What is it?
Rhodiola rosea is a popular plant in traditional medical systems in Eastern Europe and Asia and is native to the mountainous regions of these areas. After considerable research by Russian scientists, it has been classified as an ‘adaptogen’ meaning that without treating one specific medical condition, regular use of Rhodiola will help the body resist stressors. By raising levels of monamines and beta-endorphins, Rhodiola raises a “stress buffer” system comparable to serotonin stress buffer raised by SSRI antidepressants including St. John’s wort. Therefore, virtually all symptoms caused or worsened by ‘stress,’ which may include depression, anxiety, insomnia, chronic muscle pain (fibromyalgia), chronic fatigue (from adrenal exhaustion), immune dysfunction (susceptibility to infections, cancer) might be either prevented or improved using an adaptogen like Rhodiola. In its historical use, before its mechanism of action was understood, Rhodiola was recommended to combat fatigue and restore energy.
Not surprisingly, most of the research on Rhodiola rosea has been published in Slavic and Scandinavian languages. American and other Western researchers, building upon the clinical studies originally conducted in Scandinavian countries and the Soviet Union, have recently begun to explore rhodiola’s effect on the body and its capacity to aid in the healing process.
Of particular interest is rhodiola’s well-documented qualities as an adaptogen (an endurance enhancer). In this capacity it appears to help the body stay healthy and perform in top-notch condition despite emotional stress, physical exhaustion or exposure to a challenging or unhealthful environment, such as subzero or tropical temperatures or pollutants in the air and water.
Plant specialists have actually identified more than 200 different species of rhodiola. While a number of different ones are used in traditional healing, R. rosea appears to be the most clinically effective form. The root is the part of the plant used medicinally, and some sources refer to R. rosea as “golden root” or “Arctic root.”
In recent years, dozens of uses for Rhodiola rosea have been proposed, including treating depression and fatigue, enhancing memory and intellectual capacity, increasing work performance and endurance, and stimulating the nervous system. Many of these potential benefits relate to the herb’s adaptogenic qualities, namely, its ability to enhance the body’s stress buffering systems and protect the stress responding endocrine glands, the adrenal, thyroid, ovary or testes.
One particularly interesting aspect of rhodiola is that it appears to work differently within the body than other adaptogens–the best known of which are the the two ginsengs (Panax and Siberian) and ashwagandha. Rhodiola’s unique mechanism of action intrigues researchers because this herb may be a In recent years, dozens of uses for Rhodiola rosea have been proposed, including treating depression and fatigue, enhancing memory and intellectual capacity, increasing work performance and endurance, and stimulating the nervous system.
One particularly interesting aspect of rhodiola is that it appears to work differently within the body than other adaptogens–the best known of which are the the two ginsengs (Panax and Siberian) and ashwagandha. Rhodiola’s unique mechanism of action intrigues researchers because this herb may be a therapeutic alternative to these herbs. Instead of fortifying the stress receiving endocrine glands (specifically the adrenal and the thyroid), Rhodiola appears to work by raising levels of two key central nervous system neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin. Many clinicians now believe that low levels of these neurotransmitters are ultimately responsible for susceptibility to several hard-to-treat conditions, such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In this way Rhodiola resembles St. John’s wort. But whereas St John’s wort exclusively acts on levels of serotonin, basically a VERY mild version of Prozac or Lexapro, Rhodiola acting on both serotonin and dopamine is similar to a mild version of Effexor or Pristiq.
Other studies follow in this concept of rhodiola as a stress buffer. Clinical benefits have appeared in such varied areas as increased learning capacity and memory enhancement, regulation of menstrual periods and infertility, reduction of side effects from cancer chemotherapy, increased sexual libido and erectile dysfunction, enhancement of thyroid and adrenal gland function, increased capacity for work and endurance, and protection from environmental toxins, namely all conditions that appear in situations of unchecked stress.
Specifically, Rhodiola rosea may help to:
Improve performance capacity. A handful of studies have shown that rhodiola increases performance in individuals who are working under stressful conditions. For example, a small 2000 study published in the journal Phytomedicine examined the herb’s effect on mental fatigue in a group of 56 healthy young Armenian doctors doing night duty. In this double-blind study, measures of mental fatigue (such as impaired short-term memory, associative thinking, audio-visual perception) were very much improved after supplementation with a rhodiola when compared with placebo.
Ease chronic fatigue syndrome. Rhodiola appears to have clinical benefits for chronic fatigue syndrome through a variety of mechanisms–including raising levels of neurotransmitters, improving metabolism of fatty acids, and enhancing energy molecules, such as ATP (adenosine triphosphate) and CP (creatine phosphate).
Fight fatigue and boost energy. Even for individuals who don’t have chronic fatigue syndrome, rhodiola is becoming increasingly popular to counter the exhaustion that occurs from working the body too hard, either physically or mentally. With rhodiola, problems of fatigue- or exhaustion-related sleep, appetite, and headache may lift. Those struggling to recover from an intense work schedule may also benefit from the herb’s apparent energy-boosting powers.
Prevent stress-related illnesses. Because rhodiola is an adaptogen, it’s likely that this herb can help boost resistance to physical stresses–and the illnesses that commonly follow, varying from immune dysfunction to high blood pressure, from obsessive thinking to tension headaches, from short-term memory problems to menstrual irregularities. Acute stress in particular, namely the “fight or flight” response, tends to shift the body’s levels of endorphins and monoamines, namely the very neurochemicals that rhodiola helps to rebalance. More clinical research is clearly needed to demonstrate this effect, but the hope is that rhodiola taken during times of acute stress may help to stabilize the body.
–Herbalists specify that the species of rhodiola used in a product must be Rhodiola rosea.
–Buy Rhodiola rosea supplements from a company with a reputation for quality.
–Quality products are usually standardized to contain a set amount of rosavin, an active ingredient used in clinical studies. Look for a standardization of at least 2% rosavin.
–Carefully read the label of the product you buy. The rhodiola content of capsules can vary from 60 mg to 300 mg, depending on the manufacturer and the rosavin concentration.
–If you are using the Tincture form of rhodiola, 10 drops of tincture are equal to about 100 mg of rhodiola found in a standardized herbal capsule.
–Because of the herb’s stimulating effect, most studies suggest starting at a lower dose and over several days gradually increasing the amount to the recommended dose.
–For best results, after the graduated start-up period, take rhodiola at exactly the dosage recommended.
Guidelines for Use
Rhodiola has been safely administered for periods ranging from one day to four months.
Until more specific information is available about long-term supplementation, take a one- to two-week pause in your daily rhodiola regimen at least every three months to give your body a rest. In other words, keep to repeat cycles separated by short intervals of no supplementation.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions reported with Rhodiola rosea. However, much remains to be learned about this herb and how it may interact with other adaptogens, such as Siberian ginseng, as well as with other dietary supplements. Theoretically, taking both Rhodiola and Effexor could have an additive effect.
Possible Side Effects
Irritability and insomnia may be a risk with high doses of rhodiola. A high dose is considered to be daily intakes of 1,500 to 2,000 mg and above of a Rhodiola rosea extract standardized to contain 2% rosavin.
Care should be taken when using this herb. Research on R. rosea is still in its early stages, even though Russian scientists have studied the herb intensively. Clinical trials and more study are needed, however, before it’s clear just what the plant can or can’t do, and whether it may be harmful in certain circumstances.
Don’t take rhodiola during pregnancy or while breast-feeding; risks have not been adequately studied. Because of its stimulating nature, rhodiola should be avoided by individuals with bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder.
David Edelberg, MD