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Just as some humans are resilient to harsh climates and situations, so too are some types of plants. Interestingly, the qualities of plants that make them robust to mother nature might also make them beneficial for building up strength and resilience in humans who consume them. Those bitter-tasting vegetables are a double-edged sword. Compounds in plants designed to ward off predators are sometimes profoundly beneficial for health when eaten in smaller doses. Lucky for us, people long ago discovered many types of plants that do exactly this.

One such plant (or rather, root) is Rhodiola rosea. It grows in frigid climates, and has been cultivated and consumed by cultures throughout history. Finally, many people are beginning to realize the health potential of this root and use it as a supplement.

Rhodiola: Deep History and Modern Uses

Part of the Crassulaceae family, Rhodiola rosea goes by many names—Rhodiola, Roseroot, Rosenroot, Golden root, and Arctic root, to name a few. It grows in the crevices of rocks, on mountains, and on sea cliffs in certain regions of Europe, Asia (Siberia), North America, and Britain.

Who discovered Rhodiola? It’s hard to say. Texts from many cultures, including the Greeks, Vikings, Ancient Chinese and regions of Siberia, have all noted the use of this root. Here, you’ll find some pretty interesting anecdotes about Rhodiola. While Vikings apparently used it to enhance strength and endurance, others claimed that uses include treatments of headache, “hysteria,” hernias, discharges, mouth pain, removal of freckles, and to strengthen and grow hair.Panossian2010

It may seem like Rhodiola is strictly a “folk treatment,” but in fact, many countries recognize it as more or less a medicine for certain conditions.

In Russia as recent as 1969, Rhodiola was recommended for use as a stimulant to fight fatigue as well as a treatment for certain nervous-mental diseases, neuroses, and neurological disorders. The function of Rhodiola dietary supplements is listed by the European Food Safety Authority as “contributing to optimal mental and cognitive activity.” Second only to Panax Ginseng, Rhodiola is the most highly used adaptogenic aid around the world.

Active Components of Rhodiola

What exactly makes Rhodiola so beneficial? Most of the qualities of Rhodiola can be attributed to two compounds—salidrosides, and rosavins.

Salidrosides are phenolic compounds (plant molecules with health properties) that have a variety of antioxidant, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory properties; they may account for a majority of Rhodiola’s benefits. Rosavins belong to a group of compounds known as phenylpropanoids (organic plant compounds). When combined with salidrosides, they might exert potent biological activities.

Rhodiola as an Adaptogen

Along with other “plant drugs” like ginseng and Withania Somnifera, Rhodiola is known as an “adaptogen.” While not universally accepted in medicine, the term refers to any plant or compound with the ability to reduce the reaction to stress (lower the “alarm phase”) or prevent exhaustion that might happen due to long term stress.

Other definitions of adaptogens include the ability to “normalize body functions and strengthen systems compromised by stress,” a route by which they increase “non-specific” stress resistance.

In other words—consuming an adaptogen makes you better able to handle stress, whether it be a rush-hour traffic jam or a physically demanding training regimen.

The substances found in Rhodiola (rosavins and salidrosides) work by causing a mild stress response, to which the body responds and grows stronger.Perfumi2007 This is essentially how adaptogens work—they help you adapt!

Health and Wellness Benefits of Rhodiola

The adaptogenic properties of Rhodiola are proposed to be responsible for the slew of benefits that have been studied in clinical trials of this nutritional supplement.

By lowering the response to stress, making you more mentally and physically resilient, and boosting the body’s own protective systems, Rhodiola is a treasure trove of biological wellness capabilities.

Effects on Anxiety

A high-stress and demanding culture has left many of us dealing with considerable anxiety from day to day. A bit is good—it keeps us on our toes and competitive, alert.

However, too much anxiety can lead to anxiety disorders and health problems that put a damper on life.

