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Rhodiola rosea can improve our resistance to the damaging effects of stress

Rhodiola

Rhodiola rosea Crassulaceae

Closely related to the sedums, this hardiest of succulents can withstand high altitudes and cold temperatures, a quality which when used medicinally can help improve our tolerance to such things too!

  • How does it feel?

    One of Rhodiola’s common names is Rose root. This is because the freshly cut roots have a very pleasant rose-like scent, which remains on drying to a degree. The dried and powdered root is slightly sweet with an aftertaste of bitterness and a definite astringency.

  • What can I use it for?

    When it comes to Rhodiola rosea, it is very important to ensure you are using the correct species, as products can be substituted with different species and there are more than one species of rhodiola.

    R. rosea can potentially benefit many presentations due to its direct effects on the mechanisms in the body that control the stress response.

    It is classed as an adaptogen, assisting in enabling one to adapt and cope more effectively to stresses.

    It increases physical and mental efficiency, it can enhance a moderately low mood, help to improve sleep quality, energy levels and enhance convalescence, so whether it be to help the body deal with marathon training, mountaineering, to cope better with the stress of exam preparations, a heavy workload or for recovery from illness, it continues to play an important role in our world.

  • Into the heart of Rhodiola

    Rhodiola rosea can be of use both in sickness and in health. Since 1969 preparations of this fascinating plant have been included in the Russian pharmacopoeia.

    Stated indications within include use as a stimulant for fatigue, for infectious illnesses, and for psychiatric and neurological conditions.

    Stress-related conditions are one of the most common reasons people consult with a herbal practitioner. Rhodiola rosea is a valuable addition to the range of herbs used within the management of such conditions working to increase resilience and recovery.

  • Traditional uses

    There are more than 200 different species of Rhodiola, of which around 20 are known to be used medicinally.

    Dioscorides first recorded medicinal uses for Rhodiola, (then named rodia riza) in 77 C.E. In De Materia Medica.

    Found in high altitude areas in the arctic and mountainous regions, Rhodiola rosea has a long history of use both in medicine and cooking.

    In Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia, Mongolia, and other parts of Asia it has been used for centuries within traditional medicine systems as a tonic remedy for enhancing both mental and physical performance, helping with adaptation to altitude sickness, in the management of cancer, to speed up recovery following illness, to boost mood and reduce fatigue.  It was also used to enhance fertility and as a remedy for colds and flu during the severe Siberian winter months.

    Used in Norway, Rhodiola rosea has been used as a cure for scurvy in cattle, to flavour beer and used as a topical preparation to promote healthy hair growth and as a treatment for dandruff.

    In Ayurvedic medicine it is used to provide strength and support to the brain, nerves and muscles. It is often used in combination with other medicinal herbs as a therapy for anxiety and mood disorders.

    In traditional Chinese medicine it is used to replenish qi (vital energy) and in support of the heart and lung channels.

  • Traditional actions

    Western herbal actions are

    • Adaptogenic
    • Tonic
    • Mood enhancer
    • Antioxidant
    • Neuroprotective
    • Cardioprotective
    • Hepatoprotective
    • Anti-tumour
  • What practitioners say

    Adaptogenic and tonic activity: An adaptogen is a non-toxic, (usually plant-derived) substance that helps to increase the body’s ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore more normal physiological functioning (4), Rhodiola rosea can certainly be considered to possess such actions.

    It is a key herb in terms of supporting the HPA axis response, (the body’s central stress response system which involves interaction between the hypothalalmus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands). It is one of a range of valuable adaptogenic herbs, working as it does to increase resilience to stressors, whether they be physical, chemical or biological.

    It has been used for centuries to help increase productivity and resistance to cold weather, high altitude, fatigue and other stressors on the body. Herbalists often combine it with other herbs pertinent to the individual’s presentation, and may often include other adaptogens and tonics.

    The adaptogenic action of Rhodiola rosea makes it helpful for burnout in patients with fatigue, including post viral fatigue.

    Nervous system: Rhodiola rosea is used to good effect in boosting metal capacity, helping with learning, attention and retention of information – including long and short-term memory, especially if caused by stress.

    It is often used in cases where there is exhaustion and to improve mild to moderate depression and anxiety. In combination with other nervine and sedative herbs it can help to improve restorative sleep.

    Cardiovascular system: Rhodiola rosea has been shown to possess a level of cardioprotective activity. It can help the heart perform better by increasing the strength of heart contractions and variability of heart rate when in exercise or rest. As such it can be of benefit in physical training as it helps the heart to adapt to increased exercise, increasing energy output when required while maintaining energy reserves.

  • Research

    Since 1960 there have been vast numbers of pharmacological, phytochemical, and clinical studies of varying quality published on this interesting plant. Much of the earlier work was carried out in Sweden, Norway, France, Germany and the Soviet Union, although interest in Rhodiola rosea has steadily grown, so research is being carried out further afield.

    The rosavins are now generally accepted to be the accepted marker for genetically pure Rhodiola rosea, however, it should be noted that they are not the only pharmacologically active constituents responsible for the medicinal effects of R. rosea, for example, the phenolic compounds possess strong antioxidant activity and salidroside has been shown to be possess some anticancer properties.

