Rhodiola rosea, also known as “golden root” or “roseroot” belongs to the plant family Crassulaceae. Rhodiola grows primarily in dry sandy ground at high altitudes in the arctic areas of Europe and Asia. Traditional folk medicine used this plant to increase physical endurance, work productivity, longevity, resistance to high altitude sickness, and to treat fatigue, depression, anemia, impotence, gastrointestinal ailments, infections, and nervous system disorders.
For years, studies have demonstrated how rhodiola helps in solving health problems. Its medicinal properties are well-documented in the scientific literature. This article presents some of these scientific findings:
- Improves endurance in physical exercise – R. rosea has been used to improve or maintain endurance performance of athletes during training or competition by increasing biological factors associated with oxygen uptake. Experiments proved different pharmacological characteristics of R. rosea and R. crenulata: R. rosea is most effective for improving physical working capacity. (Abidov et al, 2003)
- Anti-hypoxia – Hypoxia is a condition when the blood has low oxygen supply. It generally occurs in normal people at high altitudes. This is when one experiences altitude sickness and other potentially fatal complications. The gradual development of hypoxia presents symptoms which include shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue and nausea.
- Adaptogen – R. rosea has been categorized as an adaptogen due to its ability to increase resistance against physical, chemical and biological stress. When a stressful situation (e.g. hypoxia) occurs, R.rosea, acting as an adaptogen, can generate a degree of generalized adaptation or non-specific resistance that allows human physiology to handle this stressful situation. It may prevent hypoxia-induced biological changes by either increasing intracellular oxygen diffusion and efficiency of oxygen utilization or reducing hypoxia-induced oxidative damage with its anti-oxidative ability (Ips et al, 2001)
- Anti-oxidative and anti-diabetic ability – As an antioxidant, R. rosea may help protect the nervous system from oxidative damage by free radicals. Stress interferes with memory functions and, over time, causes deterioration in memory systems (Durani et al, 1999 in Brown et al, 2002). Recently, studies show that oxidative stress plays an important role in pathogenesis of human diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, neurodegenerative diseases and rheumatoid arthritis. R. rosea extract has been used as an anti-diabetic folk medicine (Valko et al 2006).
An animal study was designed to examine the effect of R. rosea on the level of blood glucose, glutathione (GSH) and its related enzymes, and the activity of antioxidant enzymes such as catalase and superoxide dismutase (SOD) in type II diabetic mice (Kim, et al, 2006)
It is found that R. rosea extract significantly lowers the blood glucose level and increases the level of reduced GSH. It can also activate the enzymatic functions of catalase and SOD. Therefore, use of R. rosea extract may be effective for correcting hyperglycemia and preventing diabetic complications.
- Enhances mental work capacity. – In an open study 27 healthy students, physicians, and scientists aged 19-46 years were given 10 drops of R. rosea tincture (equivalent to 100-150 mg R. rosea extract) once or twice a day for 2-3 weeks, beginning several days before intense intellectual work, such as final exams (American Psychiatric Association 1994 in Brown 2002) The extract improved the amount and quality of work and in all cases prevented asthenic decompensation (loss of work capacity due to fatigue). A series of studies using a proofreading test showed that a one-time dose of R. rosea did not significantly increase the number of symbols corrected, but very significantly decreased the percent of errors made, particularly over an 8-hour period. Positive results found in the studies of proofreading tests were based on 300 mg/day or more. (Darbinyan et al 2000 in Brown 2002)
- Anticancer – Some reports also indicate that R.rosea has an anticancer and anti-mutagenic effect. The mechanism of this effect was studied based on cell-cycle progression, induction of apoptosis and mitotic activity by using various cancer cells with flow cytometry and fluorescence microscopy.
A study, published in 2006, found that extract of R.rosea inhibits division of HL-60 leukemia cells and reduces their survival. The accumulation of cells in the prophase (G2/M phase) leads to induction of apoptosis and necrosis in HL-60 cells. Administration of R.rosea can also directly suppress the growth and metastasis of Lewis lung cancer carcinomas (Majewska et al, 2006).
Toxicity, Side Effects, and Contraindications
Overall, R. rosea has very few side effects. Most users find that it improves their mood, energy level, and mental clarity. Some individuals, particularly those who tend to be anxious, may feel overly activated, jittery, or agitated. If this occurs, then a smaller dose with very gradual increases may be needed. R. rosea should be taken early in the day because it can interfere with sleep or cause vivid dreams (not nightmares) during the first few weeks. It is contraindicated in excited states. Because R. rosea has an activating antidepressant effect, it should not be used in individuals with bipolar disorder who are vulnerable to becoming manic when given antidepressants or stimulants. Until this has been further studied, the authors advise caution in patients with bipolar spectrum disorders. The herb does not appear to interact with other medications, though it may have additive effects with other stimulants. It is best absorbed when taken on an empty stomach 30 minutes before breakfast and lunch. (Brown et al 2002).
As with any other herbal preparation, extra caution should be taken to prevent any toxicity effects. Any individual with an underlying disease condition should seek for professional advice before deciding to take R. rosea.
Abidov, M. et al. Effects of extracts from rhodiola rosea and rhodiola crenulata (crassulaceae) roots on ATP content in mitochondria of skeletal muscles. Bull. Exp. Biol. Med. 136, 585-587 (2003). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15500079?dopt=AbstractPlus
Brown, R.P. et al. Rhodiola rosea: A Phytomedicinal Overview HerbalGram. Botanical American Council 2002;56:40-52. https://www.medicine-plants.com/articles/225/
IP, S.P. et al. Association of free radicals and the tissue rennin-angiotensin system: prospective effects of rhodiola, a genus of Chinese herb, on hypoxia-induced pancreatic injury. J. Pancreas 2, 16-25 (2001). http://www.joplink.net/prev/200101/5.html
Kim S.H. et al. Antioxidative effects of cinnamomi cassiae and rhodiola rosea extracts in liver of diabetic mice. Biofactors 26, 209-219 (2006). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16971752?dopt=AbstractPlus
Majewska, A. et al. Antiproliferative and antimitotic effect, S phase accumulation and induction of apoptosis and necrosis after treatment of extract from rhodiola rosea rhizomes on HL-60 cells. J. Ethnopharmacol. 103, 43-52 (2006). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16169692?dopt=AbstractPlus.
Valko, M. et al. Free radicals and antioxidants in normal physiology functions and human disease. Int. J. Biochem. Cell Biol. in press (2006) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16978905?dopt=AbstractPlus