Should You Get to Know Rhodiola?

As a garden designer and mother of two toddlers, it made sense that Jennifer Murphy was tired. But when low energy turned into exhaustion and foggy thinking with a touch of the blues, she knew it was time to do something about it. “Within days of starting the Rhodiola extract I noticed a big difference,” she says. “I just felt like I had more energy reserves—I could do everything I needed to do and I felt happier.”

While Rhodiola has been used for centuries in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Asia, its popularity in the West is a fairly recent occurrence. “Interestingly the herb is not even in the mainstream Chinese materia medica,” says Mark Goldby, LAc, an acupuncturist in Portland, Oregon, who frequently uses a highly potent powdered extract of the herb in his practice. “I have found Rhodiola to be very helpful in treating much of what plagues the average American—exhaustion and stress.”

Rhodiola’s ability to help the body deal with stressful conditions such as sleep deprivation and depression is thanks to a group of adaptogenic compounds, collectively known as rosavins and salidrosides. These compounds appear to inhibit the breakdown of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmitters in the brain, as well as prevent the depletion of adrenal hormones. What’s more, Rhodiola also contains antioxidant and stimulating compounds, which have been shown to boost memory and performance. “It has the ability to sustain one’s energy without creating agitation,” says Goldby.

Increasing energy and stamina has traditionally been the most common use for Rhodiola; however, recent studies have revealed a variety of other benefits.

Fights fatigue: More than simply increasing energy, Rhodiola appears to buffer the body against the physical repercussions of stress. A randomized, double-blind Swedish trial revealed that a daily dose of 576 mg of extract can exert an anti-fatigue effect that increases the ability to concentrate, and decreases the cortisol—or stress response—in those with fatigue syndrome (Planta Medica, 2009).

Improves performance: It appears as though Rhodiola has the ability to increase energy metabolites in brain and muscle cells. A number of studies have shown the herb to shorten recovery time between bouts of exercise as well as improve endurance during exercise (Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 2004).

Boosts memory: Using Rhodiola during exams has its benefits as well. A 2007 study in the journal Photomedicine revealed that medical students who took Rhodiola extract for 20 days reaped significant improvements in mental fatigue, final exam grades and physical fitness.

Calms anxiety: In a pilot study, 10 individuals with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) were giving a daily dose of 340 mg of Rhodiola for 10 weeks. Using the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale (HARS) to measure change, significant improvements in anxiety and depression were noted after treatment with the herb (J Altern Complement Med, 2008).

Fights oxidation: Rhodiola appears to exert an array of antioxidant effects. In one small study of 14 trained male athletes, four weeks of supplementation with the herb showed a significant reduction in lactate levels and skeletal muscle damage post exercise (J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 2010).

Eases depression: Several studies have shown Rhodiola to reduce the effects of depression. For example, a placebo-controlled study of mild to moderately depressed men and women showed that daily doses of the herb significantly improved insomnia, emotional stability and overall depression compared to placebo (Nord J Psychiatry, 2007).

Rhodiola has a very low level of toxicity and appears to be well tolerated over the long term. The common dose ranges from about 200 mg to 600 mg of standardized extract per day. “Look for a product that is standardized to 3:1, rosavins to salidrosides,” says Goldby. Of course it’s always best to work with a health practitioner before experimenting with herbs, especially when dealing with issues of anxiety and depression. “I am so grateful this herb has come onto the scene. It’s amazing at breaking the common cycle of fatigue, depression and anxiety that plagues our society,” he says.