Rhodiola Rosea – An Overview
Rhodiola Rosea is an all-natural nootropic and adaptogenic herb that has been used for thousands of years to boost
- Athletic performance
Also known as “Golden Root” or “Arctic Root,” rhodiola grows wild in parts of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and Russia.
It has been used in traditional medicine by the cultures of this region for a very long time, and has also been studied extensively by modern researchers.
There is compelling evidence that this herb can have a powerful effect on several different cognitive and bodily functions.
In fact, rhodiola may be THE most well documented herb of it’s type.
Rhodiola Rosea as an Adaptogen
As an adaptogen, it works partially by modulating the body’s response to stress, helping it adapt and “hold steady” during difficult circumstances.
Rhodiola contains several different compounds that achieve this effect, including rosavin, rosarin, rosin, salidroside, and tyrosol, some of which are found exclusively in this species of plant and nowhere else.
For our purposes, we will focus on the nootropic benefits of rhodiola in this article.
However, it is also known to be helpful for fertility, physical endurance, erectile dysfunction, some cancers, some infectious diseases, and even scurvy.
The healing properties of rhodiola rosea are powerful and varied, and certainly worth researching if you are interested in traditional medicine.
In our opinion, this herb is about as close as Mother Nature comes to a “miracle cure.”1Richard P. Brown, Patricia L. Gerbarg, Zakir Ramazanov.
Rhodiola rosea: A Phytomedicinal Overview, The Journal of the American Botanical Council. 2002
Rhodiola Rosea as a Nootropic
One of Rhodiola’s primary benefits is its profound effects on anxiety and overall mood.
There is preliminary clinical evidence (and tons of testimonials) that this nootropic can ease the distress caused anxiety disorders and lift some people out of depression.
It’s possible that for some people, rhodiola may be even more potent and involve fewer side-effects than traditional anti-depressants.
In addition to improving mood, Rhodiola can increase energy, attention, and focus.
Many users report a mild but noticeable stimulating effect after taking it.
Rhodiola is especially useful for maintaining concentration during stressful and physically demanding activities due to its adaptogenic properties.
Rhodiola Rosea as a Performance Enhancer
This herb is legendary for its effects on physical abilities.
Fieldworkers in Russia used it for millennia to increase their stamina as they did manual labor in the harsh elements.
World-class athletes have used it to enhance their performance and recover faster.
Many people claim that it helps improve their mind-body connection when exercising and playing sports.
Rhodiola Rosea is also prized for it’s anti-inflammatory and neuro-regenerative qualities, which helps with overall long term brain health.
Some of the compounds found in this herb fight off oxidative damage in the brain.
Others are proven to help grow new neurons, which allows the brain to learn new skills and form new memories.
In short, Rhodiola does a lot! It’s one of our favorite all-natural nootropics that many people can get a lot of benefit from. Read on for a more in-depth look at this adaptogen.
What Does Rhodiola Rosea Do?
Rhodiola has an almost absurd number of potential benefits for the brain and body.
Rhodiola is famous (perhaps most famous) for being an extremely effective stress-fighter.
It has a proven ability to balance stress hormones in the endocrine system, which is what governs the body’s fight-or-flight response.
When you are anxious and your nerves are frayed, there is a good chance that your stress hormone levels are too high.
Hormones such as cortisol are important for arousal and motivation, but only up to a certain point.
When this system is out-of-whack, you are most likely going to feel exhausted, unfocused, and irritable.
Fortunately, rhodiola can balance this system and restore proper functioning.
It can keep cortisol levels from spiking during trying times. At the same time, it’s keeping your hormone levels in check, rhodiola is also stimulating your nervous system, which helps you push through the lethargy and brain fog that stress can produce.3Panossian A, Wikman G. Evidence-based efficacy of adaptogens in fatigue, and molecular mechanisms related to their stress-protective activity, Curr Clin Pharmacol. 2009
One interesting trial looked at young physicians working long shifts at the Armenian State Medical University back in 2000.
This double-blind placebo-controlled study looked at a large group of these doctors as they work long, grueling night shifts at the hospital.
Over a two week period as they were dosed with either a small rhodiola extract or a placebo.
