Rhodiola rosea, commonly called rhodiola, is a beautiful, flowering plant native to the arctic regions of Europe, Asia, and North America. Its flowers are a golden yellow and resemble the chrysanthemum. They have a rose-like fragrance, due to the presence of the essential oil geraniol.
The roots, stems, and leaves of rhodiola have been used for centuries as part of traditional herbal medicine in Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Russia. More recently, modern herbalists have begun to incorporate rhodiola into their practices, and science has taken an interest in its beneficial properties as well.
In this article, we’ll look at what traditional herbalists and science have to say about some of the possible health benefits of this lovely plant.
An Overview of Rhodiola
Rhodiola contains approximately 140 different chemical components that contribute to its biological effects. These components can be divided into six groups:
- Phenylethanol derivatives
- Phenolic acids
No single chemical component has been found yet to be responsible for the effects of rhodiola. It may be that they are most effective when acting in harmony with each other.
For example, traditional medicine has long used rhodiola to combat fatigue, support and stimulate the nervous system, and be a tonic for general health. In ancient times, Vikings used rhodiola to increase endurance. In Middle Asia, rhodiola has been used traditionally to fight colds and flu during the long winters. In the mountains of Siberia, bouquets of rhodiola are traditionally given to newlyweds to promote fertility and healthy children.
A scientific review published in 2010 summarized information on the beneficial properties of rhodiola available through both scientific study and traditional medicine. The review acknowledges that rhodiola has been widely used in traditional societies to combat fatigue, and notes that current science backs up these claims. The study also suggests that there is emerging scientific evidence to support rhodiola’s use in enhancing mood and cognition.
3 Benefits of Rhodiola
1. Combats Fatigue
A 2008 Swedish study assessed the efficacy of a standardized extract of rhodiola root on patients suffering from stress-related fatigue. Sixty people, men and women, were randomly divided into two groups. One group was given a placebo, and one was given rhodiola extract four times a day for a month. Each group was assessed at the beginning of the study and again after 28 days. The study concluded that repeated doses of rhodiola extract had a positive effect on fatigue, improved participants’ ability to concentrate, and decreased cortisol stress response compared to the placebo.
2. Enhances Mood
A 2007 study looked at the efficacy of a standardized extract of rhodiola on patients suffering a mild to moderate episode of depression. The patients were randomized into three groups, two of which received the extract (one at a lower dose and one at a higher dose), and the third group received a placebo for six weeks. The patients’ symptoms were assessed at the beginning of the trial and the end. After six weeks, all of the patients receiving rhodiola showed significant improvements in depressed mood, insomnia, emotional instability, and somatization (recurrent medical problems with no discernible cause).
Subscribe to the World's Most Popular Newsletter (it's free!)
3. Supports a Normal Stress Response
Adaptogens are substances (typically medicinal herbs) that may improve mental and physical performance under stress and reduce the stress response. A 2007 animal study looked at the mechanisms by which rhodiola acts as an adaptogen.
The study treated one group of rabbits with rhodiola and left another group as a control. The authors analyzed the blood of both groups of rabbits before and after a period of stress. They concluded that rhodiola inhibited the release of both the stress hormone cortisol and nitrous oxide, as levels were unchanged after stress exposure in the treated rabbits. The authors postulated that rhodiola’s suppression of cortisol and nitrous oxide may contribute to its efficacy in increasing capacity for mental focus under stress or pressure. However, more research is needed to see if similar effects can be achieved in humans.
Supplementing with Rhodiola
Rhodiola can be taken as a tincture, in tablets, or tea. Tinctures are typically considered the most potent form for any herbal preparation. Whatever form you choose, be sure to select a supplier who uses organic or wild-harvested whole roots, stems, or leaves that contain the spectrum of phytochemicals found in the plant. Also, be sure you are purchasing extract from Rhodiola rosea and not from the other rhodiola varieties available, whose chemical components are different.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.
Panossian A, Wikman G, Sarris J. Rosenroot (Rhodiola Rosea): Traditional Use, Chemical Composition, Pharmacology and Clinical Efficacy. Phytomedicine, 2010 Jun;17(7):481-93. doi: 10.1016/j.phymed.2010.02.002
Olsson EM, von Schéele B, Panossian AG. A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Parallel-Group Study of the Standardised Extract shr-5 of the Roots of Rhodiola Rosea in the Treatment of Subjects With Stress-Related Fatigue. Planta Med, 2009 Feb;75(2):105-12. doi: 10.1055/s-0028-1088346.Epub 2008 Nov 18.
Darbinyan V, Aslanyan G, Amroyan E, Gabrielyan E, Malmström C, Panossian A.
Clinical Trial of Rhodiola Rosea L. Extract SHR-5 in the Treatment of Mild to Moderate Depression. Nord J Psychiatry, 2007;61(5):343-8. doi: 10.1080/08039480701643290.
Panossian A, Hambardzumyan M, Hovhannisyan A, Wikman G. The Adaptogens Rhodiola and Schizandra Modify the Response to Immobilization Stress in Rabbits by Suppressing the Increase of Phosphorylated Stress-activated Protein Kinase, Nitric Oxide and Cortisol. Drug Target Insights. 2007; 2: 39–54.
Brown RP, Gerbarg PL, Ramazanov Z. Rhodiola rosea: A Phytomedicinal Overview. HerbalGram. 2002; 56:40-52