Genus: Rhodiola rosea
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.
A perennial plant with yellow flowers, rhodiola is native to dry, high-altitude regions of Asia, Europe and other areas of the Northern Hemisphere. The part of the plant used medicinally is the rhizome, a fleshy underground stem. Common names for rhodiola include golden root, Arctic root and roseroot. The last of these names refers to the rose-like fragrance of the rhizome. The plant is a Crassulaceae member, a plant family made up primarily of succulents that also includes the genus Sedum.
The genus Rhodiola contains more than 100 different species, and at least 20 of these are used in traditional Asian medicine. However, it is important to note that nearly all of the scientific research has been conducted on R. rosea, so whether or not other species confer the same health benefits is unknown.
Rhodiola rosea 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.
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, colds and flu, anemia, gastrointestinal problems 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 used primarily as a psychostimulant to treat what some researchers call “asthenic” or “nearasthenic” 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 “nearasthenia” 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.
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.
Environmentally conscious herb consumers may find the depletion of wild sources impossible to ignore — as we all should.
According to Rob McCaleb, president of the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colordo, now is the time for herb suppliers to develop sustainable sources of rhodiola. “[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 already have 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.”
Consumers can make a difference by asking about the sources of the herbs they buy. By insisting on sustainably produced products, we all can support the continued existence of rhodiola and other plants with limited supply in the wild.
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).