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:

Benefits of Turmeric for Arsenic Exposure

What happened when turmeric curcumin was put to the test to see if it could reverse DNA damage caused by arsenic exposure?

Arsenic is a carcinogenic heavy metal, and the major mechanism of arsenic-related damage appears to be oxidative stress. It’s the arsenic-induced accumulation of free radicals that can kill off cells and damage our DNA, and the double whammy is that it may also disrupt our body’s ability to repair our DNA once it’s damaged. Well, if the damage is oxidation, what about eating antioxidant-rich foods, such as the spice turmeric, which contains an antioxidant pigment known as curcumin. I examine this in my video Benefits of Turmeric for Arsenic Exposure.

As anyone familiar with my videos can attest, “numerous clinical studies have suggested that curcumin has therapeutic efficacy against a variety of human diseases,” including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and inflammatory bowel, joint, lung, skin, and eye diseases.

In terms of protection against heavy metals, studies suggest turmeric may help scavenge free radicals, as well as chelate, or bind up, heavy metals. But it’s all just theory, until you put it to the test. Until recently, all we had was research studying whether curcumin can protect against heavy metal-induced oxidation in puréed rat brains, for example. Why can’t you just give some turmeric to people? It’s not like there aren’t millions of people out there who’ve been exposed to arsenic and could use some help.

Indeed, in what became the greatest chemical disaster in human history, “tube-wells” were installed in Bangladesh to provide clean water. UNICEF meant well—too bad they didn’t test the water for arsenic. People started showing up with lesions on their feet, as you can see at 1:52 in my video, and as many as one in ten people in some parts of the country will now go on to die from cancers caused by the arsenic exposure. This disaster allowed the medical community to document all sorts of “interesting” cancers, but why not give them something that may help, like turmeric curcumin?

Researchers did just that. After they determined the extent of DNA damage in study subjects, half were randomly selected and prescribed curcumin capsules blended with a little black pepper compound, while the other half were given a placebo. As you can see at 2:25 in my video, before the study started, the amount of DNA damage found in the curcumin and placebo groups of arsenic-exposed individuals was higher than the DNA damage found in a control group of individuals not exposed to arsenic, which remained the same throughout the study. The researchers wanted to establish a baseline in the arsenic-exposed groups, so they waited for three months before starting the study. And, indeed, the DNA damage remained stable during that time. Then, for three months, they proceeded to give the groups the curcumin or the placebo. The placebo didn’t do much, but within the first month, the researchers could see the curcumin working. And, by the third month, the DNA damage in the curcumin-treated arsenic group was no worse than in those who hadn’t been exposed to arsenic at all. Amazing! “The comparison of the populations receiving curcumin and placebo established that curcumin had an effective role in regression of DNA damage and as an excellent antioxidant agent,” and what they found subsequently is that the curcumin undid the arsenic crippling of our DNA repair enzymes—both helping to prevent the damage and facilitating its repair. “Thus, curcumin intervention may be a useful modality for the prevention of arsenic-induced carcinogenesis [cancer development].”

Of course, you have to make sure the turmeric itself isn’t contaminated with heavy metals. Nearly a quarter of spices purchased in Boston had lead in them, and it’s not just a matter of buying U.S. versus foreign brands, as the difference in lead levels was not found to be statistically significant, as you can see at 3:52 in my video.

What about just eating antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables? The reason we care about DNA damage is that we care about cancer. What if you measured the beta-carotene levels in people exposed to arsenic who went on to develop cancer, compared to those who got exposed to the same amount of arsenic but didn’t get cancer? Beta-carotene is like a proxy for healthy fruit and vegetable intake. The way you get high levels in your blood is by eating lots of healthy foods, like greens and sweet potatoes. Compared to those with low levels of beta-carotene in their blood, those with high levels had 99 percent lower odds of getting arsenic-induced cancer, as you can see at 4:34 in my video. So, if you’re going to eat rice, why not have some rice with some sweet potatoes on top?

What’s the rice connection? I produced a 13-part series on arsenic in rice. Air-pop some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy:

What else can turmeric do? Glad you asked!

Who Shouldn’t Consume Curcumin or Turmeric? Watch the video to find out!