They went off the supplement (or placebo) for a second two week period and then were given it again during a third.
All of the participants were measured before and after their shift using a measure of cognitive performance known as a Fatigue Index.
It tests perception and overall mental sharpness, so researchers could determine just how much each shift wore down each doctor.
After the six weeks were up, results between the two groups were compared.
The results showed the group that had taken the rhodiola extract scored significantly better on the Fatigue Index after their shift was over than the control group, and had suffered no noticeable side effects.
This indicates that rhodiola rosea’s nootropic effects stem largely from reducing exhaustion and related anxiety.4Darbinyan V, et al. Rhodiola rosea in stress induced fatigue–a double blind cross-over study of a standardized extract SHR-5 with a repeated low-dose regimen on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty, Phytomedicine. 2000
It’s antioxidant and neuroprotective qualities can even help regrow brain cells that have been damaged by stress.
Chronic stress actually rewires the brain, causing structural changes in your neural pathways.
These changes are actually very counter-productive, and your brain was not designed to operate that way.
Unfortunately, many people in our modern world are bombarded with stressful stimuli daily, which can result in uncomfortably high cortisol levels and negatively restructuring their neural pathways.
One animal trial found that supplementation with rhodiola can actually regrow receptors in the hippocampus of rats that have been damaged by continuous stress.5Qin YJ, et al. Effects of Rhodiola rosea on level of 5-hydroxytryptamine, cell proliferation and differentiation, and number of neuron in cerebral hippocampus of rats with depression induced by chronic mild stress, Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi. 2008
All in all, this supports rhodiola rosea’s reputation for beating back the effects of stress and allow you to function at higher levels through hardships.
Depression and mood
One of the other significant effects it has is on mood, especially with people suffering from mood disorders.
This is most likely linked to its effects on feel-good chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine, and endorphins.
There’s a massive number of anecdotal accounts all over the internet claiming that rhodiola rosea lifted them out of mild-to-moderate depression.
If that’s not convincing enough for you, there’s also clinical research that backs this up.
That includes a double-blind placebo-controlled study conducted in 2007 that gives us a strong hint towards rhodiola’s potent mood-boosting abilities.
In this trial, one group was given a dose of rhodiola twice a day, another group was given double the dose of the first group, and the third group was given nothing at all.
After six weeks, the researchers concluded that both groups that received rhodiola had made significant improvements in scores of depression, sleep quality, and subjective wellbeing compared to the control group.6Darbinyan V, et al. Clinical trial of Rhodiola rosea L. extract SHR-5 in the treatment of mild to moderate depression, Nord J Psychiatry. 2007
Another pilot study compared rhodiola extract with sertraline (AKA Zoloft), one of the most popular SSRI anti-depressants. Sertraline is indicated for major depression, anxiety/panic disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
It has been proven clinically effective in many cases. However, it has a fairly large risk profile, including fatigue, lack of appetite, stomach problems, sexual problems, brain fog, and seizures.
In short, sometimes the side-effects overshadow its therapeutic benefits.
This recent study concluded that the subjects treated with prescription sertraline and rhodiola both exhibited less depression/anxiety than the control group.
They also found that the sertraline did have a somewhat greater reduction in depression scores than rhodiola. However, they did notice that rhodiola caused much fewer unwanted side-effects than sertraline.
Only 30% of subjects reported side effects with rhodiola versus over 60% for sertraline.
The researchers concluded that although the prescription anti-depressant may be more effective overall for depression, rhodiola had a greater risk-to-benefit ratio.
They suggested that this nootropic herb may actually be the more appropriate treatment for those suffering from mild-to-moderate depression.7Mao JJ, et al. Rhodiola rosea versus sertraline for major depressive disorder: A randomized placebo-controlled trial, Phytomedicine. 2015
Learning and memory
Researchers suspect that this is most likely due to its adaptogenic qualities.
As you may imagine, by boosting mood and lowering anxiety/stress, you indirectly give your brain more energy to use on productively.8Petkov VD, et al. Effects of alcohol aqueous extract from Rhodiola rosea L. roots on learning and memory, Acta Physiol Pharmacol Bulg. 1986
Rhodiola can significantly increase stamina and energy.