Rhodiola might have the ability to help in this area

One study in people with generalized anxiety disorder showed that after 10 weeks of Rhodiola extract supplementation, symptoms of anxiety were significantly reduced.Bystritsky2008 In a similar trial, participants who were given two doses of Rhodiola per day demonstrated significant reductions in self-reported anxiety, with the added benefits of less stress, anger, confusion, and an overall improvement in mood.Cropley2015 It only took 14 days for these improvements to be noticeable.

When the anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effects were studied in rats, similar results were shown. Just three days of Rhodiola supplementation improved anxiety scores when the rats were put through stressful physical and emotional tests.Cayer2013

Of course, anxiety is directly related to stress and how our bodies deal with it.

Stress Responses

Stress can be motivational for some and overwhelming for others. It’s all about how we respond to stress that determines how our body handles it, and how we fare in the long term.

As a plant adaptogen, Rhodiola might not relieve all of the stress in your life, but it has definitely been shown to make people more resilient against external sources of hardship.

In many cases, it has allowed participants to work and perform better on a “background of fatigue or stress.”

Several studies have been conducted on Rhodiola in these "stressed out" or high demand populations, which are groups of people who experience pronounced fatigue that might impair work ability and quality of life. Rhodiola has been shown to reduce stress-related fatigue in military cadets,Shevtsov2003 improve cognitive functions and reduce mental fatigue in physicians during night duty,Darbinyan2000 and relieve the symptoms of fatigue and burnout that are associated with long term stress.Olsson2009 In one study of nurses undergoing shift work, however, Rhodiola actually resulted in worse fatigue compared to a placebo.Punja2014

The anti-stress mechanisms of Rhodiola aren’t fully known, but may involve certain hormonal and chemical mediators of the stress response in our body. For instance, administering Rhodiola prior to a stressful situation prevents the rise in cortisol and stress-activated proteins.Panossian2009,Panossian2007 Reducing the acute stress response could help with immediate performance, but also benefit long term health. High levels of chronic stress can take a toll on the body.

Mood and Depression

Stress and anxiety can both have a significant impact on mood, and in many cases, this might lead to depressive symptoms or even depression itself. Medication is often prescribed as a first-line strategy for certain mood disorders, but these sometimes come with adverse side effects. Is there a potential for natural alternatives?

The efficacy of Rhodiola to treat depression has been studied in clinical trials with promising results. One study comparing Rhodiola to a clinical antidepressant medication noted that, while not as effective for reducing symptoms, participants taking Rhodiola experienced far fewer side effects while still gaining a marginal benefit for their depression.Mao2015 A six-week trial in patients with mild-to-moderate depression revealed that Rhodiola was effective in reducing overall depression, insomnia, and emotional instability.Darbinyan2000

The potent benefits of Rhodiola for mood might be due to its effects, specifically in the brain.

Rhodiola may act to increase levels of Neuropeptide Y (NPY), which might be able to enhance mood and cognition.

In addition, Rhodiola has been shown to increase levels of beneficial brain chemicals like serotonin, BDNF, oxytocin, and GABA, among others.Amsterdam2016

Cognitive and Physical Performance

We’ve seen that Rhodiola can reduce mental stress, but what about physical performance?

The two are often interrelated, and much research has been done on how supplementing with Rhodiola may improve parameters related to endurance, metabolic fitness, cognitive capacity and antioxidant status. Rhodiola may be the ergogenic aid for which you’ve been searching.

Acute intake of Rhodiola may benefit endurance performance. One hour following intake of Rhodiola, improvements in maximal aerobic capacity, max knee extension torque, and six-mile time trial were improved compared to a placebo or carbohydrate intake.Noreen2013,DeBock2004 During some of the tests, Rhodiola also led to a reduced heart rate and rating of perceived exertion (RPE)—evidence that participants felt less tired and “stressed” during activity.

This performance boost might be a result of greater energy production, more efficient utilization of energy, or a combination of the two.