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:

Açaí vs. Wild Blueberries for Artery Function

“Plant-based diets…have been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease” and some of our other leading causes of death and disability. “Studies have shown that the longest living and least dementia-prone populations subsist on plant-based diets.” So why focus on açaí berries, just one plant, for brain health and performance?

Well, “foods rich in polyphenols…improve brain health,” and açaí berries contain lots of polyphenols and antioxidants, so perhaps that’s why they could be beneficial. If you’re only looking at polyphenols, though, there are more than a dozen foods that contain more per serving, like black elderberry, regular fruits like plums, flaxseeds, dark chocolate, and even just a cup of coffee.

As you can see at 1:02 in my video The Benefits of Açaí vs. Blueberries for Artery Function, in terms of antioxidants, açaí berries may have ten times more antioxidant content than more typical fruits, like peaches and papayas, and five times more antioxidants than strawberries. But blackberries, for instance, appear to have even more antioxidants than açaí berries and are cheaper and more widely available.

Açaí berries don’t just have potential brain benefits, however. Might they also protect the lungs against harm induced by cigarette smoke? You may remember the study where the addition of açaí berries to cigarettes protected against emphysema—in smoking mice, that is. That’s not very helpful. There is a long list of impressive-looking benefits until you dig a little deeper. For example, I was excited to see a “[r]eduction of coronary disease risk due to the vasodilation effect” of açaí berries, but then I pulled the study and found they were talking about a vasodilator effect…in the mesenteric vascular bed of rats. There hadn’t been any studies on açaí berries and artery function in humans until a study published in 2016.

Researchers gave overweight men either a smoothie containing about two-thirds of a cup of frozen açaí pulp and half a banana or an artificially colored placebo smoothie containing the banana but no açaí. As you can see at 2:26 in my video, within two hours of consumption of their smoothie, the açaí group had a significant improvement in artery function that lasted for at least six hours, a one or two point bump that is clinically significant. In fact, those walking around with just one point higher tend to go on to suffer 13 percent fewer cardiovascular events like fatal heart attacks.

As I show at 2:52 in my video, you can get the same effect from wild blueberries, though: about a one-and-a-half-point bump in artery function two hours after blueberry consumption. This effect peaks then plateaus at about one and a half cups of blueberries, with two and a half cups and three and a half cups showing no further benefits.

What about cooked blueberries? As you can see at 3:12 in my video, if you baked the blueberries into a bun, like a blueberry muffin, you get the same dramatic improvement in artery function.

Cocoa can do it, too. As shown at 3:30 in my video, after having one tablespoon of cocoa, you gain about one point, and two tablespoons gives you a whopping four points or so, which is double what you get with açaí berries.

One and a quarter cups’ worth of multicolored grapes also give a nice boost in artery function, but enough to counter an “acute endothelial insult,” a sudden attack on the vulnerable inner layer of our arteries? Researchers gave participants a “McDonald’s sausage egg breakfast sandwich and two hash browns.” They weren’t messing around! As you can see at 3:56 in my video, without the grapes, artery function was cut nearly in half within an hour, and the arteries stayed stiffened and crippled three hours later. But when they ate that McMuffin with all those grapes, the harmful effect was blunted.

Eat a meal with hamburger meat, and artery function drops. But if you eat that same meal with some spices, including a teaspoon and a half of turmeric, artery function actually improves.

What about orange juice? Four cups a day of commercial orange juice from concentrate for four weeks showed no change in artery function. What about freshly squeezed orange juice? Still nothing. That’s one of the reasons berries, not citrus, are the healthiest fruits.

For a beverage that can improve your artery function, try green tea. Two cups of green tea gives you that same effect we saw with cocoa, gaining nearly four points within just 30 minutes. And, as you can see at 5:05 in my video, that same crazy effect is also seen with black tea, with twice as powerful an effect as the açaí berries.

So, why all the focus on just that one plant? Why açaí berries? Well, the real reason may be because the author owns a patent on an açaí-based dietary supplement.

How do the antioxidant effects of açaí berries compare to applesauce? See The Antioxidant Effects of Açaí vs. Apples.

What about the effects of other foods on artery function? Coronary artery disease is, after all, our leading cause of death for men and women. See:

What else can blueberries do? Check out:

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: