Low-dose treatment with rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) may help reduce symptoms of fatigue and enhance performance for people working under stress, according to the results of two recent controlled studies.
While the herb itself may be new to many Americans, rhodiola falls into a category of plants that might be familiar—those known as adaptogens. As the name implies, adaptogens are substances that help the body adapt to and defend against the debilitating effects of physical stress, such as that caused by rigorous exercise, extreme cold, sleep deprivation, or demanding shift work. Other adaptogenic herbs include Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), eleuthero or Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), and the Indian herb ashwaganda (Withania somnifera).
To simulate realistic conditions, the rhodiola studies tested the effects of the herb in people working in classically stressful, physically demanding situations: doctors on night duty and foreign students undergoing an exam period. Both studies utilized low doses of a rhodiola extract standardized to salidroside, a compound believed important to the herb’s activity. In the first study, which involved fifty-six young, healthy physicians working night duty, the researchers observed a 20 percent improvement in various measures of mental performance after two weeks of treatment with 170 mg of rhodiola extract a day. In the second, involving forty young Indian students undergoing exams, those taking rhodiola demonstrated improvements in mental fatigue, physical fitness, neuromotor test results, and general well-being. Participants in this study took 50 mg of standardized rhodiola extract twice daily.
The two studies are somewhat unique in that they employed lower dosages of rhodiola than those used in most of the earlier research on the herb’s anti-fatigue effects. While encouraged by their results, both groups of researchers believe that more dramatic improvements may have been achieved with higher doses of the herb. No adverse effects were observed in either study.
Rhodiola has a long history of use in various Asian and European healing systems, including those of Tibet, Sweden, and ancient Greece. Native to harsh arctic and alpine regions of the Northern Hemisphere, rhodiola is perhaps most popular of all in Russia, where research on its anti-fatigue and performance-enhancing properties began in the 1960s. 8
Darbinyan, V., et al. “Rhodiola rosea in stress induced fatigue—a double blind cross-over study of a standardized extract SHR-5 with a repeated low-dose regimen on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty.” Phytomedicine 2000, 7(5): 365–371.
Spasov, A. A., et al. “A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the stimulating and adaptogenic effect of Rhodiola rosea SHR-5 extract on the fatigue of students caused by stress during an examination period with a repeated low-dose regimen.” Phytomedicine 2000, 7(2): 85–89.
Evelyn Leigh is a writer, editor and herbalist who lives to garden in Boulder, Colorado. She is the co-author of the Herb Research Foundation’s science-based book, The Encyclopedia of Popular Herbs (Prima Publishing, 2000).