Herbal Spotlight: Rhodiola Rosea for Stress-Relief
Move over St. John’s wort and Kava kava—there is another herb in town.
Rhodiola rosea (R. rosea) is one of the most promising plant medicines in the treatment of depression1. While R. rosea has been intensively studied in Russia and Scandinavia for more than 40 years, it was not until the last decade that the plant started to gain popularity in Western Europe and here in the United States2. R. rosea is an adaptogen, meaning that it helps the body and brain cells “adapt to” stress, trauma, anxiety, exhaustion and fatigue3. The herb stimulates the nervous system, decreases depression, enhances work performance4, eliminates fatigue, possesses antioxidant properties5, and has cardiopulmonary protective characteristics4.
The use of R. rosea as a medicinal plant can be traced back to 77 A.D. when Greek physician Dioscorides wrote about the herb in his medical text, “De Materia Medica”. From 77 A.D. to the mid-1900s, R. rosea was prized as a medicinal herb throughout almost all parts of Europe and Asia6. Vikings consumed the herb to increase both endurance and stamina during their long journeys and Chinese Emperors would commission expeditions to remote parts of the Siberian Mountains to bring back the prized herb. In 1755, R. rosea was included in the first Swedish pharmacopoeia7. In Russia, the herb was used to survive the long, harsh Siberian winters, given to soldiers on the battlefield, to soviet athletes, and to cosmonauts to help them adapt to stress. In Siberia, a bouquet of R. rosea is still given to newlyweds to ensure a rich and fruitful marriage7 and—according to Russian folklore—individuals who drink R. rosea tea will live for more than 100 years8.
R. rosea (also known as Golden Root, Roseroot, and Arctic Root) is a perennial herbaceous plant that inhabits mountainous regions throughout Europe, Asia, and east coastal regions of North America. It produces yellow blossoms that smell like roses, thus the Latin name rosea8. The rhizomes (the stems of the plant that grow underground) contain various compounds including organic acids, flavonoids, tannins, salidrosides, and rosavins9. Salidroside and rosavin include compounds like rosin, rosavin, and rosarin and might be responsible for the anxiolytic and antidepressant effects of R. rosea7. In addition to R. rosea, over 200 different species of Rhodiola have been identified and at least 20 are used in traditional medical systems in Asia, including R. alterna, R. brevipetiolata, R. crenulata, R. kirilowii, R. quadrifida, R. sachalinensis, and R. sacra10.
The anti-stress property of R. rosea is not exactly understood, however, it might be attributed to an inhibition in the synthesis of cortisol (the stress hormone). R. rosea might also stimulate the effects of neurotransmitters such as epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin on the central nervous system11. Furthermore, R. rosea may inhibit the enzymes that degrade these neurotransmitters and might facilitate transport of these compounds into and within the brain12.
The herb appears to be best absorbed on an empty stomach, thirty minutes before meals. Because it can interfere with sleep, R. rosea should be taken early in the day2. Appropriate doses are 200 to 600 milligrams per day of a R. rosea extract standardized to contain 2 to 3 percent rosavins and 0.8 to 1 percent salidroside13. It is important to pay close attention to the source of R. rosea as some R. rosea formulas (such as Tibetan Rhodiola or Chinese Rhodiola) lack rosavins. Only R. rosea of Russian origin (West and North Siberia) has the highest pharmacological activity and contains all the key active components13.
If you are considering purchasing this product, you will be glad to know that R. rosea appears to have an excellent safety profile. Side effects are uncommon and mild, and can include allergic reaction, irritability, insomnia, fatigue, and unpleasant sensations, especially at high doses (1.5 to 2 grams per day standardized for 2% rosavins2). There are no interactions between R. rosea and antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRRIs) like Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft or serotonin/norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) such as Effexor, Cymbalta, Pristiq, Meridia.. In fact, the concomitant use of R. rosea and these antidepressants has been reported to have favorable effects in terms of both antidepressant efficacy and reduction of side effects2. Evidence for the safety and appropriateness of R. rosea supplementation during pregnancy and lactation is currently unavailable, thus it is not recommended for pregnant women or those who are breastfeeding. R. rosea has not been studied in bipolar depression, and should be used with caution in patients with bipolar spectrum disorders2.
Paz Etcheverry, Ph.D.
Paz Etcheverry is an adjunct professor at Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences. Paz received her Bachelor of Science in Food Science at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and her Master of Science in Food Science and Nutrition at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. She then pursued a PhD in Food Technology with minors in nutrition and biochemistry at Cornell University. Currently, she is a research instructor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and a member of the American Society for Nutrition.