Can Saffron Make You Sleep Better?
Sleep is one of the most important healing and energizing tools you have in your health kit. As stressful lifestyles and existing health conditions make sleeping difficult, ways to improve sleep duration and quality are on the rise. One such popular trick is to use saffron for sleep.
Findings of a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial conducted amongst healthy adults with self-reported poor sleep quality suggest saffron supplementation might lead to potentially improving sleep quality in subjects suffering from mild to moderate insomnia.
To understand how saffron supplementation might work for sleep, let’s first dive into the mechanics of sleep, and the importance of gut health in maintaining good sleep habits, etc.
How does sleep work?
Humans sleep for roughly one-third of their lives. Your body resets itself during sleep and prepares from the inside out to face a new day, stimuli, and experiences.
There are two processes that work in sync and dictate when, how much and how well you sleep. These are known as Processes S and C.
Process S is the body’s natural drive to sleep. Your body needs a certain amount of sleep to be in homeostasis – a stable state – and the quantity of sleep you might need to be in homeostasis may differ from others around you.
Say you need seven hours of sleep. If you’ve only slept for five the previous night, this puts you in a sleep debt. Your body will put pressure on you to resolve this debt — you'll feel tired, cranky, and slow to respond.
If only process S or the homeostasis sleep pressure was in control of your sleep then you would fall asleep much earlier than your regular bedtime in order to compensate for this sleep debt. But that doesn’t normally happen because of Process C, which determines when during the 24-hour cycle, you'll fall asleep.
What is the body clock?
Humans are diurnal, meaning we mostly sleep at night and stay awake during the day. Your body clock – sleep-wake cycles – is regulated by the hypothalamic SCN (suprachiasmatic nucleus).
The synchronization of the body clock (process C) depends on light exposure. When it's dark out, your body tends to slow down and gets ready to sleep. This is why light exposure before bedtime can delay sleep onset.
If you’re in a sleep debt but it’s still light out, it can become difficult to catch up on sleep because your sleep processes C and S are out of sync.
How do melatonin, serotonin, and cortisol affect sleep quality?
Your circadian rhythm or body clock shifts between day and night functions. Your body starts to raise melatonin levels — the hormone your body produces in response to darkness — at the onset of darkness and it continues to rise during the night, whereas cortisol levels start rising in the middle of the night and peak in the morning causing you to wake up.
Serotonin is another hormone that plays an important role in maintaining appropriate sleep pressure and wake-sleep rhythm. It's also the precursor to melatonin.
Hormones such as melatonin, serotonin, and cortisol are chemical messengers released by the body to carry out functions based on your body clock. Hormone levels shift according to your circadian rhythm but they’re also affected by meal times, social interactions, and sleep quality.
If you're feeling stressed, your cortisol (known as the stress hormone) levels will be high. High cortisol levels can potentially interfere with sleep. Light exposure can inhibit the effects of melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel sleepy, and increase cortisol.
An out-of-sync body clock might result in disturbed sleep only for a night or two but sustained stress and lack of sleep over a long period of time can potentially turn into a chronic sleep debt. Sleep debt has been associated with wide-ranging ill health effects such as obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and hypertension.
But what is sleep quality and how is it measured?
Sleep quality is related to your sense of self-satisfaction and overall well being. It’s associated with feeling rested, having normal reflexes, and being in a good mood, whereas sleep disorder is associated with feeling restless, daytime dysfunction, delayed responses, fatigue, and irritability.
Factors that can contribute to your sleep quality are:
The total amount of time you spend in bed.
The measure of how long it takes you to initially fall asleep from the time you get into bed.
Wake after sleep onset (WASO)
The time you spend awake after you initially fall asleep. It's used to understand how fragmented your sleep is. For example - If you wake up twice during the night and each time it takes you roughly half an hour to get back to sleep then your WASO is 60 minutes.
A total sense of how well you slept but doesn't distinguish between how long it took you to get to sleep or how fragmented your sleep might have been.
Disturbed sleep or insomnia is a common sleep disorder. It's when you have difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep. Insomnia has become much more prevalent over the last few decades and can pose significant health implications for people suffering from prolonged sleep disorders. Some of the methods commonly used to measure the severity of insomnia and quality of sleep are:
- Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI)
- Insomnia Severity Index (ISI)
- Restorative Sleep Questionnaire (REST- Q)
The PSQI, ISI, and REST- Q measures can be used to quantify sleep efficiency over a period of time to determine overall sleep quality. They use sleep-related parameters such as:
- Sleep duration
- How long it takes to fall asleep (sleep latency)
- Daytime dysfunction
- Sleep disturbances
- Habitual sleep efficiency (how long do you stay asleep while in bed)
- Use of sleep medicine
- Sleep quality
Whether you're dealing with a passing bout of insomnia or a prolonged sleep disorder, it's best to understand how different elements of your lifestyle and preexisting health conditions might affect your sleep quality and the changes you can make to support better sleep and health.
Can your gut microbiome affect your sleep?
The trillions of microbes in your gut respond differently to the light and dark phases of the day and have a bidirectional communication system with your brain known as the brain-gut-microbiome axis (BGMA).
