larva. But, just as you probably don’t think about flies when you hear amla is “the best medicine to increase the life span,” you’re probably not thinking more maggots when you read that amla may have a “potent aphrodisiac effect.”

Now, there was a study, as I show at 1:56 in my video, that found extraordinary improvements in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in actual humans, but that was compared to placebo. What about compared to simvastatin, a leading cholesterol-lowering drug sold as Zocor? Treatment with the drug “produced significant reduction” in cholesterol, as one would expect, but so did the amla. In fact, you could hardly tell which was which. There was only about a 10 to 15 percent drop in total and LDL cholesterol, but the amla dose in this study was only 500 milligrams, which is about a tenth of a teaspoon, and it wasn’t just the powdered fruit, but the powdered juice of the fruit, which may have made a difference.

How about versus Lipitor, the cholesterol-lowering drug known as atorvastatin? As I show at 2:50 in my video, no effects of taking placebos were seen, but there were significant improvements for the drug and also for two different doses of amla, but again only a drop of about 15 percent or so. Did the researchers use the juice again? No. Even worse, they used a patented extract of amla, so instead of costing 5 cents a day, it was 50 cents a day and didn’t even seem to work as well. Though, because of this proprietary product, at least someone is willing to pony up the funds to do the research.

It’s like the cancer story. For Indian gooseberries “to become relevant clinically,” researchers are praying for “patentable derivatives” to be synthesized. “Without the possibility of patents, the pharmaceutical industry will undoubtedly not invest” in the research. Their shareholders wouldn’t let them. It’s patents over patients. But, without that research, how can we ever prove its worth—or worthlessness, for that matter? So, interest by the drug and supplement industries in patenting natural food product remedies is a double-edged sword. Without it, there would never have been the study showing not only benefits for cholesterol but also for arterial function, as you can see at 4:04 in my video, reducing artery stiffness in the two amla extract groups and the drug group, but not the placebo, as well as a dramatic drop in inflammation, with C-reactive protein levels cut in half. So, amla—or at least amla extracts—“may be a good therapeutic alternative to statins in diabetic patients with endothelial [artery] dysfunction because it has the beneficial effects of the statins but without the well known adverse effects” of the drugs, including muscle damage and liver dysfunction.

The amla extract was also compared to the blood-thinning drugs aspirin and Plavix, which are often prescribed after heart attacks, and achieved about three quarters of the same platelet aggregation inhibiting effect as the drugs, significantly increasing bleeding and clotting time—that is, the time it takes you to stop dripping after getting poked with a needle. This is actually a good thing if you have a stent or something you don’t want to clog up, but it didn’t thin the blood outside the normal range, so it may not unduly raise the risk of major bleeding.

Amla extract also appears to decrease the effects of stress on the heart. Researchers had people plunge their hands into ice water and keep them there until the pain became “unbearable,” which causes your arteries to constrict and your blood pressure to go up—but not as much if you’re taking an amla extract. Good to know for your next ice bucket challenge. 

I profile the study that used the whole fruit in my video The Best Food for High Cholesterol. 


For more on amla, see: 

The double-edged sword of patenting natural substances comes up over and over. See, for example, Plants as Intellectual Property: Patently Wrong?.

With a healthier diet, neither drugs nor supplements may be necessary:

For all of my videos on the latest research on cholesterol, visit our Cholesterol topic page.

In health, 

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

The Most Antioxidant-Packed Whole Food

Are the apparently amazing benefits of amla—dried Indian gooseberries—too good to be true?

In reference to amla, also known as the Indian gooseberry, it’s been said that “medicinal plants are nature’s gift to human beings to promote a disease free healthy life.” The fruit has also been described as “the Ayurvedic wonder.” You hear a lot of that larger-than-life talk about amla coming out of Indian medical journals. Who can forget the review article titled, “Amla…a wonder berry in the treatment and prevention of cancer”? Amla is so revered that you can find serious scientists at serious academic institutions making statements like this in serious peer-reviewed medical journals: “Every part of the [Indian gooseberry] plant has its unique therapeutic characteristic for the remedy of almost all the ailments. For the mankind, it can be adopted as a single bullet”—emphasis not added—against disease. Okay, then.

I first ran across amla in a famous article that looked at the total antioxidant content of thousands of different foods. I produced a series of videos about it ages ago. To my surprise, the number-one, most antioxidant-packed single whole food on the planet, was, on average, amla. Dried powdered Indian gooseberries beat out cloves, the prior heavyweight champion, with up to a hundred times or more antioxidants by weight than blueberries, for comparison. 

So, here’s this fruit that “enjoys a hallowed position in Ayurveda,” the ancient system of medicine in India—in fact so hallowed that it was mythologically pegged as “the first tree to be created in the universe.” So, for thousands of years—before we even knew what an antioxidant was—people were revering this plant that just so happens to turn out to be the most antioxidant-packed fruit on Earth. You’ve got my attention, but I still needed to see it put to the test.

Indigenous tribal healers used amla to treat diabetes, so researchers decided to give it a try, too. “Effect of Amla fruit (Emblica officinalis Gaertn.) on blood glucose and lipid profile [cholesterol levels] of normal subjects and type 2 diabetic patients” was the study that originally bowled me over. In fact, it was the subject of one of my very first NutritionFacts videos more than five years ago where I talked about the jaw-dropping effects of five cents’ worth of this powdered fruit—just five pennies’ worth—compared to a diabetes drug. But, what about the cholesterol effects?

As I discuss in my video The Best Food for High Cholesterol, if you take healthy individuals and give them a placebo sugar pill, nothing much happens to their cholesterol. Ideally, we want our total cholesterol to be under 150, which is where the normal control group came in, a pretty healthy group. The average cholesterol in the United States is over 200, which is where the diabetics started out in this study. And, when you give the diabetic subjects placebo pills, nothing much happens to them either. But what happens when you give people about a half teaspoon of amla powder a day? Not some extract or something, but simply dried Indian gooseberries—just a powdered fruit. As you can see at 3:05 in my video, there is about a 35 to 40 percent drop in cholesterol values in three weeks. Absolutely astounding! That’s the kind of result we may see about six months after putting patients on statin drugs.

What we care most about is LDL, though, the so-called bad cholesterol, ideally shooting for under at least 70. As you can see at 3:36 in my video, the placebo had no impact on LDL, but once again, just about a half teaspoon of amla, which would cost you about 5 cents a day, achieved significant results. Boom!

These results knocked my socks off. They’re just unbelievable! That’s why I was so excited to dig back into the amla literature after all these years to see if these findings had been confirmed—that is, replicated elsewhere. So, I typed “amla” into PubMed and waded through all the papers on using amla to decrease methane in cow farts and speed the growth of chickens. And, hey! What about amla ice cream? After all, amla is packed with fiber and phytonutrients, but ice cream, in contrast, is not. Indeed, amla incorporated into ice cream increases antioxidant activity, though I would not recommend it for lowering cholesterol. 

Coming up next? A comparative clinical study of amla head to head against the cholesterol-lowering statin drug simvastatin, sold as Zocor.


I’m so excited to get back to this after all these years. You may be interested in my original series, which also gives tips on how to find amla:

What else is super antioxidant-packed? See Antioxidant Power of Plant Foods vs. Animal Foods and Antioxidant Content of 3,139 Foods.

Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion in my next video Amla vs. Drugs for Cholesterol, Inflammation, and Blood-Thinning.

No matter how well it works, though, one can essentially eliminate risk of heart disease with a healthy-enough diet. See my overview video How Not to Die from Heart Disease. But, if your cholesterol is still too high even after doing everything right, amla may help.

In health, 

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: