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:

Do the Pros of Brown Rice Outweigh the Cons of Arsenic?

Are there unique benefits to brown rice that would justify keeping it in our diet despite the arsenic content?

For years, warnings had been given about the arsenic levels in U.S. rice potentially increasing cancer risk, but it had never been put to the test until a study out of Harvard. The finding? “Long-term consumption of total rice, white rice or brown rice[,] was not associated with risk of developing cancer in US men and women.” This was heralded as good news. Indeed, no increased cancer risk found even among those eating five or more servings of rice per week. But, wait a second: Brown rice is a whole grain, a whole plant food. Shouldn’t brown rice be protective and not just neutral? I discuss this in my video Do the Pros of Brown Rice Outweigh the Cons of Arsenic?.

If you look at whole grains in general, there is “a significant inverse”—or protective—“association between total whole-grain intake and risk of mortality from total cancers,” that is, dying from cancer. My Daily Dozen recommendation of at least three servings of whole grains a day was associated with a 10 percent lower risk of dying from cancer, a 25 percent lower risk of dying from heart attacks or strokes, and a 17 percent lower risk of dying prematurely across the board, whereas rice consumption in general was not associated with mortality and was not found to be protective against heart disease or stroke. So, maybe this lack of protection means that the arsenic in rice is increasing disease risk, so much so that it’s cancelling out some of the benefits of whole-grain brown rice.

Consumer Reports suggested moderating one’s intake of even brown rice, but, given the arsenic problem, is there any reason we should go out of our way to retain any rice in our diet at all? With all of the other whole grain options out there, should we just skip the rice completely? Or, are there some unique benefits we can get from rice that would justify continuing to eat it, even though it has ten times more arsenic than other grains?

One study showed that “a brown rice based vegan diet” beat out the conventional Diabetes Association diet, even after adjusting for the extra belly fat lost by the subjects on the vegan diet, but that may have been due to the plant-based nature of their diet rather than just how brown rice-based it was.

Another study found a profound improvement in insulin levels after just five days eating brown rice compared to white rice, but was that just because the white rice made people worse? No, the brown rice improved things on its own, but the study was done with a South Indian population eating a lot of white rice to begin with, so this may have indeed been at least in part a substitution effect. And yet another study showed that instructing people to eat about a cup of brown rice a day “could significantly reduce weight, waist and hip circumference, BMI, Diastole blood pressure,” and inflammation—and not just because it was compared to white. However, a larger, longer study failed to see much more than a blood pressure benefit, which was almost as impressive in the white-rice group, so, overall, not too much to write home about.

Then, another study rolled around—probably the single most important study on the pro-rice sideshowing a significant improvement in artery function after eight weeks of eating about a daily cup of brown rice, but not white, as you can see at 3:18 in my video, and sometimes even acutely. If you give someone a meal with saturated fat and white rice, you can get a drop in artery function within an hour of consumption if you have some obesity-related metabolic derangements. But, if you give brown rice instead of white, artery function appears protected against the adverse effects of the meal. Okay, so brown rice does show benefits in interventional studies, but the question is whether it shows unique benefits. Instead, what about oatmeal or whole wheat?

Well, first, researchers needed to design an artery-crippling meal, high in saturated fat. They went with a Haagen Daaz, coconut cream, and egg milkshake given with a bowl of oatmeal or “a comparable bowl of whole rolled wheat.” What do you think happened? Do you think these whole grains blocked the artery-damaging effects like the brown rice did? The whole oats worked, but the whole wheat did not. So, one could argue that brown rice may have an edge over whole wheat. Do oats also have that beneficial long-term effect that brown rice did? The benefit was of a similar magnitude but did not reach statistical significance.

So, what’s the bottom line? Until we know more, my current thinking on the matter is that if you really like rice, you can moderate your risk by cutting down, choosing lower arsenic varieties, and cooking it in a way to lower exposure even further. But, if you like other whole grains just as much and don’t really care if you have rice versus quinoa or another grain, I’d choose the lower arsenic option.

Tada! Done with arsenic in the food supply—for now. Should the situation change, I’ll produce another video on the latest news. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss any updates.


Here are all 13 videos in the series, in case you missed any or want to go back and review:

And you may be interested in Benefits of Turmeric for Arsenic Exposure.

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: