Fact-checked by Dr. Anthony Gustin, DC, MS.
Written by Emily Ziedman
As alternative medicine becomes more mainstream, traditional herbs like Rhodiola rosea are gaining much-deserved attention.
Whether you or someone you know suffers from premenstrual pain or fatigue, or you’re trying to increase your mental performance and sense of well-being — dietary supplements like
Rhodiola may be the missing piece to your wellness puzzle.
With a broad range of positive therapeutic effects for a variety of health conditions, Rhodiola is a traditional herb with potent active ingredients that are worth digging in to.
Let’s explore how Rhodiola works, and the ways it may benefit your health.
Rhodiola Rosea, also known as “golden root” or “arctic root,” has been used for thousands of years in Eastern Europe and Asia for therapeutic and medical purposes.
It grows in cold regions and high altitudes like Siberia and Russia. The roots and rhizomes have been used in traditional medicine to treat anxiety, fatigue, anemia, impotence, infections, depression and headaches,
You can find Rhodiola (most commonly) in capsule, tablet or powder forms[*]. You can also boil Rhodiola root and drink it as a tea, but most people prefer the more simplified supplement form.
Rhodiola is known as an adaptogenic herb. Adaptogens are fascinating plants that work with your body to increase your resistance to chemical, biological, and physical stressors in a non-specific way[*].
That means that if you need more energy, adaptogens balance your body to provide more energy. If you need to calm down, adaptogens can tamper your stress response and give you a calm feeling.
When it comes to food as medicine, adaptogens are the perfect example of how what you consume can work synergistically in your body to bring balance.
Adaptogens have been used as healing plants in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine for over 5000 years. The importance of managing all forms of stress on the body is not a new concept, but only recently seems to be gaining mainstream attention.
The Stress Health Connection
Chronic stress is linked to disease, systemic inflammation, and even changes in your brain chemistry and structure[*].
Adaptogens work in your body to ward off the detrimental effects of stress so that you can become more resilient.
When you’re physically able to manage stress, your body becomes well adapted and your whole system becomes stronger. You may even live longer[*].
The “nonspecific” aspect of adaptogens is where their true magic lies. Everyone’s body is different, and every stress response looks different as well.
The nonspecific increased resistance to stress allows the plant and your body to create a special healing relationship that’s specific to your needs at that moment[*].
Other well-known adaptogenic herbs include; holy basil, astragalus, panax ginseng, ashwagandha, and licorice root.
Two specific active ingredients in Rhodiola have been studied for their stress-reduction behavior in your body: rosavin and salidroside.
One proposed mechanism for the profound anti-stress effects of Rhodiola is the inhibition of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO).
MAO is involved in the oxidative breakdown of neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. In this way, the compounds in Rhodiola may act as antioxidants — protecting specific neurotransmitters and enhancing their function[*].
Rhodiola has been widely studied for a vast array of health benefits. As an adaptogen, many of its positive attributes come from its ability to calm your nervous system so you can adapt to stressors of daily life.
Below are some of the most well-researched benefits of Rhodiola.
#1: Stress and Anxiety
Stress can come in many shapes and forms — including emotional. Rhodiola has been shown to decrease both stress and anxiety stemming from psychological causes.
One trial assessed the effect of Rhodiola Rosea extract supplementation for 4 weeks in a group of 101 subjects with life-stress symptoms. The participants were given several questionnaires throughout the trial to assess their stress levels and other symptoms.
The results showed that, invariably, all the tests demonstrated significant improvements in stress and stress-related symptoms.
Improvements were observed in some participants after only three days of treatment. The researchers concluded that Rhodiola Rosea is safe and effective at improving stress and related symptoms to a clinically relevant degree[*].
Rhodiola also significantly improves generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is a type of anxiety disorder that causes people to persistently worry about everyday life events, with no obvious reason[*].
In a small pilot study, a group of volunteers diagnosed with GAD were given Rhodiola supplementation for 10 weeks and then asked to fill out an assessment called the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale (HARS), which evaluates the severity of anxiety symptoms.
The results showed that the participants treated with Rhodiola had significant decreases in the HARS scale. The researchers suggested that they need more studies, but the positive effects they saw could pave the way to more natural treatments of GAD[*].
Emotional stress can often cause physical fatigue. Rhodiola doesn’t just calm anxiety, but also decreases the physical fatigue that comes along with that anxiety[*].
Depression can show up in a few different forms, ranging from mild to moderate to severe.
Although scientists aren’t sure what the cause of depression is, there seem to be genetic, biological, environmental, and physiological roles that can come into play[*].
Whether Rhodiola helps with depression by enhancing your neurotransmitter function, or by modulating stress from your environment or emotions is still unclear.
However, researchers believe that its antidepressant properties may come from Rhodiola’s ability to interact with your immune system, central nervous system, and neurotransmitters[*].
One study examined the effect of taking 340 mg of Rhodiola once or twice daily for 6 weeks in mild-moderately depressed subjects. The participants found that Rhodiola decreased overall symptoms of depression, emotional instability, and insomnia[*].
Another study is being proposed to examine the potential role of Rhodiola and major depressive disorder (MDD). Rhodiola may even become an effective alternative to traditional pharmaceutical therapies at some point[*].*
*As always, this information is not medical advice and you should talk to your doctor about any pharmaceuticals you’re currently taking.
#3: Cognitive Function
If you’ve ever experienced a significant amount of stress, then you’re well aware of how much your work can suffer. Rhodiola may be just thing to get your mind back into the game and increase mental performance.
In one study on a group of physicians who worked night shifts, researchers found that Rhodiola helped with mental fatigue and complex cognitive and perceptive functions. That included things like short-term memory, calculation, concentration, associative thinking, and audio-visual perception[*].
In another study, a group of 161 military cadets aged 19-21 were given a single dose of Rhodiola or a placebo after 24 hours of sleep deprivation. The cadets that took the Rhodiola showed improvements in mental processing as well as short-term memory when compared to the placebo[*].
What is it about Rhodiola that boosts cognition? Researchers think the compound salidroside might be the key. Even a single dose of salidroside can enhance memory and has antidepressant effects on mice[*].
#4: Physical Performance
Everybody wants to be faster, stronger, and more agile — basically a superhero. While Rhodiola may not be able to help you fly, studies suggest that it may make you a better athlete.
One study looked at the acute effects of Rhodiola on endurance exercise performance. Participants were given 3mg of Rhodiola or a carbohydrate placebo before exercise and then rode a bicycle for six miles.
The cyclists that took the Rhodiola finished significantly faster than the control group and had a lower rate of perceived exertion. In other words, they completed the test faster and with more ease[*].
Taking Rhodiola before exercise also increases your oxygen capacity and speed[*].
#5: Balance Blood Sugar
Blood sugar imbalance is one of the main causes of diabetes and prediabetes. But oxidative stress can also contribute to the progression of type 2 diabetes causing damage to the beta cells of your pancreas.
Beta cells are responsible for releasing insulin into your bloodstream in response to a rise in blood glucose. But damaged beta cells can lead to all sorts of issues with blood glucose management.
Salidroside in Rhodiola acts as a natural antioxidant in your body and may protect your beta cells from oxidation.
This theory was tested in a mice model, with diabetic mice receiving isolated salidroside. Salidroside improved blood sugar and relieved oxidative stress in the mice, likely due to the activation of a metabolic pathway called AMPK (activated protein kinase)[*].
Rhodiola may also balance blood sugar by increasing the number of glucose receptors on your cells. That would help clear your blood of glucose quickly and avoid the effects of chronic high blood sugar and insulin release[*].
When you think of fatigue, you often think of physical stress, but exhaustion can just as easily come from mental stress.
Rhodiola may be able to help. In one double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, Rhodiola improved both physical fitness and mental fatigue in a group of students during a 20-day exam period[*].
To assess the value of Rhodiola for more long-term fatigue issue like chronic fatigue, researchers gave a group of people with prolonged chronic fatigue symptoms 200mg of Rhodiola two times a day for 8 weeks.
Within 1 week of treatment, the participants experienced a significant reduction in fatigue symptoms, which continued to improve throughout the 8-week trial.
The researchers suggested that Rhodiola may be a safe and effective treatment for people suffering from chronic fatigue[*].
Researchers have experimented with many different dosages of Rhodiola to determine the optimal amount you should take for each use case. Below are some scientifically-backed dosages:
- Athletic performance: 170-200 mg daily
- Depression: 340 mg once or twice daily
- Fatigue: 170-576 mg daily for 2-4 weeks
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): 170 mg twice a day for 10 weeks
- Stress: 200mg twice daily for 4 weeks.
There aren’t any studies specifically on how the keto diet and Rhodiola work together, but here are some ideas.
As you’re transitioning from a higher-carb diet into the fat-adaptation phase, it’s likely you’ll experience some hormonal shifts. One theory is that you may experience a boost in cortisol during the first few weeks of keto.
Cortisol can shift depending on macronutrient intake, so it makes sense that transitioning into ketosis could cause a spike in this hormone[*].
Rhodiola is an excellent herb for combating stress of all kinds. One animal study showed that it might even decrease cortisol directly[*]. So, taking Rhodiola during fat-adaptation may help combat some of the physiological stress that comes with the territory.
As always, speak with a healthcare professional before beginning any new supplementation or diet protocols.
Rhodiola has very few side effects, however, it’s important to talk to your doctor before beginning any new supplement.
Some people experience mild to moderate dizziness and dry mouth[*].
And because it may lower your blood glucose levels, you should be particularly careful when taking Rhodiola with diabetic medication. The same is true for blood pressure medication, as Rhodiola may decrease your blood pressure[*][*].
Rhodiola may also add to the stimulating effects of caffeine, so if you’re sensitive, it’s a good idea to start slow and make sure you don’t over-stimulate your system.
The Takeaway: Rhodiola Rosea For Brain Health and Stress Relief
Rhodiola is a potent adaptogenic herb with a variety of benefits ranging from increased cognitive performance to enhanced energy, decreased anxiety, and reduced symptoms of depression.
All of its positive effects stem from its ability to combat the physical and emotional stressors that come from daily life.
If you’re not already taking adaptogens to manage stress, then you should certainly consider the benefits.
Adaptogens like Rhodiola have a powerful ability to keep your body, energy, and mind balanced when life throws you an inevitable curveball.