Rhodiola is an adaptogenic plant used for over a thousand years for a range of health benefits. Root extracts of Rhodiola rosea have anti-depressive, anti-anxiety, mood-boosting and energizing activities. Rhodiola has been used for generations for health issues relating to mental and physical imbalances such as fatigue, stress, depression, anxiety and mood issues. It also can boost physical performance during exercise, and is why it is of particular interest to athletes.
Due to the high demand for Rhodiola and the fact that most commercially available Rhodiola is wild-harvested, Rhodiola rosea is a threatened species in many countries.
When purchasing Rhodiola extracts, look for products that are responsibly cultivated or sustainably harvested. Before taking Rhodiola, consult a physician if you have a pre-existing condition or take medications that Rhodiola may interact with.
Table of Contents
- What is Rhodiola?
- History of Rhodiola
- Why does Rhodiola work?
- Health benefits of Rhodiola
- Rhodiola vs Ashwagandha
- What kind of Rhodiola to buy
- Does Rhodiola have any side effects?
What is Rhodiola?
Rhodiola rosea, also known as “golden root” or “roseroot” is an adaptogenic herb in the family Crassulaceae. It has a long history of usage in Eastern Europe, Nordic countries, and Asia. Although 73 different Rhodiola species exist (Rhodiola sacra, Rhodiola crenulata, etc.), R. rosea is by far the most heavily researched, with clear therapeutic potential [Tao 2019].
Most commercially produced Rhodiola products today are sourced from the Altai Mountains, particularly in Ust-Kanski, Ust-Koksinski and Charishki regions [Panossian 2010].
The roots and rhizomes of the plant are the primary sources of therapeutic application. These parts are processed via extraction, and often standardized to contain a certain percentage of active ingredients. The leaves and shoots are also edible, either raw or cooked, and have a slightly bitter taste. In fact, recent research has found that the leaves, flowers and stems also have antioxidant activity. Due to the destructive cultivation of Rhodiola rosea roots and rhizomes, consuming the above-ground parts may be a promising advancement in its cultivation and use [Olennikov 2020].
History of Rhodiola
Rhodiola has been used in traditional medicine systems for centuries, particularly in those regions where it grows. R. rosea grows at high altitudes and cold climates, including areas like Tibet, the Altai Mountains in Central Asia, the Far East, Scandinavia, the British Isles, Iceland and Alaska. Rhodiola has been used as a medicinal herb for generations, with a variety of written accounts regarding its therapeutic applications recorded throughout the world in the last thousands years.
Given its long history of use and widespread popularity across regions, Rhodiola is known by many names. Throughout Europe and Asia its referred to as roseroot, rosenroot, golden root, orpin rose, Rhodiole Rougeatre and arctic root [Tao 2019].
Its use dates back to ancient medical texts written before the year 1,000 AD. For example, Dioscorides wrote of Rhodiola in 77AD in his Materia Medica, where it was recommended for headaches, hysteria, hernias, discharges and as an astringent [Panossian 2010]. Other well-known herbs used today also date back to the same text, like milk thistle. Rhodiola was also well-known in China over 1,000 years ago, with references as far back as 800 AD in historic Tibetan medical texts [Tao 2019].
In the 20th century, Rhodiola was populary used and researched in the former Soviet Union. In 1969, it was an approved and registered for medicinal use by the Soviet Ministry of Health. Even the European Medicines Agency has Rhodiola documented as a temporary reliever of stress.
Why does Rhodiola work?
Although the precise mechanisms of Rhodiola aren’t yet understood, several theories exist as to why it is so effective in treating a range of mental and cognitive issues (depression, anxiety, stress, etc.).
Rhodiola may stimulate the HPA axis (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) to reduce cortisol levels (stress hormone), as well as oxidative stress. It also synthesizes proteins involved in stress resistance, thus enabling the body to keep stress at bay [Wal 2019].
Rhodiola also has several biological activities including anti-stress, anti-bacterial, anti-hypoxic (too little oxygen), and anti-cancer, as well as immune and sexual stimulating effects [Perfumi 2007].
Several ingredients it contains, such as p-tyrosol, organic acid, and flavonoids, all contribute to its antioxidant activity. Water and alcohol extracts of Rhodiola exhibit strong free-radical scavenging activity [Zhou 2014].
Most importantly, Rhodiola is considered a plant adaptogen, meaning it allows the body to have greater resistance against environmental stressors. This adaptogenic property explains its ability to ameliorate symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue.
Rhodiola contains a range of chemicals and active ingredients that contribute to its biological activity. These include rosavin, rosin, rosarin, phenols, organic acids, terpenoids, phenolic acids, flavonoids, alkaloids, tyrosol, anthraquinones, and salidroside [Konstantinos 2020].
Extracts of Rhodiola used in studies are generally standardized to contain >3% of rosavins and >0.8% of salidrosides with a ratio of 3:1. These substances are believed to be predominantly responsible for the anti-anxiety (anxiolytic) and anti-depressant effects of Rhodiola [Konstantinos 2020]. These constituents, as well as the p-thyrosol and triandrin, likely explain the adaptogenic qualities of Rhodiola. The organic acid and flavonoids contribute to the antioxidant and anticancer activities of Rhodiola extracts [Perfumi 2007].
Health benefits of Rhodiola
Extracts of Rhodiola rosea are shown to improve mood and mental health, as well as boost physical performance. Numerous studies provide evidence that between 100-600mg of Rhodiola extract daily for 2-8 weeks can relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress. As a plant adaptogen, Rhodiola provides improved resilience against external stressors in the environment. It also enhances physical performance, by improving endurance, fighting fatigue, and boosting energy.
Here, we dive into the mental health benefits of Rhodiola, as well as its benefits for physical performance, exercise and energy levels. However, it’s worth noting that the benefits of Rhodiola rosea extend far beyond these aspects. Rhodiola has a range of other therapeutic applications as well, such as being an anti-aging agent and promoting heart health [Yu 2014] [Zhuang 2019].
Rhodiola for stress
Taking 300 – 600mg of a standardized extract of Rhodiola daily may help significantly reduce stress after 3-4 weeks.
A variety of studies found Rhodiola effective in reducing stress, as well as improving related symptoms of stress like fatigue, sleep, physical performance, depression, anxiety, and overall wellbeing.
- 200mg 2x daily of Rhodiola extract WS 1375 for 4 weeks helped reduce stress and fatigue for 100 adults with life-stress symptoms. Improvements were seen after just 3 days and continued in the following weeks [Edwards 2012].
- 50mg of Rhodiola extract for 20 days helped reduce mental fatigue and improve general well-being for students during a stressful examination period [Spasov 2000]
- 600mg of Rhodiola extract for 20 days helped reduce fatigue and anxiety, and increase physical work capacity and general well-being for students [Spasov 2000 B]
- 200mx 2x daily of dry Rhodiola extract (Vitano, WS 1375) for 2 weeks significantly improved self-reported measures for stress, as well as anxiety, anger, confusion and depression. However, it’s worth noting the experiment wasn’t double-blind, because the control group lacked any placebo treatment [Cropley 2015].
How does Rhodiola help with stress?
Rhodiola’s adaptogenic nature may be responsible for many of its benefits to mental and cognitive health.
Stress itself is linked to the variety of other conditions, such as fatigue, anxiety, depression, sleep problems and overall mood. Rhodiola is widely applied for all these cases, and so it likely helps not only with stress, but with these related conditions as well.
The mechanisms by which it may help physical stress are likely linked to its adaptogenic properties. Adaptogen means substance that increases the resistance of an organism without disturbing any normal biological functioning. Plant adaptogens guide the physiological processes needed that help the body adapt to stressful situations in a more resourceful way [Stojcheva 2022].
Rhodiola for fatigue/energy
The evidence demonstrates that 140-600mg of Rhodiola daily over 2-8 weeks is effective in reducing fatigue, as well as improving related health measures like decreasing stress and anxiety, and enhancing physical performance.
The following studies observed that Rhodiola helped symptoms of fatigue and increased energy for fatigued participants:
- 144mg 4x daily of Rhodiola extract SHR-5 for 4 weeks reduced significantly reduced fatigue as measured by the Pines’ burnout scale [Olsson 2009].
- 600mg daily of Rhodiola extract for 20 days helped reduce fatigue and anxiety, and increase physical work capacity and general well-being for students [Spasov 2000 B]
- 288mg daily of Rhodiola extract SHR-5 for 8 weeks significantly improved a variety of measures for fatigue, exhaustion, depression, insomnia, and loss of power. The study was conducted on 300+ adults, the majority of which were women, and with no adverse affects. However, the study did lack a control/placebo group [Goyvaerts 2012].
- 200mg 2x daily of dry Rhodiola extract (WS 1375) for 8 weeks improved chronic fatigue symptoms. However, this study lacked a placebo-controlled group for comparison [Lekomtseva 2017].
- 170mg daily of Rhodiola extract for 14 days improved fatigue for physicians better than placebo, as well as helped their mental performance [Darbinyan 2007]
- A single dosage administration of 370 or 555mg of Rhodiola extract SHR-5 had a strong anti-fatigue affect in young, healthy cadets [Shevtsov 2003]
- 144mg daily of Rhodiola extract for 1 week reduced fatigue significantly better than placebo. This study measured the effects using photo emissions, which indicate reactive oxygen species (ROS) [Schutgens 2009].
Rhodiola for exercise
Daily intake of 200-600mg of Rhodiola extract daily for 4 weeks improves endurance and exercise performance. Advantages in physical performance and energy may even be observed immediately or after a few days.
