Rhodiola is a plant that has been used for thousands of years in northeast Europe and Asia.
Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb that is known for its ability to stimulate mental focus and energy.
There are many other purported benefits of rhodiola; it has been used to enhance alertness, reduce fatigue, improve memory, and relieve depression.
In this article, we’ll get into the benefits of rhodiola, as well as its history and safety.
Table of Contents
- What is Rhodiola?
- Health Benefits of Rhodiola:
- Rhodiola Safety:
- Naming & Taxonomy:
- History & Traditional Use:
- Herbal Actions:
- Rhodiola vs. Other Herbs
What is Rhodiola?
Rhodiola is a herb that grows wild in the far northern regions of Europe, Asia, and North America.
The scientific name for this herb is Rhodiola rosea. It’s known by a few different common names, including golden root, roseroot, arctic root, and hong jing tian (in China).
Rhodiola is a low to the ground plant that grows in clusters and has bright yellow flowers. It’s a very slow-growing plant and can take up to five years to reach maturity before it can be harvested.
Rhodiola is primarily taken to increase cognitive focus and output. There have also been studies showing that it may be beneficial for improving overall stress resilience. Another aspect of this herb is that it may help to improve physical energy and increase fitness.
We’ll dig deep into each of these benefits below.
Health Benefits of Rhodiola:
This plant has been commonly used in Russia since the late 1960s. In fact, most of the early research was conducted in Russia and China (and written in those languages).
Thus, it’s taken a while for Rhodiola to be introduced and studied, in western medicine.
1. May Increase Cognitive Function
Rhodiolia is purported to increase cognitive function, including improvements in learning and memory function.
A major meta-analysis of 36 different studies showed that taking rhodiola is associated with improved learning and memory function.
This study noted that the possible mechanisms of action for Rhodiola rosea are largely through antioxidant, cholinergic regulation, anti-apoptosis activities, anti-inflammatory, improving coronary blood flow, and cerebral metabolism.
While this meta-analysis is promising, not all studies have been favorable in regard to rhodiola’s effects on cognition.
A pilot study showed that rhodiola provided an improvement in mental speed. This was theorized by the researchers to be due to improved mental resources. However, this was a simplistic pilot study, a more in-depth double-blind study is needed to confirm the findings.
In another study, military cadets were given either a placebo or one of two different doses of a proprietary standardized rhodiola extract. Cadets in the two groups that received the rhodiola had significantly reduced levels of fatigue compared with those taking the placebo.
A study conducted in 2015 noted that rhodiola had no impact on cognitive performance for the individuals involved in the study. It should be noted that the study was non-placebo controlled, and had limited participants (80 individuals).
Summary:Several studies have found that rhodiola may improve brain function.
2. May Help Reduce Mild Depression
In line with its above-mentioned mental stimulating effects, rhodiola also has some promising research touting its positive effects on depression.
A phase III, double-blind placebo-controlled study (i.e. the gold standard) showed that when given ~1000mg of Rhodiola rosea extract daily, individuals with mild depression had increases in mental well-being. Specifically, in the experimental group, overall depression, together with insomnia and emotional instability, improved significantly following medication, whilst the placebo group did not show such improvements.
Interestingly, this study found that rhodiola did not help to increase self-esteem, which is a major factor that goes into mental wellness.
Summary:Rhodiola may benefit those with depression by increasing mental well-being.
3. May Improve Stress Management
Rhodiola is considered one of the best herbs for managing stress, a property commonly attributed to its balancing adaptogenic effects.
Stress is simply the body’s response to environmental threats or pressures. Stressors can be self-driven e.g., striving for perfection, high ambition, or external such as social pressures, excessive workload, etc….
Although the body may initially adapt to perform under stress, long-term exposure to stress will lead to dysfunction.
A phase III clinical trial was conducted on individuals with stress-related fatigue. The study participants were given 576mg of rhodiola extract daily. At the end of the trial, the researchers noted that rhodiola exerted an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental performance, particularly the ability to concentrate.
They also found that rhodiola helped to decrease cortisol response to awakening stress in burnout patients with fatigue syndrome. The study also saw a positive impact in various burnout/fatigue tests in the rhodiola group.
A literature review published in a journal looked at potential natural alternative treatments for chronic stress. After digging through the literature, Rhodiola rosea was highlighted as an alternative medicine with the greatest potential for helping to negate stress.
A trial looking at the effects of rhodiola extract on anxiety, stress, & cognition found it to be effective in reducing the number of stress markers. Relative to the control group, the experimental group demonstrated a significant reduction in self-reported anxiety, stress, anger, confusion, and depression.
An open study found that when given rhodiola, individuals with life stress symptoms had clinically relevant improvements in stress management. This trial was fairly large (1375 individuals), but it should be noted that it was an open trial with self-reported results.
Summary:Since rhodiola is an adaptogen, it has been used to reduce stress and decrease cortisol levels.
4. Other Benefits
• May Improve Physical Performance: A study found that ingestion of rhodiola helped to shorten reaction time and total response time which could be beneficial for individuals that participate in sports.
• May Promote Healthy Aging: Another study posited that this herb can support healthy aging. This is due to preliminary studies showing benefits for the brain (especially in regards to Alzheimer’s disease) as well as its antioxidant properties.
