Rhodiola is a family of plants containing more than 200 species, of which more than 20 are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. These plants mainly native to the Himalayan Belt, Mongolia and China. It is one of the most well-known medicinal plants in Northern Europe. Its most documented uses are for energy supply, as a tonic, as an antidepressant, or as an anti-inflammatory. The best known and the best scientifically documented is the species Rhodiola rosea which I am going to discuss today.
It is a plant rich in polyphenols, including salidroside, rosavin and tyrosol (also found among olive polyphenols) which are among the active molecules. It is the root, a golden root, that is used. Some Chinese emperors have even sent expeditions of servants to Siberia to bring back the precious golden root. The unique molecules found in this root cannot be found inside fruits and vegetables for consumption. This is yet another example that some supplements were developed because these beneficial molecules, unique to certain plants, are not available in other types of food. Also, for serious health problems, supplements make these molecules available at the dose necessary to obtain potential effectiveness.
The champion of performance
Rhodiola has been used for a very long time in Europe and in Asia for increasing physical and cognitive performance. Its stimulating effects on the brain allow both an improvement in the capacities of concentration and intellectual vigor, in addition to the reduction of fatigue and depressive symptoms. It’s true that feeling full of energy is good for your morale and it helps to be positive.
Already in 2011, a systematic review of the clinical studies carried out identified 11 clinical studies of moderate to high quality. This systematic review, considering all of the quality scientific information published, concluded on the basis of the evidence that it was effective for: (1) physical performance, (2) mental performance, and (3) improvement of certain mental conditions (mainly mild to moderate depression). Since then, other scientific studies have been carried out to better understand the benefits of quality extracts of rhodiola and to deepen their applications as mild antidepressants. In fact, rhodiola extracts, used in the right dosage, reduce depressive symptoms less markedly than chemical antidepressants, but with no significant side effects.
It is one of the plants considered to be an adaptogen: a substance that helps normalize physiological responses to stress, increases physical and mental capacities, and increases resistance to the negative effects of stress. To understand the term properly, these are medicinal plants whose multiple benefits allow them to better adapt to demanding situations on the body or mind. For all of these facets, I consider rhodiola to be the medicinal plant with the best scientific evidence. You will immediately understand that such global impacts on the functioning of the body allow a large number of beneficial uses. Chiang and collaborators(2015) reviewed all the physiological effects documented by laboratory, animal, and clinical studies to summarize the effects on:
- Adaptogens and anti-fatigue,
- Longevity in health (we will come back to this),
- Anti-inflammatories and painkillers,
- The immune system,
- The nervous system,
- The liver,
- Cardiovascular diseases,
- Diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and
Personally, I really don’t like products or ingredients that claim to be good for everything. These lists should be viewed as numerous potential benefits, for which scientific evidence justifies some uses for health benefits and others as additional associated benefits. For example, for cardiovascular health, diabetes and metabolic syndrome, there are other herbs or natural ingredients that have more scientific support and possibly more significant benefits. Even when there is a scientifically proven health benefit, it does not mean that it is automatically significant for a given use. Rather, they should be viewed as additional benefits.
For example, someone who uses rhodiola to increase physical or cognitive performance, which is very well scientifically demonstrated, also benefits from the positive effects on cardiovascular health. It is therefore a plant with a large number of potential benefits, but whose recommended uses, based on evidence, should be for:
- Athletic performance,
- Cognitive performance (intellectual vigor and concentration),
- Chronic stress management,
- Tiredness or depression.
Comparison to medication
On this last point, it is interesting to note that rhodiola is one of the rare medicinal plants that has been the subject of direct comparisons with a drug during a quality, controlled clinical study with placebo (which is also the case for devil’s claw (anti-inflammatory) and valerian (anxiolytic)). This is one of the herbal extracts that has been successfully compared with a prescription medicine. Mao and collaborators (2015) compared it to sertraline. Although this is a study with few patients (N = 57), the researchers conclude that rhodiola appears to be less effective than sertraline, but that it has significantly fewer reported side effects and therefore could be an interesting alternative to consider.
Another more recent study compared the addition of rhodiola always to sertraline in a randomized clinical study with placebo (N = 100). Gao and collaborators (2020) carried out this study on cases of major depression by comparing 2 doses of rhodiola with sertraline. They concluded that rhodiola was effective; the combined results being superior and a higher efficiency with a higher dose of rhodiola. They concluded that rhodiola was effective in cases of major depression, more effective at higher doses, and that it is safe to use.
Specifically on its antidepressant effects, Amsterdam and collaborators (2016) identified 2 randomized clinical studies with placebo and 7 observational clinical studies (N = 860 in total) which suggested an antidepressant effect.
Rhodiola and aging
The scientifically documented effects of rhodiola on longevity come from a large number of studies in cells, Drosophila (fruit fly), nematodes, rodents, and fish. These studies looked at telomerase, cellular senescence, the effects of oxidation, multiple cellular resistance mechanisms, and the longevity of organisms.
