High in alpine and arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere grows an unassuming herb with some remarkable characteristics. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), a plant adapted to the harsh and unforgiving climate of Siberia and similar regions, appears to have the ability to help the human body adapt to and defend against the debilitating effects of stress.
Rhodiola displays all the attributes of a classic adaptogen (a valuable tonic herb that strengthens the body’s nonspecific resistance to the effects of physical stress, such as that caused by overwork or extreme temperatures). Modern research, backed by centuries of traditional use, suggests rhodiola can help counteract stress-related fatigue, enhance stamina and work performance, and perhaps even boost mood and memory.
Too good to be true? Well, almost. While the health benefits seem promising, some experts are concerned that the new enthusiasm for rhodiola has taken a toll on the plant itself. The recent increase in demand for the herb, which is harvested solely from the wild, threatens to deplete wild plant populations — unless efforts to improve the sustainability of sources are stepped up soon.
Rhodiola, Yesterday and Today
Little known in North America until a few years ago, rhodiola has long been a popular remedy in Eastern European and Asian nations, especially Russia and Scandinavian countries. The long list of disorders for which rhodiola has been traditionally used includes fatigue, depression and other nervous system conditions, altitude sickness, headaches, anemia, gastrointestinal problems, colds and flu, and infections. The use of the herb in Europe stretches back to the time of the ancient Greeks, and it was used as a brain tonic in France as early as the 19th century.
Today, rhodiola is listed as an official medicine in the pharmacopoeias of Russia, Sweden, France and a number of other European countries, and it remains an esteemed remedy in the traditional Tibetan and Chinese medical systems. In modern Europe, rhodiola is primarily used as a psychostimulant to treat what some researchers call “asthenic” or “neurasthenic” conditions. These conditions, characterized by such symptoms as fatigue, decreased work performance and disturbances in mood, sleep and appetite, may develop in response to severe physical or mental strain or after debilitating illness.
It’s worth noting that the terms “asthenia” and “neurasthenia” are no longer commonly used in the United States, in part because many of the symptoms overlap with those of other conditions, such as depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. However, the terms continue to be widely used by researchers and health practitioners in other parts of the world.
A Look at the Research
Rhodiola is perhaps most popular in Russia, where a great deal of the pharmacological research has been conducted. Modern Russian and Scandinavian scientists have investigated the health benefits of rhodiola since 1960, but little original research has been published in English.
Among the few papers in English are two small, placebo-controlled European clinical studies published in the journal Phytomedicine in 2000. These studies evaluated the herb’s ability to enhance work performance and counteract stress-related fatigue in human subjects under realistic work conditions.
The first study showed that low-dose treatment with rhodiola extract reduced symptoms of fatigue in young, healthy medical students on night duty. In the second study, treatment with rhodiola enhanced physical fitness, reduced mental fatigue, improved neuromotor function and boosted general well-being for a group of medical students during a stressful exam period.
In spite of the scarcity of research published in English, some recent articles in HerbalGram and Alternative Medicine Review provide an excellent overview of other scientific research to date. According to these research summaries, the herb’s adaptogenic properties have been well documented in human, animal and laboratory studies. Trials have shown rhodiola effectively counters fatigue and protects against the effects of stress, hypoxia (oxygen deprivation), extreme temperatures, intense physical activity and other factors. Additional studies have demonstrated rhodiola has antioxidant properties, benefits the central nervous system and can help protect the heart from stress-induced damage. Anecdotal reports suggest the plant may help with depression, memory loss, cognitive problems, sexual dysfunction and a host of other conditions, but more research is needed to confirm these applications. There have been no reports of safety problems or toxicity.
As with most herbs, no single compound appears to be responsible for rhodiola’s activity. Currently, researchers believe the most active chemical ingredients are compounds called rosavins. Rhodiola extracts are often standardized to both rosavins and salidroside. Most of the extracts used in rhodiola clinical studies were standardized to a minimum of 3 percent rosavins and 0.8 to 1 percent salidroside; this is the ratio in which these compounds occur naturally in the plant.
Researchers are not yet sure how rhodiola achieves its impressive benefits. However, it appears the herb affects the function of neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that transport messages between nerves and help to regulate mood and other functions. In some studies, small and medium-sized doses of rhodiola were shown to stimulate the release of and enhance the effects of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin in the central nervous system.
A Word About Sustainability
Unfortunately, there is another side to the rhodiola story — one that environmentally conscious herb consumers may find difficult to ignore. Rhodiola is harvested exclusively from the wild, and increased commercial demand is threatening the health of wild plant populations.
According to Rob McCaleb, president of the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colorado, now is the time for herb suppliers to develop sustainable sources of rhodiola. “Sustainability is becoming the new standard for earth-friendly products,” he explains. “[The term] ‘certified sustainable’ goes beyond organic to assure the continued availability of the plant and the health of the ecosystem it grows in. It also benefits the people who depend on these plants for their livelihood by helping to guarantee a future supply.”
Destructive harvest practices have already decimated rhodiola populations in certain parts of Russia. Russian forestry experts have established methods to monitor and control wild harvesting of other high-value herbs, such as eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), to ensure their continued availability and protect the forest ecosystem. Yet no such protections have been put in place for rhodiola. “The Russians really are very conscious about their harvest practices,” McCaleb says. “Unfortunately, they did not foresee this supply problem, so they did not take the same measures to protect rhodiola.”
If sustainable sources of rhodiola are not created quickly, a shortage could develop, McCaleb points out. “This should be a wake-up call for suppliers,” he says. “There’s opportunity, there’s demand, and there’s good science to support the health benefits of the herb. This is a chance to do things right.”
Consumers can make a difference by asking hard questions about the sources of the herbs they buy. “I think there’s good cause for optimism,” McCaleb says. “Customers are responding to issues of sustainability by demanding sustainably produced products. And through our work at the Herb Research Foundation, we know there are manufacturers who will respond by insisting upon sustainable sources and suppliers who will accept the challenge of buying sustainably.”
Evelyn Leigh is a writer, editor and herbalist who lives to garden in Boulder, Colorado. She is the co-author of The Encyclopedia of Popular Herbs (Prima Publishing, 2000).