Health Benefits of Rhodiola Rosea

also known as Artic root, golden root, rose wort and roseroot

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Rhodiola rosea (also known as Arctic root, golden root, rose wort, and roseroot) is a flowering herb in the Crassulaceae family. Its genus, Rhodiola, contains some 200 individual species, although R. rosea is the only one utilized for its potential health benefits. A hardy perennial, rhodiola is distinguished by spiky blue-green leaves and its bright yellow flowers. However, it is the plant’s roots that are most valued for their purported medicinal properties. The roots contain numerous antioxidants, tannins, flavenoids, and rosavins, an active compound believed to produce antidepressant and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects. Native to northern Europe, central Asia, and parts of North America, rhodiola is common in Russiarhodiola rosea plant and other areas in the former Soviet Union, but can be found in cold, mountainous locations throughout the world, for rhodiola requires both high altitudes and low temperatures in order to thrive.

A fixture of folk medicine traditions from Siberia to Scandinavia, rhodiola rosea was documented by the Romans as a headache remedy as early as the first century A.D. and thereafter as a general tonic, curing ailments ranging from fatigue to impotence to infection. It was classified and named by Linneus in the eighteenth century, and has been the subject of study ever since. Soviet scientists began researching rhodiola in the 1940s for its potential military applications as well as its possible use by cosmonauts. However, because of its classified nature, much of this research remained was unavailable to either the medical establishment or the general public until recently. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, more and more of these studies have become available to the wider scientific community. Consequently, its role in alternative and holistic medicine has increased.

Nontoxic and non-addictive, antioxidant-rich rhodiola is considered to be an adaptogen. The term, coined in 1947 by Russian scientist N.V. Lazarev, refers to any plant that is safe for human consumption and does not cause side effects, treats a wide variety of illnesses and conditions, alleviates physical or mental stressors (including extremes of temperature, trauma, exposure to toxins, fatigue and sleep deprivation, infection, or psychological stress), and has a normalizing or "balancing" effect on the body. rhodiola plant 2Like other adaptogens including ginseng, eleuthero, and ginger, rhodiola not only minimizes the harmful effects of stress and fatigue, it also restores the body to normal healthy function. Its most promising application, however, is in the treatment of depression and anxiety disorders. Rhodiola is thought to alleviate these conditions by targeting and inhibiting the enzymes responsible for decreasing the brain's levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

A plant biochemist by the name of Zakir Ramazanov is credited with introducing rhodiola rosea to the West. Ramazanov had discovered the herb in the 1970s during military service in Afghanistan, and after translating numerous Russian studies on the drug, he began a business importing the herb to the U.S., where it quickly found a place in health food stores. Later, Dr. Richard Brown, a psychiatrist at Columbia University became interested in rhodiola after two of his patients mentioned it. Brown did some research of his own and eventually tried rhodiola extract himself, reporting beneficial effects such as mood and memory enhancement. He recommended it to his wife, psychiatrist Patricia Gerbarg, M.D., who at the time was suffering from a particularly debilitating case of Lyme disease. Soon after she began taking rhodiola, she noticed significant improvement in her condition. As she continued her daily rhodiola regimen, her strength returned rapidly until she made a complete recovery. Gerbarg's experience with rhodiola, along with Brown's observations of its mood-boosting effects, led the couple to start prescribing rhodiola to patients in conjunction with traditional antidepressants. They also co-authored a book entitled The Rhodiola Revolution, touting the health benefits of the herb.

Preliminary research including laboratory and animal studies suggest that rhodiola rosea, in addition to its antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties, may also inhibit the growth of cancer cells, prevent healthy cells from being damaged by toxins, correct enzyme imbalances in the body, and treat conditions such as Lyme disease. Human clinical trials suggest that rhodiola rosea has the potential to improve mental performance, decrease fatigue, and alleviate the symptoms of depression. In addition to these benefits, there is some indication that rhodiola may potentially play a role in treating erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation as well as chronic fatigue. However, further studies are required in order to prove these claims.

Unlike prescription drugs, which are manufactured and thus have a known number of identifiable components, natural herbal remedies typically contain numerous chemical compounds whose effects are only partially understood. Indeed, rhodiola contains at least a dozen such active components, each of which may have a number of beneficial effects pertaining to more than one area or system of the body. For this reason, adaptogens such as rhodiola are difficult to study. Rhodiola research also suffers from a lack of financial incentive: herbal compounds, because they cannot be patented, are of relatively little interest to pharmaceutical companies. However, the industry responsible for herbal dietary supplements tends to lack the funds necessary to pursue the controlled studies and clinical trials to which prescription medications are routinely subjected.

While moderate use of rhodiola is considered safe, side effects such as irritability, insomnia, fatigue, and allergies may occur at higher doses or when consumed over a long period of time. Typically, those who take rhodiola do so at a low daily dose for a period of weeks or months, and later adopt a course of treatment that involves alternating intervals of consumption and abstinence--for example, 3 weeks of rhodiola followed by 1 week without. The logic behind this strategy is that it minimizes the chances of any harmful effects caused by long exposure to the chemical compounds in rhodiola.

Rhodiola, while most commonly available in capsule or tablet form, can also be taken as a tea, tincture, tonic, or other liquid extract, depending on preference. The amount of rhodiola in these various formulations can range from 100 – 600 mg, although regardless of dose, the standard commercial extract of rhodiola rosea tends to contain a minimum concentration of its two primary active components: rosavins (3% or greater) and salidrosides (1%).

While its popularity does not yet equal that of other medicinal herbs such as St. John’s wort, rhodiola rosea deserves serious consideration as a potential remedy for a variety of conditions as well as a general health supplement.

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