After traveling to places in Arabia where saffron and other herbs and spices were sold and used, I attended a webinar of a Traditional Chinese Medical doctor from Taiwan, Dr. Chien-Fu Liao. Dr. Liao claims to use thousands of dollars a year worth of saffron in his medical practice. Scientific research and traditional usage back his choice of saffron as a major component in his practice for many chronic diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, for which he claims a high level of success and cure.
Saffron and Cancer
In my book Treating Cancer with Herbs (Lotus Press, 2003), I describe the Six TCM Methods for the treatment of cancer. These are:
- Remove toxic Heat (destroy cancer cells)
- Stimulate Blood circulation
- Clear Phlegm
- Relieve Qi Stagnation
- Soften and dissolve masses
Because chemo and radiation therapy are effective in destroying cancer cells (the second item in the above list), the herbal practitioner assisting an integrative approach need not aggressively attend to this. However, of the remaining five, tonification and moving Blood are the two most important methods an herbalist should consider when treating cancer patients. Tonics help the body’s own immune system to attack and destroy cancer cells. For this, I use a lot of reishi and other medicinal mushrooms and astragalus root. As for the movement of Blood, a high concentration of fibrinogen, a clotting factor associated with the formation of tumors, actually impedes the ability of natural cancer fighting factors from entering a tumor and destroying it. Blood-moving herbs have the ability to break down fibrinogen, relieve pain by relieving Blood Stagnation, and prevent metastasis by impeding the ‘nesting’ of cancer cells at distant areas of the body.
Dr. Chien-Fu Liao recommended that all his students incorporate saffron into their practice. Because I was not experienced in the use of saffron mainly because of its high cost, I did not include it in Treating Cancer with Herbs.
Similar to my thoughts about the six methods described in my book, Dr. Liao stressed the use of immune-stimulating tonics because cancer is a deficiency disease. Next he stressed the importance of Blood-moving herbs, especially saffron, which both moves Blood and kills cancer cells. I was surprised that Dr. Liao recommended 1 to 3 grams and even up to 7 grams of saffron. In fact, Dr. Liao stocks thousands of dollars’ worth of saffron in his clinic for his patients and students whom he has taught to incorporate it in their clinical protocol.
Considering the present retail gram price of saffron which is between $6.70 to $8.29, the cost of using a day’s therapeutic dose of saffron at 3 grams would be $20.37 and at 9 grams $61.11. I thought of the expense that including such an expensive botanical to my cancer patients which at even 3 grams per day would come to nearly $700 per month. And that would be only one part of a comprehensive herbal protocol. The cost is further exacerbated by the fact that herbs would not be covered by insurance.
To put things in perspective, what is covered at least in part by insurance is chemo and radiation therapies. The average cost for chemotherapy can be as high as $65,000 while the average cost for UV radiation treatments can be as high as $11,000 a month. Most of these expenses are covered by insurance but there is a significant co-pay payment involved. However, this is only for cancer treatment. I one requires surgery that another considerable expense as are office visits, lab tests, imaging tests like X-rays, CT scans and MRIs, drug costs, and hospital stays. In addition, there are the emotional and health costs, and the costs to an individual’s relationships. I have long considered that the first need of a cancer patient is an advocate, usually a friend or close relative.
Taking all of this in perspective the cost of $700 a month to cover the cost of 3 grams of saffron per day and even if we were to tack on another $500 to $1000 dollars for a complete comprehensive program of herbs other than saffron as well as office visits and acupuncture to relieve the side effects of cancer and/or chemo and radiation treatment, would be a miniscule part of the of the total cost for treating cancer. There are no studies that could provide a reliable measure of survival rate if one only used herbs, however, there are numerous studies that strongly suggest the benefit of an integrated herbal, dietary course of treatment with conventional western medical treatments. As already stated, unfortunately, in the United States, such costs are not covered by insurance. Despite the considerable advances in cancer treatment that occurs each year, a 5-year survival rate for most cancers remains at about 50%.
Saffron in Traditional Healing Systems
Saffron is included in the materia medica of Traditional Chinese medicine, where it is called Xi Hong Hua, meaning “foreign red flower.” In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, it is called kesar or kumkuma meaning “one that imparts glow to the skin.” It is recognized by Middle Eastern Unani medicine, which has its origins in Greco-Roman and Indian Ayurveda. So indeed, it is a very ancient and well-used herb
TCM describes saffron as follows:
Properties: acrid, warm
Organ meridians affected: Heart and Lver
Main properties: invigorates blood, stops pain
Dose (Benky): 3 to 9 grams. However, this may be an error as other sources 1-3 grams which is more in line with household and Ayurvedic dose.
Cautions and contraindications: contraindicated during pregnancy or where there is any problem related to bleeding.
Ayurveda classifies saffron as follows:
Rasa (taste): pungent, bitter
Virya (energy): hot
Vipaka (post-digestive effect): pungent (The vipaka category is unique to Ayurveda and describes a secondary effect in terms of its flavor, so ‘pungent’ means warming and stimulating metabolism.)
Guna (quality): light, unctuous
Dosa (humors): Affects Vata, Pitta, and Kapha and reduces vata . This means it effects all three Dosas (Vata-air -nervous system), pitta-fire (metabolism), Kapha (Fluidic systems).
Dhatu (tissue): all tissues, especially blood and reproductive tissue
Srotas (channel): Female reproductive, male reproductive and digestive
The effect on the reproductive tissue of men was substantiated by the Oman merchant who as an aside said that saffron has a local reputation in the area for treating erectile dysfunction in men (“like Viagra”).
Saffron circulates blood through the female reproductive system increasing libido and fertility. It promotes reproductive health generally and treats irregular menstruation including delayed menses, amenorrhea, hypermenorrhea, and dysmenorrhea.
It is notably contraindicated during early pregnancy or by anyone taking blood thinner medications or has a bleeding disorder.
Ayurvedic dosage compared to TCM is more modest, 100-250 mg per day (1-5 strands). Another source found that up to 1.5g/day of saffron is considered safe which more closely approximates the TCM dosage of 1-3 grams.
Sources for Quality Saffron
Despite its cost, we can appreciate how potent even a few strands of saffron taken daily can be. This is what we were told by the saffron merchants in Oman. Considering the high value of pure saffron, one should strive to purchase the best quality. Saffron is graded into four different categories. This is based on 3 dimensions of color (crocin), aroma (safranal) and flavor (picrocine). Color is the primary indicator of quality. The best sargol quality Persian saffron is grade 1 and provided there are no adulterants the deeper, purer red color with no traces of yellow is the best quality. I recommend purchasing 5 to 10 grams of the best quality saffron especially for medicinal use. Five grams of saffron as a culinary spice makes a very special gift.
Because adulteration and quality of saffron is so important I would refer you to this site: http://www.saffrondust.com.au/a-guide-to-saffron-grading/, which also appears to be a good source for the best quality saffron. I purchased 10 grams of this product and found it to be consistent with quality Persian saffron I was shown in Oman. See Part One of this series on saffron for more on quality.