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February 2006

By Dave Tuttle

Other Healthful Effects

Rhodiola has been shown to have beneficial properties related to brain function, depression, cellular mutation, and heart health.

In a rat study using a rhodiola tincture (alcohol-water extract), scientists discovered that a moderate 0.1-ml dose of the herb improved learning and retention after 24 hours.15 With repeated supplementation over a period of 10 days, significant improvements in long-term memory were observed.15 The active constituents in the herb have been found to affect the central nervous system by increasing ability to concentrate and improving cellular resistance to outside influences.16

Rhodiola may play a role in fighting depression. In a group of 128 adult patients with depression and neurasthenia (a condition of fatigue, weakness, and inability to recover by resting), treatment with 150 mg of rhodiola three times a day significantly reduced or eliminated symptoms in 64% of the subjects.17 Among a group of patients hospitalized for depression, the addition of rhodiola to a treatment regimen of tricyclic antidepressants reduced the length of hospital stays and improved the patients’ moods, thought processes, and motor activity.18 Even better, the herb not only reduced troublesome side effects of the antidepressants, but also proved to be effective in treating less severe forms of depression without other medications.

Studies have also demonstrated heart-healthy properties of rhodiola. An eight-day trial of rhodiola extract increased the resistance of experimental animals to drug-induced arrhythmias.19 The researchers believe that this anti-arrhythmic effect is associated with the herb’s induction of opioid peptide biosynthesis. Another study found that rhodiola prevented stress-induced cardiac damage and catecholamine release from the heart muscle.20

These benefits may be partly attributable to rhodiola’s ability to reduce blood levels of both C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammatory marker, and creatinine kinase, a marker of muscle damage. A study at the Center of Modern Medicine in Russia found a dramatic reduction in these blood markers in rhodiola-supplemented healthy volunteers after stressful exercise.21 If rhodiola is able to reduce CRP induced by other forms of stress—as seems likely—this suggests that the herb can reduce overall levels of inflammation in the body. Given inflammation’s important role in heart disease and many other degenerative conditions, this would be a very important discovery. Further research is needed, however, to confirm these benefits.

Several animal experiments suggest that rhodiola has anti-cancer properties. Rhodiola protected the bone marrow cells of mice against mutagenic, drug-induced chromosomal aberrations.22 The herb also inhibited unscheduled DNA synthesis, providing evidence that it can raise the efficiency of cellular DNA repair mechanisms.22 Another experiment on rats with malignant lymphoma found that Rhodiola rosea was as beneficial in inhibiting tumor growth as a partial hepatectomy (removal of the liver) and slightly more effective in preventing metastasis. Further research is needed to determine whether these results extend to humans.23

Recommended Dosage and Contraindications

Consumers are able to take advantage of rhodiola’s benefits with standardized extracts that provide precise dosages of the active components. This takes much of the guesswork out of selecting a product, as long as you follow a few guidelines.

When rhodiola was first being researched, it was believed that the active ingredient is salidroside, a phytochemical found in various plant species. However, further investigation revealed that plants containing only salidroside do not confer the same benefits as rhodiola. Researchers then isolated the plant constituents found only in rhodiola. These critical components include rosavin, rosarin, and rosin, collectively known as rosavins.

“We are not sure which chemicals actually do what, but we know that certain chemicals must be present for rhodiola to work,” adds Dr. Brown. “These include rosavin, rosarin, rosin, salidroside, and tyrosol. The last two are found in other plants, but the first three are found only in Rhodiola rosea. It may take a synergistic combination of these chemicals for the herb to work. To ensure that root extracts contain pure Rhodiola rosea, they should be standardized to contain at least 3% rosavins and 1% salidroside, the ratio found in the natural root.”

Herbal Rhodiola rosea supplements should contain a minimum of 3% rosavins and 1% salidroside, matching the concentrations used in clinical trials. This is the rhodiola formulation produced by reputable manufacturers; less ethical companies may try to profit from the herb’s popularity by substituting other members of the rhodiola family. Unfortunately, only Rhodiola rosea has the benefits described in this article.

The recommended dosage is 75-150 mg taken twice daily. While the herb has an exceptionally high level of safety, larger doses will not necessarily produce greater results. Active people who stress their bodies physically should aim for the high end of the suggested dosage range; sedentary people will likely require a smaller dose, though one’s level of stress will also be a factor. Because rhodiola can stimulate cognitive processes, it is best taken before breakfast and in the middle of the day. As with most herbs, rhodiola is best taken on an empty stomach.

The time required to begin feeling the effects of rhodiola depends on your genetics, mental and physical condition, environment, behavior, and lifestyle.24 Some people begin to feel its effects in just a few days, while others require as much as three weeks. Clinical studies show that most people experience its full benefits in 30-40 days. If you do not notice a change within 40 days, discontinue use, as rhodiola may not be effective for you.

Most important, be patient. The negative effects of chronic stress develop over many years, slowly but steadily eroding the body’s balance and often causing fluctuations in mood and energy levels. Recovering one’s balance takes time, so avoid trying to rush the process by megadosing once the first effects are felt. It is better to let the herb take its natural course and slowly restore your body to a more balanced state.

A Multifaceted Herbal Adaptogen

With its ability to increase mental energy and physical endurance, rhodiola has tremendous potential to counteract many negative effects of the aging process. Studies show that rhodiola can favorably support the body’s stress reaction, both mentally and physically. In research trials, rhodiola has been shown to boost brain function and have anti-cancer effects. Rhodiola thus provides a safe, effective way to combat many of the conditions faced by older adults, making it a valuable addition to any anti-aging supplement program.


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