Health Benefits of Rhodiola
Rhodiola rosea, also known as the Golden Root, is a traditional Chinese medicine which is native to northern Europe, mostly being found in Scandinavia. In the UK, Rhodiola is part of the Traditional Herbal Remedy (THR) programme which is regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). According to the MHRA, Rhodiola is used for the relief of stress-related symptoms such as fatigue, exhaustion and anxiety, but note that this is based on traditional use only.
However, the mention of these benefits being based only on traditional use implies that Rhodiola is not backed by scientific research, which is doing this botanical extract an injustice. In this article we are going to explore Rhodiola, the evidence behind it, and the surprising benefits it possesses.
What Are the Benefits of Rhodiola?
Rhodiola is thought to be the second most popular ‘adaptogen’ in the world, second only to Korean ginseng. Adaptogens are compounds that are effective for combatting the ill effects of physical and psychological stressors.
Stress can be defined as the inability to cope with our environmental demands, leading to physical, psychological and emotional symptoms. Although acute stress can actually be good for the body - like exercise for example - chronic stress is detrimental to our health and wellbeing.
Recent statistics suggest that 80% of adults in the UK feel stressed during a typical week, with 10% of us claiming we are under constant stress – mainly due to the ‘always on’ culture in the workplace. It should come as no surprise then that natural remedies such as Rhodiola have soared in popularity in recent years. But what does the research say?
On the whole, the research is very positive; with numerous studies in agreement that Rhodiola can markedly reduce various parameters of stress. One high-quality study in particular showed that 200mg twice daily for a month significantly reduced stress and fatigue, whilst improving mood in middle-aged men and women who suffered from life and work-related stressors. Impressively, improvements were noted in as little as 3 days, with further enhancements noted at both week 1 and week 4.
Stress is very commonly reported in students during exam periods, as well as healthcare professionals who are subjected to long and intense shifts. So for these people, the next set of results will be of interest.
The first study, published in Phytomedicine back in 2000, found that students who supplemented with Rhodiola extract every day for 3 weeks before an exam saw improvements in physical fitness, mental fatigue and perceived general well-being. Most impressively, however, was that the students who were in the Rhodiola group on average scored 8.4% higher in the exam than the participants in the placebo group.
Further complementary findings have been published by the same research group. This study instead evaluated the effects of Rhodiola in 56 doctors working night shifts in a hospital setting. The researchers again reported findings that boost the validity of Rhodiola as a stress relieving agent, as it was shown that daily supplementation improved various parameters of mental fatigue. The study also reported that this reduction in mental fatigue led to an improvement in work-related tasks by upwards of 20% compared to the group who took a daily placebo.
As our healthcare professionals are under increasing stress, it is crucial that they are ‘on the ball’, as any lapses could have serious repercussions for the people in their care. Because of this, these results are highly relevant. Importantly, this study also confirmed other research findings that reported Rhodiola supplementation to be safe, as the doctors reported no ill side effects.
Following the trend of the increasing prevalence of stress and burnout, depression is becoming all the more common; with some experts believing a quarter of us will suffer from it at some stage. Like other botanicals such as St John’s Wort, ginkgo biloba and numerous members of the ginseng family, Rhodiola is known for its natural ability to improve depressive symptoms.
One study of note found that both doses of 340mg and 680mg per day led to improvements in overall depression symptoms, sleep quality, emotional stability and the physical symptoms of anxiety compared to the placebo group. These results were seen over a 6 week period and again, no side effects of note were reported in any of the 89 participants.
Complementary findings were published in 2015. This particular investigation found that 400mg of Rhodiola per day, split into two equal doses, was effective at improving anxiety, stress, anger, confusion, depression and overall mood in the 80 participants in as little as 14 days. The scientists conducting the study reported that all of these results were deemed ‘significant’.
Aside from having the ability to combat symptoms of mental fatigue, Rhodiola has also exhibited the ability to attenuate physical fatigue. Studies have consistently reported that Rhodiola supplementation can decrease perceived exertion, subsequently increasing both exercise intensity and duration. This has often translated into improvements in exercise performance, something of interest for athletes.
The research for exercise performance becomes less clear, however, when the calibre of athlete increases. Some studies have shown a benefit in well-trained athletes, with others reporting no improvement in comparison to a placebo. However, well-trained or elite athletes are a minute proportion of the population. Therefore for the non-athlete/exercise enthusiast, Rhodiola could help to increase performance and combat fatigue.
An increase in appetite often leads to more calories being consumed than needed, subsequently driving weight-gain. Although stress can reduce appetite, in many people it actually stimulates appetite, with food being used as a coping mechanism.
To add to the other impressive benefits of Rhodiola, research suggests that it can reduce appetite and episodes of binge eating. Hopefully future studies will build upon this impressive finding.
Smoking is widely regarded as one of the worst habits anyone could have for their health, given that smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack as non-smokers. Similarly, 80-90% of lung cancer cases are attributed to tobacco smoke. Although everyone knows the health repercussions of smoking, quitting is very challenging; it is, after all, an addiction.
Nicotine is the primary stimulant in tobacco, which is the addictive substance. Preliminary evidence has suggested that supplementing with Rhodiola is effective at reducing the physical symptoms associated with smoking cessation, with small improvements also showing in cognitive symptoms.
How Does Rhodiola Work?
The above benefits are impressive, but how do they occur? Experts believe that Rhodiola is beneficial because of its unique duel-action of decreasing the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, whilst simultaneously boosting energy production in the mitochondria. These mechanisms explain how Rhodiola supplementation decreases both physical and mental stress, whilst boosting energy levels to combat tiredness and fatigue.
There is also evidence to show that Rhodiola can increase serotonin which is famously known as the ‘happy hormone’. This likely explains why studies commonly report that participants feel an increase in overall well-being. In a similar vein, this is thought to be the reason for the findings with relation to appetite and smoking cessation.
How Much Rhodiola Should I Take?
Like with all supplements, it is crucial to consume a dose that is both effective and safe. Although there have been benefits noted with doses as small as 50mg, the weight of scientific evidence suggests that a dose of 400mg per day is optimum to experience the aforementioned benefits.
A significant proportion of the research has divided the dose, providing half in the morning and the other half in the afternoon. This seems to ensure that the active ingredients of Rhodiola are in the system for a long time to exert their benefits.
What Are the Side Effects of Rhodiola?
Thankfully, the research is pretty unanimous in its support for Rhodiola being a safe supplement. However, studies have shown that some Rhodiola supplements do not contain the level of active ingredients they claim to possess and therefore do not carry the associated benefits. This has also put the safety of these products into question.
To overcome this, it is highly recommended that Rhodiola supplements are only purchased if they are THR registered, as these have been tested to ensure that they have a high purity.
As there have been reports of interactions with prescription medication for depression, it is important to speak to your doctor before starting supplementation.
As you can see from the evidence, the increased popularity of Rhodiola is for good reason. Given the wide range of benefits and the safe nature of the supplement, it is likely to be considered by many. Let us sum up the key messages of this article with the take-home points:
• Rhodiola, which is native to northern Europe, is classified as a Traditional Herbal Remedy in the UK to ensure that the supplements sold are of high quality.
• Rhodiola has been subject to extensive research which has shown that it is effective for combatting stress, anxiety, depression and burnout to name a few. However, its positive influences on physical performance, appetite and smoking cessation are some of the lesser-known benefits.
• Rhodiola works through numerous mechanisms, with scientists believing that it can decrease the release of stress hormones, boost energy metabolism and also enhance the levels of the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin.
• Although the amount of Rhodiola used has differed slightly, the consensus is that 400mg per day, divided into a morning an afternoon dose is best practice.
• Even though Rhodiola use is widespread, the report of adverse side effects is thankfully rare and when they occur, they are typically mild. This is largely thanks to the regulation of this botanical extract by the MHRA. For this reason, it is important to buy a Rhodiola supplement that is THR registered.