If you want to know what Rhodiola rosea is, why people supplement with it, and whether or not it can benefit you, then you want to read this article.
- Rhodiola rosea is an herb that’s generally taken to stave off fatigue.
- It works well for general fatigue and “burnout” symptoms seen with chronic work loads. It isn’t as well proven for acute stressors and exercise, and there’s no evidence it helps with chronic fatigue syndrome.
- If you want to take an “adaptogen” to alleviate and better cope with stress then, Rhodiola rosea is a great starting point and the best for office workers.
A good 80% of herbal supplements can be grouped into a category known as “people making shit up in order to sell you foreign weeds.”
It was sort of inevitable.
People who have a chemical and pharmaceutical mindset, and want to look at specific molecules and their doses, don’t tend to look at herbs that much but rather synthesized molecules and amino acids.
Those who do prefer plants over all else, on average, care more about nonsensical buzzwords like “holistic” and “non-GMO” (I know those words have meaning but, let’s be real, they are frequently used far beyond what their meaning implies.)
With herbs we commonly get a ton of weird fancy words that mean nothing but are just used to make people’s wallets grow smaller.
So it’s weird that the coolest sounding word, “adaptogen”, is actually a somewhat legitimate classification.
Adaptogens generally refer to (as the definition is not too precise) anything that can help you adapt to subsequent stressors. Maybe a major stress turns into a minor one, perhaps it stays a major stress but just feels more tolerable, or perhaps a distress is turned into a eustress (a positive stressor)?
That’s in the realm of these wacky and wild adaptogens.
And while there are perhaps dozens of plants and molecules that could bear this label there are 3 that shine above the others in regards to research quantity, quality, and popular usage; ashwagandha, Panax ginseng, and the subject of this article and my personal favorite:
What Is Rhodiola Rosea?
Rhodiola rosea, also known as Golden Root or simply rhodiola, is an adaptogenic herb.
Surprisingly, that’s the actual botanical name. These plants usually have different names, like ashwagandha being Withania somnifera, but rhodiola got lucky in getting a cool name from the start I guess.
To continue on with the atypical nature of this plant, it isn’t a traditional medicine in the, well, traditional sense of it. There aren’t really any claims of medicinal benefits floating around with rhodiola but rather it’s just something you ate when you felt tired. On a hike and see some rhodiola growing? Shove it in your face!
Furthermore, it’s traced back to Scandinavian and Russian areas of the world. A northern plant on the shelves around almost exclusively Indian and Chinese traditional medicines.
“Adaptogen”, which I used to refer to this plant earlier, simply means that the plant causes a small (and likely imperceivable) stress in your brain that helps “adapt” your body to upcoming stressors. Most adaptogens work in this manner by the process of hormesis, causing a small stress only to indirectly cause more good than harm.
It’s basically the viking plant. Rhodiola should’ve been the plant called Thunder God Vine rather than Tripterygium wilfordii (well, at least the latter can actually kill a frost giant.)
The adaptogenic effects of rhodiola are likely traced back to either the rosavin content or the salidroside content, with most dietary supplements using a 3% and 1% rosavin/salidroside concentration anywhere between 200 to 700 mg.
Beyond the major two components mentioned above there aren’t too many other unique bioactives in this plant other than common vitamins and minerals.
Why Do People Supplement with Rhodiola?
The claims associated with rhodiola are, usually, similar to the claims surrounding all adaptogens. A reduction in stress which then results in less:
- Sleep disturbance
Pretty much anything that can be seen as a side-effect of stress, even something like hair loss, something people say stress-reducing agents can help with.
While I cannot deny that all of this stuff is theoretically possible with rhodiola, assuming that they are problems that came about because of stress and rhodiola helps with it, but it’s seriously stretching.
The stuff that is proven, rather than just theorized about, is significantly more limited.
What Are the Benefits of Rhodiola?
Rhodiola, like lavender, is one of those supplements in which the major benefit was found pretty early on and all subsequent research focuses on that one parameter.
This is in contrast to curcumin which, essentially, is like throwing darts in the dark and getting hits all over the place for some reason.
And the one parameter for rhodiola that underlies all its benefits is …
Rhodiola and Stress-Related Fatigue
The major benefit of rhodiola would be its ability to reduce fatigue from prolonged stressors.
This doesn’t necessarily refer to exercise-induced fatigue, nor does it refer to chronic fatigue syndrome. Rather, rhodiola helps people who work for long periods of time and may feel “burned out” from their frequency and/or intensity of work.
This has been found to apply to military cadets, university students, physicians, and just a random sample of people who wanted help with their fatigue, with benefits appearing in as little as a 5 days (although studies tended to extend a few weeks.) All side-effects that appeared due to stress have a chance of being eliminated due to rhodiola.
Of course, rhodiola being an adaptogen (a class of molecules which we don’t know everything about yet) there is some variation from one person to the next. While the studies show that benefits, overall, are reliable they do change in magnitude from one person to the next.
This is perhaps (my theory) due to how we handle stress differently so adaptogens, which interact with stress, also interact with our habits and lifestyles around stress—gonna be a hard theory to test so just take any adaptogen with a grain of salt.
This anti-stress and anti-fatigue effect underlies most, if not all, of rhodiola’s major benefits.
Rhodiola rosea helps mitigate fatigue that accumulates due to chronic stress and, secondary to that, exerts most of its benefits by mitigating the side-effects of stress on the mind.
Rhodiola and Cognition
Secondary to reducing fatigue, rhodiola has been investigated for its role in cognition.
In studies where fatigue would normally kick in due to workload, usage of rhodiola is associated with improved social and work output during these stressful times and improved processing and visual accuracy during testing—a study investigating usage in physicians during night duty finding a 20% increase in productivity with rhodiola versus placebo.
This all makes sense given how stress itself can reduce cognition and fatigue, specifically, can reduce the accuracy of your work. When you get burnt out and everything starts melding together in your mind you can’t get your best work done.
Rhodiola appears to be able to improve, or at least otherwise sustain, cognition during periods of prolonged work and the stress associated with it.
Rhodiola and Mood
We all know that stress reduces mood state, in general, while increasing the feelings of anxiety and depression; by this logic rhodiola should help mood when it’s impaired by stress but, overall, could it help with mood outright?
When looking at studies conducted in people who report stress or are otherwise placed into stressful situations, rhodiola supplementation is able to improve overall interpersonal function and general well being.
None of the above results are large in magnitude but it does seem that a minor boost to mood can be found with rhodiola even when mood is not otherwise impaired by stress. This benefit to mood may also provide subtle anti-depressive effects.
Rhodiola rosea appears to benefit mood and well being. Mostly this is due to reducing stress (and restoring the good mood that stress took away) but it may also be able to do this outright and provide subtle anti-depressive effects.
Rhodiola and Exercise Capacity
Given how rhodiola is known for being an “anti-fatigue” herb, it’s role in exercise has also been investigated; can it reduce physical fatigue like it can reduce cognitive fatigue?
The answer isn’t fully known but, for the most part, is trending towards either a small positive effect or none at all. Regardless, it’s drastically different from the reliable benefits seen with the cognitive effects.
A single dose of rhodiola rosea has been found to improve exercise performance secondary to reducing the rate of perceived exertion (RPE; how difficult an exercise feels) and also making exercise feel better—increasing mood and the feeling of vigor.
This effect does not build nor decrease over time, providing the same benefits to performance after four weeks compared to one day.
At least one study has found changes in free fatty acids and lactate levels suggesting that there might be a peripheral effect as well as cognitive but, ultimately, most benefits seem to be coming from the mood state alteration.
So, what does this all mean in layman’s terms?
Rhodiola makes you happier to exercise so, if you’re the type of person to complain to yourself in your head about how exercise sucks and you want to quit, then perhaps rhodiola can make it more bearable and thereby improve performance; hell, might take it before cardio personally, hate cardio with a passion.
Rhodiola rosea supplementation appears to alter mood state when taken before exercise, improving positive feelings towards exercise while reducing the perception of pain and effort. This, indirectly, can improve endurance performance.
There are a few functions of rhodiola that, while human testing is not available, are too interesting to not mention here:
Rhodiola and Nicotine Addiction
Rhodiola is one of the few supplements being investigated for nicotine addiction. A major factor of nicotine addiction is relapse into cigarettes, vaping, and any other source of nicotine due to trying to avoid the side-effects that come with nicotine withdrawal (brain fog, elevated heart rate, irritation, etc.)
There are two rat studies on this topic that have found that the serotonin-balancing effects of rhodiola have helped with nicotine withdrawal with one study finding an outright abolishment of withdrawal symptoms.
So while there aren’t human studies at this point in time it’s plausible that rhodiola helps keep nicotine withdrawal from hitting too hard; worth a shot!
What Does Rhodiola Not Do?
We knew pretty early on what rhodiola did and what it did well so the vast majority of human research has been centralized around stress. Null results, those that demonstrate a lack of effects, are surprisingly rare due to selective research.
Of course, null results pop up from time to time and we did find one thing that rhodiola does horribly …
Rhodiola and Physical Performance
Rhodiola can work for exercise by increasing mood state, as mentioned previously, but what if you’re already in a great mood? If your rate of perceived exertion is low and you’re distracted by your favorite tunes could rhodiola still provide a boost?
It’s uncertain at this time, since studies on herbs and exercise tend to be fairly rare and underpowered (i.e. not enough people in the study to get the best statistics possible) but at this moment in time it seems that mood state is all rhodiola does for exercise.
VO2 max, a parameter of lung power, and power output have both failed to be influenced by rhodiola while rhodiola has also failed to show any alteration in the oxygenation rates of muscle tissue. Overall, rhodiola does not necessarily seem to be a performance enhancer any more than something like music, perhaps.
Rhodiola rosea does not appear to have inherent performance boosting potential known beyond its ability to preserve mood.
What Is the Clinically Effective Dose of Rhodiola?
Rhodiola doesn’t have a precise clinical dose at this time since studies use widely varying doses, anywhere between 50 mg and nearing 700 mg of rhodiola rosea SHR-5.
SHR-5 refers to the 3% rosavins and 1% salidroside concentration, which seems to be what is used almost exclusively in studies and is widely available. As for the above doses it seems that the lower doses are for chronic studies (lasting 8 weeks or more) while the higher doses are for acute usage.
So, based on the above estimates, take 100 to 200 mg of rhodiola rosea if you want to make it a daily supplement with benefits occurring after a few weeks or, if you want a single dose to have benefits, opt for a higher dose of 500 to 700 mg.
If you aren’t using SHR-5, and instead are using the raw root of the plant, then use 5 to 6 grams a day. Taking it with a meal might be good since, even if you don’t need to take rhodiola with fats, it is a raw root after all; they tend to go down better with a bit of food.
So, to sum up the dosages.
- 100 to 200 mg of rhodiola rosea (3% rosavins, 1% salidroside) if it’s a daily supplement.
- 500 to 700 mg of rhodiola rosea (3% rosavins, 1% salidroside) if it’s used infrequently.
- 5 to 6 grams of rhodiola rosea if using the bulk raw root rather than a concentrated pill.
What Types of Results Should I Expect with Rhodiola?
What you can expect with rhodiola will differ depending on whether or not you take rhodiola before the stress occurs or if you take it during the stress. Both are valid ways to supplement rhodiola.
If taking rhodiola before the stress occurs then an acute dose may make a single stressful event feel significantly less stressful. This isn’t going to be the major benefit though, since rhodiola seems to affect chronic stressors more than acute (acute is more of an L-tyrosine thing), but preloading low-dose rhodiola for a month should mitigate the occurrence, or at least magnitude, or many work-related stressors.
If taking rhodiola during stressful times then you should feel benefits within the first few days and, if rhodiola is working correctly, the effects of stress should be partially mitigated. This partial mitigation should persist for as long as you are exposed to the stressors while taking rhodiola.
If you have no prolonged stressors negatively affecting you then it’s uncertain if you will feel rhodiola at all except, perhaps, if used before endurance exercise for a small mood boost.
Does Rhodiola Have Any Side Effects?
Rhodiola has been found to interact with some drug-metabolizing enzymes in the liver and intestines, specifically CYP2C9; while not the most potent inhibition it should still be noted for people taking phenytoin and warfarin. Taking rhodiola alongside those drugs may increase the toxic potential of those drugs even when not overdosed.
If you aren’t taking any pharmaceutical subject to the above enzyme then it doesn’t appear that, at this moment in time, rhodiola would have side-effects. No reliable side-effects have been noted with rhodiola supplementation in human studies.
As for unreliable side-effects, since rhodiola is an adaptogen and adaptogens are the epitome of “reliable in having effects, unreliable in what those effects are” it’s totally reasonable to experience an unforeseen side-effect related to fatigue and stress.
There’s even one study where some subjects saw an increase in fatigue, as stupid as that sounds, and if you browse forums you can find reports here and there about increases in anxiety.
Ultimately it may be best to buy a small sample dose of rhodiola (perhaps two weeks) just to confirm you aren’t one of the unlucky people to experience side-effects from this herb. I have yet to find a way to even attempt to predict which people are susceptible.
The Bottom Line on Rhodiola
Adaptogens, as a class of supplements, are great (albeit at times, unreliable) options to keep in mind when it comes to adapting to stresses in your life.
Each adaptogen has a different niche and different benefits and, of course, since we all vary as individuals they can affect us in unforeseen ways; at some point in our lives we need to step away from the science and give them a trial run for ourselves.
Rhodiola is the first adaptogen to test when it comes to chronic stress related to work. If burnout and reduced productivity from stress is your concern then this herb is your solution.
If rhodiola works well for you then it will end up being one of your best supplemental friends. If rhodiola doesn’t work for you, then at least you tried it and perhaps another adaptogen (ashwagandha, panax ginseng, etc.) could give unto you the desired anti-stress effects
All of this is why I included it in our sport multivitamin, Triumph.
It’s not necessarily something everyone needs to take, but it’s something most people can benefit from. The dose included (100 mg) is low enough that there will be some benefits (either minor or significant) after a month or so but it’s not high enough to risk rhodiola backfiring and causing negative effects at any point in time.
So, if you want a little help dealing with stress caused by lifestyle factors such as work, school, relationships, finances, and a slight mood boost before training, then you want to try Triumph.