    Rhodiola rosea extracts used in most human clinical studies were standardised to rosavins: salideroside 3:1. There have been a number of studies carried out on healthy but stressed individuals.  One double-blind crossover study carried out on 56 healthy medical practitioners on night duty showed a statistically significant improvement in perceptive and cognitive cerebral functions and a reduction in fatigue.

    Another double-blind placebo-controlled crossover trial was carried out on 60 individuals suffering with stress-related chronic fatigue. Quality of life, symptoms of fatigue, depression, attention and saliva -cortisol response to awakening was assessed on day 1 and 28 days of treatment. Positive results were noted in both groups, however significant improvement was noted with the treatment group over the placebo group in terms of reduced fatigue and mental performance, especially in the ability to concentrate. Improvements in self-reported levels of anxiety, stress, anger, depression and confusion were noted in the treatment group of another study.

    In 2007 a 12 week study with a Rhodiola rosea extract product in combination with vitamins E, B12, B6, folate and magnesium was carried out on 120 adults with physical and cognitive disabilites. Medical examinations on physical and cognitive symptoms were performed at baseline, 6 and 12 weeks. There was a statistically highly significant improvement (P<.001) in both physical and cognitive symptoms including for exhaustion, motivation, daytime sleepiness, concentration, forgetfulness, susceptibily to stress and irritability. These results are very promising and call for future placebo-controlled clinical trials.

    There have been many studies on the anti-cancer activity of R.rosea or on its constituent salideroside. For the main, these have been non-human in vivo and in vitro studies. Some have shown synergistic and protective effects when Rhodiola extracts were used alongside chemotherapeutic agents. Others demonstrated an inibiting effect on the rate of angiogenesis (new blood vessel developement, a normal bodily process that can be abnormal in cancer growth), and in inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death) in cancer cell lines.

    Also mentioned under the section on Safety, there has been a reported case of a herb-drug reaction in a patient taking both Paroxetine and an unspecified Rhodiola preparation (10).  CYP2C9 is an enzyme member of the Cytochrome P450 family and responsible for metabolising certain drugs. One study identified R. rosea root extract as inhibiting CYP2C9 in vitro and in vivo, it was shown to modestly inhibit the metabolic capability of CYP2C9 in humans. More research on this is required, however caution should be exercised in the concomitant administration of R. rosea with drugs metabolized by CYP2C9 that have a narrow therapeutic index, such as warfarin and phenytoin.

  • Did you know?

    Rhodiola was planted on turf roofs to help prevent fire and as an apotropaic – something supposedly having the power to avert evil forces and bad luck.

    This succulent wonder is dioecious, meaning that a plant contains either male or female flowers but not together on the same plant, so both male and female plants must be grown together if the seed is required.

    In mountain villages of Siberia, a bouquet of roots is still given to couples prior to marriage to enhance fertility and assure the birth of healthy children.

    The young leaves and shoots can be eaten raw in salads, cooked like spinach or made into a sauerkraut.

Additional information

  • Safety

    Due to the increasing popularity of Rhodiola rosea it is very important that you ensure you are sourcing the rosea species and not some other Rhodiola.

    Always check the packaging for the full Latin name as there is significant variation between the phytochemical constituents of different Rhodiola species. Check the ratio of salideroside and rosavins are around 3:1 and ensure you find an authentic source from a reputable supplier.

    Rhodiola root is considered a very safe remedy, however there are some cautions.

    High doses may have the potential to cause excitability, restlessness and insomnia in susceptible individuals.

    There has been a report of a potential herb-drug reaction within a patient with depressive disorder on the antidepressant Paroxetine and the use of an unspecified Rhodiola preparation who went on to develop restlessness, trembling and confusion. The patient may have developed serotonin syndrome due to the Rhodiola preventing the timely breakdown of the Paroxetine.

    Whilst there is no certainty the Rhodiola preparation was from R. rosea, caution should be exercised in the use of R. rosea alongside drugs metabolized by certain enzyme pathways in the liver that have a narrow therapeutic index, such as warfarin and phenytoin. The advice in such cases would be to always consult with a herbal practitioner for advice.  Refer to the Evidence section for further information.

  • Dosage

    Good to start with a lower dose and gradually increase if/as required.

    Standardised root powder capsules 250 – 750 mg daily dose

    2-5 ml per day of a 2:1 extract, ideally standardised for 3:1 rosavins 3mg/ml to salideroside 1mg /ml

  • Constituents

    • Phenylpropanoids: rosavin, rosarin and rosin, known collectively as rosavins
    • Phenylethanol derivatives: salidroside (rhodioloside) tyrosol
    • Monoterpines: rosaridin, rosiridol
    • Flavonoids: rodiolin, rodionin, rodiosin, acetylrodalgin, tricin
    • Triterpenes: daucosterol, beta-sitosterol
    • Phenolic acids: Chlorogenic, hydroxycinnamic and gallic
    • Volatile oil: includinggeraniol

    The naturally occurring ratio of rosavins to salidroside in the root of Rhodiola rosea is approximately 3:1. It is important to ensure you have an authenticated source as adulteration and substitution can often occur with this desirable herb.

Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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