Different microbes dominate the gut at different times of the day and have different effects on our bodily functions. For example - microbial pathways that affect DNA repair, cell growth, etc. are higher at night whereas microbial pathways concerning environment sensing, motility, etc. are higher during the day.
The master clock resides in the SCN and it syncs with the external environment through light exposure. But there are additional time-sensing signals that originate from the liver and intestines. One such signal is the post-meal production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) - butyrate and acetate - that can either support the master clock with time-appropriate feeding times or cause it to become out of sync.
Sleep disorders affect the delicate balance of your gut microbiome. The relationship between sleep and gut microbiome is circular. Poor sleep may negatively affect your gut microbiome and in turn your metabolism and health. Similarly, poor eating habits and disrupted meal times may affect your overall sleep quality.
Does saffron affect the gut microbiome?
A study published in Scientific Reports suggests that butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid produced in the gut due to bacterial fermentation of complex carbohydrates, acts as a sleep-promoting signal.
Findings of another study conducted in order to analyze the effects of natural supplements such as saffron in the treatment of colitis suggest that saffron supplementation can potentially alter the gut microbiome in mice. It was found that saffron supplementation increased the presence of butyrate, acetate, and propionic acid in mice guts.
Another major finding of the study suggests that oral or intraportal consumption of tributyrin or butyrate increased NREMS (non-rapid eye movement sleep) in rats and mice.
Although different studies imply a positive correlation between saffron supplementation, increased production of butyrate, and the positive effect of butyrate on improved sleep quality, there’s a lack of studies that directly test these parameters.
What are the active ingredients in saffron?
Saffron is a spice that is derived from the flower Crocus Sativus and it has been used as a herbal medicine in traditional systems of medicine. Saffron has bioactive compounds such as crocin, crocetin, picrocrocin, and safranal.
In a mice study, safranal was found to potentially promote sleep-promoting neurons and be safer than other common hypnotic drugs.
Several studies have been conducted in order to study the effects of the saffron extract on mood and sleep quality. Saffron extract has been found to have potential therapeutic effects in individuals suffering from moderate sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.
Further research on saffron extract and sleep quality
Findings published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine from a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial suggest that saffron taken over a period of four weeks using a standardized saffron extract supplementation led to improved sleep quality and restorative sleep for individuals with self-reported poor sleep problems.
55 healthy adults who had self-reported sleep problems were either given a saffron extract supplement or a placebo. Researchers used Insomnia Severity Index (ISI) as the primary data collection instrument, along with the Pittsburgh Sleep Diary and Restorative Sleep Questionnaire.
The saffron group reported increased scores in ISI, RSQ, and PSD and reported an overall improvement in sleep quality and feelings of well-being when compared to the placebo group.
Scores higher than 12 on ISI indicate borderline insomnia and scores higher than 15 can indicate moderate and severe insomnia. It should be kept in mind that although participants reported improved feelings of well-being; borderline, moderate, and severe insomnia still persisted.
Another randomized double-blind controlled study performed with 66 subjects presenting mild to moderate sleep troubles over a period of six weeks found the dry saffron extract to have potentially improved overall sleep quality, increased time in bed, and decreased sleep onset latency as assessed by the Leeds sleep evaluation questionnaire (LSQE) and Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index.
Natural remedies for your best sleep: find what works for you
A healthy body clock is necessary for restful sleep. Getting some sun in the morning and avoiding bright lights before bedtime are two of the best strategies to synchronize your body clock.
Additionally, dietary supplements like saffron, which may have benefits that reduce anxiety, as well as probiotics, which produce metabolites that support sleep like butyrate, serotonin, and melatonin, may be precisely what you need to boost the quality of your sleep.
Our Simple Slumber probiotic contains a special combination of six bacteria that may be helpful in promoting restful sleep. Probiotic strains including Leuconostoc mesenteroides (TBC0037TM), Lactobacillus plantarum (TBC0036TM), Lactobacillus acidophilus (DDS®1), and Lactobacillus casei can all work together to enhance the quality of your gut health and overall sleep.
Want to find out more about the benefits of probiotics for your health? Check out this article to learn how consuming prebiotics can further help you improve the quality of your sleep!
Martha Carlin, is a Citizen Scientist, systems thinker, wife of Parkinson’s warrior, John Carlin, and founder of The BioCollective, a microbiome company expanding the reach of science. Since John’s diagnosis in 2002, Martha began learning the science of agriculture, nutrition, environment, infectious disease, Parkinson’s pathology and much more. In 2014, when the first research was published showing a connection between the gut bacteria and the two phenotypes of Parkinson’s, Martha quit her former career as a business turnaround expert and founded The BioCollective to accelerate the discovery of the impact of gut health on all human health, including Parkinson’s. Martha was a speaker at the White House 2016 Microbiome Initiative launch, challenging the scientific community to “think in a broader context”. Her systems thinking background and experience has led to collaborations across the scientific spectrum from neuroscience to engineering to infectious disease. She is a respected out of the box problem solver in the microbiome field and brings a unique perspective to helping others understand the connections from the soil to the food to our guts and our brains.