Rhodiola can help fight fatigue, boost energy, and improve physical performance. In fact, this is one of its most popular and well-known uses. Similarly, Rhodiola was used as a natural performance-boosting substance for athletes in the former Soviet Union. The Soviet Union also conducted a significant amount of research on Rhodiola, although most of it is still not accessible.
The following studies indicate that Rhodiola may help increase physical performance, such as strength and endurance, in otherwise healthy subjects.
- 1.5g daily Rhodiola extract for 3 days improved the performance of men in resistance exercises. Those who took Rhodiola had higher bench press velocities and had higher norepinephrine (NE) blood levels [Williams 2021].
- 1.5g daily of Rhodiola extract for 3 days improved anaerobic exercise performance in college women [Ballmann 2019]
- 200mg daily of Rhodiola extract for 4 weeks improved the endurance exercise capacity of healthy young men and women. The results were also noticeable after just 2 days of supplementation [De Bock 2004].
- 600mg daily of Rhodiola extract for 4 weeks improved the performance of healthy men in psychomotor tests — or those that evaluate dexterity and response time [Jówko 2018].
- 3mg/kg of body weight of Rhodiola extract improved the endurance of college women after a single dose. Those who took Rhodiola completed the time trial bicycle test faster than those on placebo [Noreen 2013].
How does Rhodiola boost physical performance?
Rhodiola boosts endurance by decreasing the perception of effort. One reason is that it increases endogenous opioid production or receptor sensitivity [Noreen 2013]. You may have heard of endorphins, which are a type of endogenous opioid peptide, and are natural “feel-good” chemicals. Although we still lack evidence behind Rhodiola boosting endogenous opioids, it is one compelling reason why the substance seems to reduce heart-rate and perceived exertion.
Rhodiola for anxiety
Taking 340-600mg of Rhodiola extract daily for 2-10 weeks may help reduce anxiety.
Rhodiola may be an effective herbal remedy in treating generalized and situational anxiety. This ability is likely connected to its reduction of physiological stress responsivity, which helps moderate mood.
- 340mg daily of Rhodiola extract (Rhodax) for 10 weeks experienced a significant decrease in anxiety. This study was not placebo-controlled, but the improvements in the scores for the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale were larger than the average affect expected from placebo, indicating Rhodiola’s therapeutic influence [Bystritsky 2008].
- 200mg 2x daily of dry Rhodiola extract (Vitano, WS 1375) for 2 weeks significantly improved self-reported measures anxiety [Cropley 2015]
- 600mg of Rhodiola extract for 20 days improved situational anxiety, as well as reduced fatigue for students [Spasov 2000 B]
Rhodiola for depression
340-680mg of Rhodiola daily for 6-12 weeks improves symptoms of depression. This includes mild and moderate depression, as well as major depression disorder (MDD). Rhodiola also has less side effects and adverse affects than typical antidepressants.
Several studies show Rhodiola may be an effective therapeutic intervention to help treat depression, for mild, moderate and major depression. One of the key benefits to using natural remedies, such as Rhodiola, to treat depression is that they are often associated with significantly fewer adverse side effects than mainstream prescription medications. SSRIs are currently the most commonly prescribed medication for depression but are associated with a range of serious side effects.
In the following studies, Rhodiola was used to try and treat participants with depression. Generally, Rhodiola seemed to be effective in alleviating symptoms and improving depression, as well as related measures like sleep and anxiety.
- 340 and 680mg/day of Rhodiola extract for 6 weeks significantly improved the mild/moderate depression of participants better than placebo. It also helped improve their insomnia and emotional instability [Darbinyan 2007].
- 345mg daily of Rhodiola extract (SHR-5) for 12 weeks seemed to help improve outcomes for participants with major depression disorder (MDD). Although the results were not statistically significant, those taking Rhodiola did have a better odds ratio of improving in their depression. Rhodiola as also much better tolerated than the SSRI it was compared to, sertraline [Mao 2015].
- 600mg daily of Rhodiola extract for 12 weeks, combined with sertraline SSRI, significantly improved the quality of life and reduced depression better than sertraline alone (or a lower dose of Rhodiola). It also improved other related symptoms like insomnia and emotional instability [Gao 2020].
Rhodiola vs Ashwagandha
Rhodila is sometimes compared to Ashwagandha, another adaptogenic herb used to treat the same conditions like depression, anxiety, mood imbalance, etc. There are certain conditions that both of these remedies treat, however they are different in how they work, as well as in how one consumes them therapeutically.
Both Ashwagandha and Rhodiola are adaptogenic herbs, meaning they increase the ability of the organism to adapt to environmental stressors and simultaneously calm and energize. This is why adaptogens help treat a range of related conditions like improving mood and physical endurance, boosting mental clarity, and treating issues like anxiety, depression, insomnia, stress, etc.
The evidence demonstrates that both Ashwagandha and Rhodiola are effective in relieving symptoms of anxiety. Ashwagandha, or Withania somnifera, has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine as a nervine (among other uses), meaning it supports the central nervous system. It also has other beneficial characteristics including its antioxidant and immuno-modulating properties [Wal 2019].
Ashwagandha and Rhodiola appear to use different mechanisms on the body. Most notably, Ashwagandha is considered a long-term therapy, with studies and Ayurvedic use focused almost exclusively on evaluating it after weeks or months of treatment. On the other hand, Rhodiola’s influences on the body are considered to be more immediate. Although compounded effects happen too, Rhodiola’s influences are often felt within a few hours of taking it.
Currently, no studies evaluate the effects of taking Rhodiola and Ashwagandha together. However, there doesn’t appear to be any adverse effects or known issues with their combination.
What kind of Rhodiola to buy
Buy a standardized extract of Rhodiola rosea roots and rhizomes, from a reliable producer that farms Rhodiola and doesn’t harvest it from the wild.
The best Rhodiola supplement is one that is a standardized extract. This is because the majority of available research conducted on Rhodiola relies on standardized extracts.
SHR-5 is a particular kind of Rhodiola extract manufactured in Sweden, and sold commercially since 1985. Tablets containing SHR-5 are registered as Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products for decreased performance, fatigue and weakness [Panossian 2010]. They are standardized based on their concentration of salidroside.
WS® 1375 (Rosalin®) is another ethanolic extract (60% ethanol) commonly used in studies. [Edwards 2012].
Overall, look for extracts that have been standardized to 3% rosavins and 1% salidroside [Ballmann 2019].
How to buy environmentally-conscious Rhodiola?
Buy farmed Rhodiola from a reliable producer. Avoid wild-harvested Rhodiola because it is now a vulnerable species, due to unsustainable harvesting practices and destructive collection.
Rhodiola is often harvested from the wild, and because the roots and rhizomes are used for medicinal purposes, its harvesting can be destructive for the surrounding habitat. The increase in adulteration and decrease in wild availability of Rhodiola reflect the growing demand and unsustainable harvesting practices.
In the 1970s, 1600-1700 tons of Rhodiola was harvested per year in the regions it was primarily sourced from (Siberia, particularly Altai, Western Sayans, and Tuva). However, because of the destructive harvesting and slow regrowth, this amount fell to 40-60 tons per year [Olennikov 2020]. On the other hand, China sources 62 tons to the U.S. alone in 2018, but with notable adulteration and quality issues [Cunningham 2020].
Rhodiola is classified as a rare or vulnerable species in much of the world, including the U.S. and Canada [Erst 2019]. Due to high demand and limited resource, adulteration is common. A significant portion of Rhodiola rosea products don’t have the concentration of ingredients they claim (i.e. “standardized extracts”), and they often consist of other Rhodiola species [Khokhlova 2020] [Cunningham 2020].
Researchers are proposing methods to better reintroduce and conserve Rhodiola growing in the wild, so it may be sustainably harvested. However, these practices aren’t yet widely adopted [Cunningham 2020].
Thus, if you’d like to buy Rhodiola sustainably, try purchasing products sourced from farmed Rhodiola. Canada, Russia and the United States all operate commercial farms, the largest of which is in Canada, operated by the Alberta Rhodiola Rosea Growers Organization [Brinckmann 2021].
Does Rhodiola have any side effects?
Rhodiola is generally well tolerated and adverse affects are rarely observed.
Some studies observe certain adverse events such as nervous system disorders and gastrointestinal disorders. But, in studies, this events are mild [Edwards 2012].
In one study, participants taking 340mg daily of Rhodiola extract (Rhodax) for 10 weeks experienced some side effects like dizziness and dry mouth. No serious adverse events occurred though [Bystritsky 2008].
Due to Rhodiola’s stimulating nature, it may also cause over-stimulation, palpitations and insomnia as side effects, as well as anxiety and dry mouth [Wal 2019]. It’s important to get the right dose of Rhodiola, and either reduce or cease taking it if these side effects occur.
Who shouldn’t take Rhodiola?
Rhodiola may decrease blood glucose, so those with diabetes should take caution before taking it.
Rhodiola may cause adverse effects when combined with prescription antidepressants that are monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). This is because Rhodiola itself inhibits MAO, according to laboratory research. Rhodiola may also interact with other antidepressants (i.e. selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) [Ulbricht 2011].
No studies have yet concluded that Rhodiola is safe for pregnant or lactating mothers. Thus, there is no known, safe dosage recommended for expecting or breastfeeding mothers [Ishaque 2012].
In general, those with pre-existing conditions or taking other medications should consult a healthcare provider before taking Rhodiola.