Rhodiola rosea is an alpine plant whose roots have been used for thousands of years as an adaptogenic herb to increase resistance against stress. Also known as golden root, Arctic root and mountain ginseng, Rhodiola has actions that are both calming and energising. Rhodiola is particularly helpful when you experience fatigue due to physical or emotional stress, and can enhance alertness and reduce anxiety. Rhodiola is popular among shift workers such as nurses and doctors, and is also used to prevent high altitude sickness. Rhodiola root is available as tablets, capsules or as an energising herbal tea, and is one of the best energy supplements.
How Rhodiola works
Rhodiola roots contain a number of unique antioxidants plus substances such as rhodioflavonoside, rhodosin, rhodiolin, rosin and rosarin. These influence levels of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline in the central nervous system, and prevent depletion of adrenal gland hormones during times of stress. Some of the anti-anxiety effects may involve activation of the brain’s own natural opiate-like endorphins. Russian research suggests Rhodiola also reduces stress-induced damage to the heart.
Rhodiola enhances performance, improves memory and alertness, lifts a low mood, calms anxiety and reduces feelings of exhaustion. Rhodiola is particularly helpful when stress leaves you feeling lacking in energy, with sleep difficulties, poor appetite, irritability, raised blood pressure and headaches.
Rhodiola for stress
In the UK, Rhodiola is a traditional herbal medicine licensed to treat symptoms associated with stress such as fatigue, exhaustion and mild anxiety.
Rhodiola has an anti-fatigue effect when you feel drained of energy or ‘burned out’ with difficulty concentrating. A study involving 60 people with stress-related fatigue found that taking 576mg Rhodiola extracts per day significantly reduced cortisol responses to stress compared with placebo. Rhodiola significantly improved fatigue, alertness, mental performance and the ability to concentrate.
Another study involving 101 people experiencing life stress found that a dose of 200mg Rhodiola rosea root extracts, taken twice a day for four weeks, improved stress symptoms. Benefits occurred within three days of starting treatment, and continuing to improve throughout the 4 week trial.
As a doctor working nights I found Rhodiola helpful for staying alert. It became quite a trend, and a trial involving 56 doctors on night duty found that taking Rhodiola reduced perceptions of fatigue and improved mental performance, memory, concentration and the ability to think straight, compared with a placebo.
For students experiencing exam stress, taking Rhodiola for 20 days before and during exams significantly improved physical fitness, mental fatigue and reaction times with improvements in complex associative thinking, short-term memory, calculation and ability of concentration, and speed of audio-visual perception.
Rhodiola for depression
Rhodiola is used to treat mild to moderate depression. One study compared the effectiveness of Rhodiola against the prescribed SSRI antidepressant drug, sertraline. After 12 weeks, those taking Rhodiola were 40% more likely to show improvement than those on placebo and, while those taking sertraline were more likely to improve, 63% reported side effects such as nausea and sexual dysfunction. These beneficial effects of Rhodiola on mood are related to its ability to regulate dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain.
Rhodiola for heart disease
Stress has adverse effects on the heart, including increased pulse rate and workload. Acute emotional stress can even cause the tip of the left ventricle to temporarily dilate. This was first recognised by Japanese researchers and is known as tako-tsubo cardiomyopathy, which describes the characteristic bulging of the heart to resemble a traditional ‘fishing pot’ used to trap octopuses.
Because of its beneficial effects on the heart, Rhodiola is used to treat stress-related heart conditions in China and Russia, included in the treatment of angina and ischaemic heart disease. A number of studies suggest it is effective but more research is needed to confirm this.
Rhodiola is also used to help lower blood pressure during times of stress.
Rhodiola for altitude sickness
Rhodiola grows at high altitude and is known as mountain ginseng, partly for its ability to reduce the physical effects of high altitude. I took Rhodiola rosea root extracts when following the original Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and did not experience the headaches, nausea, sleep difficulties and fatigue that afflicted many of my colleagues.
In men living at high altitude, taking Rhodiola was shown to significantly increased blood oxygen levels, reduced low oxygen levels experienced during sleep, and improved sleep quality. It was at least as effective as the oral drug, acetazolamide which is prescribed to prevent and treat altitude sickness.
Rhodiola rosea dose
For longer-term use: 200mg to 300mg Rhodiola root extract standardised to 2% rosavin (equivalent to 300mg – 1000mg Rhodiola rhizome/root) once or twice daily.
When used short-term eg for exam stress, higher doses (of up to 600mg per day) can be used, but a few people have reported increases in irritability or insomnia with high doses.
Rhodiola can be used by both men and women.
Rhodiola side effects
Side effects are uncommon with Rhodiola. There have been a few isolated reports of allergic reactions and low blood glucose levels, but it is generally well tolerated. As it is an MHRA regulated traditional herbal medicine, you can read a typical Patient Information Leaflet for a Rhodiola herbal medicine here: Vitano Patient Information Leaflet
If you are taking prescribed medicines then, as with any herbal medicine, always check with a pharmacist for potential interactions. There is also a useful drug interactions checker here.