Here again, it should be emphasized that while this may affect longevity and aging, that does not mean that it is the best plant for these applications. During our research with Concordia University on cellular longevity, we identified 21 new gerosuppressive agents from different plants and spices. Although rhodiola was one of the plants tested, the results obtained were not high enough to be considered among the 21 chosen. The fact remains that this is a very interesting medicinal plant in the context of aging.
Rhodiola is a plant considered “anti-aging” in Traditional Chinese Medicine and is used in the treatment of associated diseases. Recent studies point to potential therapeutic value for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Zhuang and collaborators (2019) provide a comprehensive review of these aspects and related studies.
Thus, I do not believe that rhodiola should be considered an “anti-aging” plant if we cannot identify gerosuppressive agents, but it is a strong plant useful in an aging context considering the application of its multiple health benefits.
Neuroprotective effects and Alzheimer’s?
The potential effects on reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s or nerve degeneration of rhodiola could come from its antioxidant effects or its beneficial effects on reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Remember that the close link between the risks of cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s comes from the fragility of the blood vessels in the brain. Sun and colleagues (2020) did a comprehensive review of the beneficial effects of rhodiola at this level.
However, it was the stimulating effects on the brain that attracted attention for possible use in Alzheimer’s disease. This underlines that certain molecules are capable of having an effect in the brain. The brain is rather “sealed” to molecules circulating in our blood and few molecules can access neuronal cells. Many studies have documented neuroprotective effects based on its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neurotoxicity-reducing effects. It is therefore a plant that could be beneficial in the management of this disease. Clinical studies are still required to confirm or deny this possibility.
Another question of quality
Unfortunately, as with many herbal extracts, there are a large number of counterfeit products, containing the wrong plant or poor-quality extracts. This is due to the lack of rigor from some suppliers, or worse yet, the voluntary addition of other less expensive plants to increase yields. For example, a study in China (Xin et al., 2015) of Traditional Chinese Medicine products containing rhodiola concluded that 60% of the products evaluated were not the correct plant. Yet it is one of the most important plants for Traditional Chinese Medicine. Note that the situation is no different elsewhere in the world and this simply underlines the importance of paying attention to the quality of the products in the market.
The recommended dosages would be 100 to 600 mg of the root extracts. Of course, the concentration of active molecules in extracts available on the market will not always be the same. The meaning of the extraction ratio, 4: 1 or 8: 1 means 4 or 8 times more concentrated, respectively, than the original plant, but how, we have no idea. Standardizations, such as rosavin or salidroside, make it possible to confirm the origin, reduce the risks of adulteration and confirm the level of concentration of active elements.
Canadian regulations accept relatively low levels of active ingredients compared to the averages within published clinical studies, but the maximum levels respect the usual risks. Thus, a product twice as concentrated as another product on the market may be closer to clinically meaningful doses even if you do not know them by heart.
Health Canada recommends 144 to 680 milligrams of extracts per day; do not exceed 200 milligrams, per single dose. Standardization would be 0.8 to 3% salidroside and/or 1 to 6% rosavin. It is obvious that 200 mg at 1% of rosavin is very far from 200 mg at 6% (6 times more concentrated). So just having the plant is not enough, you have to consider quality and quantity.
We developed the Vitoli brand with the goal of providing more effective products for specific facets associated with healthy longevity. Thus, we use rhodiola for Vitoli® Energy. This product also contains magnesium, vitamin B6 and the exclusive Provitol® Complex (olive polyphenols derived from patented technology). These olive polyphenols are very potent systemic antioxidants and gerosuppressive agents. The dose of the Provitol® Complex is that recommended by the European Union for reducing the risk of atherosclerosis related to the oxidation of bad cholesterol.
It is therefore ideal for helping you get through difficult times. It is not addictive, it does not cause dependency, nor sleep problems. It shouldn’t have an impact on blood pressure and it doesn’t make you gain weight like chemical antidepressants. It is recommended to take one to two capsules per day as needed. Some people use it momentarily, when they feel the need to, others use it permanently, every day. There are no known drug interactions with this product, but there is a contraindication for bipolar disorder. Consult to your pharmacist if you are taking any medication.
Health claims authorized by Health Canada for Vitoli® Energy:
- Helps to temporarily relieve symptoms of stress such as mental fatigue and sensations of weakness.
- Helps support cognitive function such as mental focus and mental stamina.
- Helps to maintain proper muscle function.
- Provides antioxidants.
Further suggested reading:
- Valerian; Sleep, Stress and Anxiety
- Memory and Cognitive Health – Ginkgo biloba (2 of 2)
- 6 Tips to Fight Fatigue: Article 2 of 2
- Stop Sleeping Pills in 5 Steps
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