It has been shown that Rhodiola significantly increased the synthesis and resynthesis of ATP in the mitochondria of rats after intense exercise, resulting in a greater work capacity. During endurance exercise, participants who took Rhodiola experienced lower levels of lactate and markers of skeletal muscle damage.Parisi2010 Rhodiola can boost antioxidant capacity in competitive athletesSkarpanska2009 and healthy adults,Jowko2018 but may be less effective in reducing markers of oxidative stress and stress hormones in response to physical exertion.

The ability of Rhodiola to improve cognitive functions is also fairly well-established. A supplement of Rhodiola rosea taken over four weeks improved reaction time and total response time in healthy adults, indicating improved mental performance.Jowko2018 In adults with cognitive deficiencies, a 12-week Rhodiola supplementation regimen improved concentration, forgetfulness, memory, and irritability.Fintelmann2007

While other ingredients were involved, a Rhodiola-containing supplement was able to improve speed, attention, and accuracy on cognitive tests under stressful conditions.Aslanyan2010 Whether this was due to Rhodiola alone or some other compound however, is unknown.

Cardiovascular and Metabolic Health

The health benefits of Rhodiola have been studied less than the adaptogenic and performance-enhancing qualities. Nevertheless, there is evidence that supplementing with Rhodiola may promote overall health, perhaps by increasing cardiovascular function and improving body composition.

Salidroside, the potent active compound found in Rhodiola, has been used to preserve heart function and prevent oxidative stress in breast cancer patients after chemotherapy treatment.Zhang2012 The ability to protect the heart from the stress of chemo lends further credit to the adaptogenic qualities of Rhodiola.

Studies in isolated cells have shown that Rhodiola might exert its cardiovascular benefits by increasing production of erythropoietin (EPO), which we need for red blood cell production.Zheng2012 Rhodiola may also help prevent high blood pressure by inhibiting an enzyme that plays a role in hypertension development.Kwon2006

Constant stress can lead to bodily breakdown, even weight gain, something that Rhodiola might help to prevent. Two studies have shown evidence that Rhodiola can protect against bone loss and diet-induced obesity. This may be due, in part, to inhibiting pathways related to oxidative stress and damage.Zhang2013,Verpeut2013

Supplementing with Rhodiola is one step you might want to take to achieve a strong body as well as a strong mind.

Supplementing with Rhodiola

When referring to Rhodiola supplementation, the most commonly used preparation is the SHR-5 extract—which typically contains 3% rosavins and 1% salidroside, Rhodiola’s predominant bioactive compounds.

How much should you supplement with? For general fatigue, doses as low as 50mg have been used, but this may represent the lower end of what might provide noticeable benefits. The normal range recommended based on the literature is 250mg/day - 700mg/day, split into one or two equivalent doses.

Consider your goal. Are you looking for an immediate and short-term boost in mental or physical performance, or are you looking to get the sustained benefits that occur with chronic supplementation?

It may be best to take Rhodiola on an as-needed basis unless you’re suffering from major anxiety or stress.

Then, a longer-term supplementation plan may be warranted.

The easiest way to supplement might be to purchase capsules of Rhodiola extract. If you’re looking for something a bit more involved (and tasty), you can also purchase the dried and ground root of Rhodiola and brew your own tea.

Is supplementation safe? The short answer is yes.

A systematic review of clinical trials involving Rhodiola indicated that only few mild, adverse side effects have been reported.Hung2011 One word of caution. Be careful what you're purchasing. Among many Rhodiola products, an investigative study indicated that one-fifth of them were found to contain no rosavin, and some were found to contain absolutely no salidroside. Of the remaining 80% of the products studied, most were found to be lower in rosavin content than advertised or otherwise be adulterated with other species of Rhodiola.Booker2016 You may not be getting what you think, even if the necessary steps are taken to be a responsible consumer.

Adapt and Advance

Maybe you’re new to supplementation, or maybe you already have a supplement or nootropic strategy down pat. Either way, adding Rhodiola to your nutrition regimen might help take your goals to the next level.

Imagine feeling less stress, lower anxiety, and more cognitive stability throughout the day. This will allow for increased output and optimized productivity, something we all strive for.

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