Summary:Additional benefits of rhodiola may include improving reactionary responses and promoting healthy aging.
Rhodiola is generally a safe herb to consume. There are no known herb-drug interactions.
Clinical studies report R. rosea products ranging in dose from 50mg to 660mg per capsule (to a max of 1500mg/day); this suggests a large margin of safety.
Studies reporting a positive effect of R. rosea on physical performance reported doses of 200mg/day and 680mg/day and those reporting a positive effect on mental fatigue reported doses between 100–576mg/day.
Noted herbalist David Winston has noted that rhodiola should be avoided by people who have bipolar disorder, as it can worsen their episodes.
He also notes that it can also cause insomnia in sensitive people, and is very drying, and can cause or exacerbate dry coughs, dry constipation, vaginal dryness, and dry eyes or skin.
Pregnancy & Lactation:
No studies in this review specifically included safety data on pregnant or lactating women. As well, pregnant or lactating women were explicitly excluded from the majority of clinical studies.
No indications have been identified which are specifically relevant to either of these populations nor have reports of toxicity or adverse events.
Overall, due to the lack of clinical studies including these pregnant and nursing women, no dosage recommendations can be made until further studies have been conducted which evaluate the safety and/or toxicity of R. rosea in children and pregnant or lactating women.
Standard dosing for rhodiola is as follows:
Tincture (1:4 or 1:5): 2–3 mL (40–60 drops), three times per day.
Decoction: Take 1–2 tsp. of the cut/sifted dried root in 8–10 oz. of water. Simmer for 15 minutes, then steep, covered, for an additional 45 minutes. Take one to two cups per day.
Capsules: Capsulated products are usually standardized to 3 to 5 percent rosavins and 1 percent and 1 percent salidroside. Take two to four per day.
Naming & Taxonomy:
Rhodiola’s scientific name is Rhodiola rosea, it’s a perennial plant that belongs to the Crassulaceae (i.e. succulent) family of plants.
Rhodiola is native to the northern polar regions of Canada, Europe, and Siberia. It can also be found at higher elevations in the Alps, Pyrenees, and Carpathian Mountains in Europe.
It now is being cultivated in Canada, Finland, Sweden, Russian, and Alaska. It prefers dry, sandy soil, cool temperatures, and full sun.
The plant reaches a height of 12 to 30 inches (70cm) and produces yellow blossoms.
R. rosea is typically harvested for its thick roots, which give off a pleasant fragrance when cut. It can take 3-5 years before roots are big enough to harvest, which makes it a challenge for growers.
Dioscorides, an early Greek physician, first noted the medicinal use of rodia riza in AD 77 in his book entitled De Materia Medica.
Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, renamed the plant Rhodiola rosea in the 1700s. The new name was an ode to the rose-like smell of the fresh-cut root.
History & Traditional Use:
Rhodiola has been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years in Scandinavia, Russia, and other northern countries.
While rhodiola is a relatively new herb in the West, known primarily for its adaptogenic properties, it has appeared in scientific literature dating back to 1725. Keep in mind the research was done in Norway, Sweden, Germany, the Soviet Union, and other northern European countries.
The bulk of this research was written in the native language of the researchers, thus, very little of the original research is accessible to English speakers. This is part of the reason why rhodiola is still relatively unknown in the US.
Traditional folk healers used rhodiola to increase endurance, work output, longevity, resistance to high altitude sickness, and to treat fatigue, depression, anemia, impotence, gastrointestinal ailments, infections, and nervous system disorders.
In ancient times there was a bit of mystery surrounding this “golden root”. For centuries, a select few individuals knew where to harvest the wild root and how to extract its medicine.
The plant was carried to Georgia by Siberians over ancient paths, where it was exchanged for Georgian wine, fruit, garlic, and honey.
It’s said that Chinese emperors sent expeditions to Siberia to bring back the “golden root” so it could be used in medicinal preparations.
In Siberian mountain communities, a bouquet of roots is still given to couples on the eve of their wedding to boost fertility and ensure the birth of healthy youngsters.
In Middle Asia during severe winters, R. rosea tea was used as a treatment for cold and flu.
Traditional Mongolian doctors prescribed it for tuberculosis and cancer.
Rhodiola was also popular with the ancient Vikings, who used it to enhance mental and physical endurance while on raids. It was included in the first Swedish pharmacopeia in 1755.
Rhodiola contains rosavins (rosavin, rosin, rosarin), salidrosides, flavonoids/phenolics (rodiolin, rodionin, p-tyrosol), and fragrant monoterpenes such as geraniol.
Adaptogen (stimulating), antiarrhythmic (protects against irregular heartbeats), antidepressant, antioxidant, antiviral, cardioprotective, immune system stimulant, mild central nervous system stimulant, nervine, neuroprotective
Rhodiola vs. Other Herbs
Rhodiola has been studied for decades, with promising research showing that it provides many different benefits.
It is generally well-tolerated and safe to consume, so you should consider trying this herb if you’ve had any of the following symptoms or conditions: stress, cognitive dysfunction (poor memory), fatigue, and mild depression or anxiety.
These are just a few of the health concerns rhodiola may help improve according to clinical studies, however it is recommended to check with your doctor before making any changes to your diet or supplementation.
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