Rhodiola: Nature’s #1 Stress Buster
If you were to draw back the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union during the 1960s to 1980s, you would find scientists with their noses to the grindstone, intent on making the advances that would cement this nation’s spot as an international superpower.
One of their focuses was the hunt for adaptogens, substances that have the purported ability to help us resist the harmful effects of stress and fight fatigue.
And their search paid off: In the wilds of Eastern Europe and Asia, they discovered a plant that promised to help fortify Soviet athletes, cosmonauts, soldiers, and others racing to be the “best of the best”.
Today, everyone can find this powerful adaptogen in herbal supplements and tonics.
But will it really give you that superior edge?
A Rose By Any Other Name…
The Soviets weren’t actually the first to recognize the advantages of this plant. As early as Ancient Greece, physicians were relying on the herb – now known as Rhodiola rosea – for medicinal purposes.
Rhodiola, which gets its name from its rose-like scent, has been used as a traditional tonic in Iceland, Russia, and Scandinavian countries for centuries. People there have long valued rhodiola as a way to boost energy, enhance mental and physical performance, and fight illness.
But Soviet scientists were the first to classify rhodiola as an adaptogen, based on its supposed ability to help users cope with a wide variety of stressors, including heat, cold, exertion, trauma, sleep deprivation, and psychological woes.
Manufacturers now also attribute a bevy of other benefits to rhodiola, from improved sexual function, to weight loss, although there’s no real evidence to support such claims.
So were the Russians right about rhodiola?
Nature’s Stress Buster?
Decades of laboratory research have identified a whopping 140 chemical compounds in the roots and rhizomes of the rhodiola plant. These include contain phenols, rosavin, rosin, rosarin, organic acids, terpenoids, phenolcarbonic acids and their derivatives, flavonoids, antrachinones, and alkaloids.1,2
But do these substances actually have beneficial effects on health?
Indeed they may.
For example, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 56 physicians on night-duty examined the potential benefits of rhodiola for maintaining mental acuity. Participants received either 170 mg of rhodiola extract or a placebo daily. After two weeks, people taking rhodiola retained a higher level of mental function – such as the ability to do mental arithmetic – than those who took a placebo.3
Another double-blind, placebo-controlled studylooked at the one-time use of either 360 mg or 555 mg of rhodiola extract or a placebo in 161 male military cadets undergoing sleep deprivation and stress. The results showed that rhodiola was more effective than placebo at fighting the effects of fatigue.8
A similar study examined the effects of 100 mg of rhodiola extract daily for 20 days in 40 foreign students undergoing examinations (presumably a highly stressful situation). Researchers found modest benefits on some measurements of fatigue and mental function.9
And a systematic meta-analysis of 13 studies of rhodiola found that the herb may have beneficial effects on mental and physical performance, too.6
Well, the Soviets certainly did their research.
In fact, they’ve done almost all of the research on rhodiola.
See, almost all of the major studies on rhodiola were performed in former Soviet republics – and almost all of them had positive results.
So, while the findings are certainly impressive enough to recommend rhodiola right now, I still look forward to seeing new studies by other researchers that corroborate the Soviet findings.
A Promising Future…
Although rhodiola is best studied for its use as an adaptogen, it does show promise in other areas, as well.
For instance, the herb has also been studied as a treatment for depression.
In one randomized trial, 89 people with mild to moderate depression took 340 mg or 680 mg of rhodiola extract or a placebo for 6 weeks. Those in both rhodiola groups experienced an improvement in most of their depression symptoms, while those in the placebo group experienced no such benefit.7
Other research has looked at the effects of rhodiola on inflammation, finding that it seems to inhibit COX-2 and PLA2, markers of inflammation.4,5
Although it’s too soon to say whether rhodiola should be recommended for depression or other conditions, these studies are certainly encouraging. And may point to rhodiola being a super supplement that can be used to treat a variety of ailments. Only future research will tell.
Rhodiola appears safe and its possible side effects – nausea, insomnia, restlessness, and anxiety – are mild. If you have bipolar disorder, however, you should avoid this herb because of its potential antidepressant properties.
Even though I’d ideally like to see a wealth of diverse studies on rhodiola from different countries, the current evidence is still strong enough to recommend it as an adaptogen.
Look for rhodiola extracts that are standardized to contain salidroside (also called rhodioloside). The recommended dose of 170 mg to 185 mg of rhodiola daily supplies 4.5 mg of salidroside.
Of course, rhodiola alone isn’t a cure all for stress. So if you are looking for ways to reduce anxiety, balancing your diet and lifestyle is important.
It’s impossible to completely eliminate all sources of stress from your life, but you can help manage it by getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
Adding rhodiola to your regimen may also help you feel less frazzled, less fatigued, and better able to cope. And you don’t need to be a Russian cosmonaut to reap the benefits of this terrific tonic.
Remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1 Wiedenfeld H, Dumaa M, Malinowski M, Furmanowa M, Narantuya S. Phytochemical and analytical studies of extracts from Rhodiola rosea and Rhodiola quadrifida. Die Pharmazie. Apr 2007;62(4):308-311.
2 Ali Z, Fronczek FR, Khan IA. Phenylalkanoids and monoterpene analogues from the roots of Rhodiola rosea. Planta medica. Feb 2008;74(2):178-181.
3 Shevtsov VA, Zholus BI, Shervarly VI, et al. A randomized trial of two different doses of a SHR-5 Rhodiola rosea extract versus placebo and control of capacity for mental work. Phytomedicine : international journal of phytotherapy and phytopharmacology. Mar 2003;10(2-3):95-105.
4 Bawa AS, Khanum F. Anti-inflammatory activity of Rhodiola rosea–“a second-generation adaptogen”. Phytotherapy research : PTR. Aug 2009;23(8):1099-1102.
5 Lee Y, Jung JC, Jang S, et al. Anti-Inflammatory and Neuroprotective Effects of Constituents Isolated from Rhodiola rosea. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM. 2013;2013:514049.
6 Hung SK, Perry R, Ernst E. The effectiveness and efficacy of Rhodiola rosea L.: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Phytomedicine : international journal of phytotherapy and phytopharmacology. Feb 15 2011;18(4):235-244.
7 Darbinyan V, Aslanyan G, Amroyan E, Gabrielyan E, Malmstrom C, Panossian A. Clinical trial of Rhodiola rosea L. extract SHR-5 in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. Nordic journal of psychiatry. 2007;61(5):343-348.
8 Parisi A, Tranchita E, Duranti G, et al. Effects of chronic Rhodiola Rosea supplementation on sport performance and antioxidant capacity in trained male: preliminary results. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness. Mar 2010;50(1):57-63.
9 Spasov AA, Wikman GK, Mandrikov VB, Mironova IA, Neumoin VV. A double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of the stimulating and adaptogenic effect of Rhodiola rosea SHR-5 extract on the fatigue of students caused by stress during an examination period with a repeated low-dose regimen. Phytomedicine : international journal of phytotherapy and phytopharmacology. Apr 2000;7(2):85-89.
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