Young military cadets who took rhodolia extract performed much better on cognitive tests after engaging in physically strenuous activity.
They were consistently more alert and “on top of it” compared to their counterparts who took a placebo.
They even showed lower physiological measures of fatigue, such as blood pressure and heart rate.9Shevtsov VA, et al. A randomized trial of two different doses of a SHR-5 Rhodiola rosea extract versus placebo and control of capacity for mental work, Phytomedicine. 2003
In fact, rhodiola’s performance-enhancing effect isn’t limited to mental activity. Soviet scientists studied the power of “golden root” starting the 1940’s and gave it to their Olympic athletes as a performance enhancer.
They so revered this supplement that it was kept hush-hush from the general public; they didn’t want other nations to learn about their secret weapon.
It seems that their beliefs about rhodolia were well-founded, as new studies continue to prove it’s positive effects on physical ability.
One study of male athletes found that rhodiola could “reduce both lactate levels and parameters of skeletal muscle damage after an exhaustive exercise session” i.e. help you train for harder/longer, and help your body recover quicker afterwards.10Parisi A, et al. Effects of chronic Rhodiola Rosea supplementation on sport performance and antioxidant capacity in trained male: preliminary results, J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2010
Rhodiola has a range of potential benefits that fall outside the strictly nootropic.
There are many reports of users feeling an increased libido after supplementing with rhodiola rosea for a while.
There are also general immune benefits to this herb.
By balancing stress hormones, your body may be in better shape to fight off infections and illness. This is one of the most common traditional uses of this plant.
There is evidence that rhodiola may be effective in fighting some types of cancers.11Udintsev SN, Shakhov VP. Decrease in the growth rate of Ehrlich’s tumor and Pliss’ lymphosarcoma with partial hepatectomy, Vopr Onkol. 1989
How Rhodiola Rosea Works In The Brain
Rhodolia rosea contains several different nootropic compounds.
In fact this arctic plant contains almost 150 compounds that are bioactive in the human body.
For nootropic purposes, we are mostly interested in rosavin, rosarian, and rosin, which are grouped under the umbrella term rosavins, and salidroside.
It’s important to note that rosavins are not found in any other plant on earth.
For rhodiola supplements to have any effect, rosavins and salidroside must be present. They must also be in roughly the same 3:1 ratio as found in nature. Keep that in mind when purchasing any supplements.
Rosavins and salidroside work together to acheive rhodiola’s nootropic benefits. Rhodiola supplements are thought to work by acting as an monoamine oxidase inhibitor.
Monoamine oxide (MAO) is an important chemical in the body that deactivates neurotransmitters.
In some people, MAO is too high, resulting in too many neurotransmitters shutting down and important chemical messengers such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine being unable to get through.
This can cause a whole host of psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, OCD, etc…
Rosavin and salidroside are thought to break down MAO, allowing your “feel good” chemicals to flow more readily throughout the brain.
It’s important to remember that this MAO inhibition can have some pretty serious interactions with other medications, so it’s always important to check with you doctor if you are on certain drugs before supplementing with this nootropic.12Lishmanov IuB, et al. Plasma beta-endorphin and stress hormones in stress and adaptation, Biull Eksp Biol Med. 1987
How Much Rhodiola Rosea Should I Take?
Rhodiola Rosea can be purchased in powder or capsule form.
Most people begin seeing benefits with doses of around 200 mg of rhodiola a day. 600 mg is considered the upper limit of effective doses.
It should be noted that some of the studies that found rhodiola to be effective ALSO found that larger doses did not confer more benefits on the subjects. In fact, the smaller doses may be MORE effective.
We recommend starting small and slowly ramping up. Taking too much will at minimum cause you to waste money.
Rhodiola is usually taken in the morning, although some people prefer to split their dose and take half in the afternoon for a pick me up. However, if taken too close to bedtime, it may cause sleep disturbances or insomnia in some people.
It’s important to note that not all Rhodiola Rosea is created equal. You cannot simply grind up the whole plant and put it in capsules.
Most of the nootropic compounds are found in the roots and rhizomes, and it’s critical that both rosavin and salidroside are present in the proper 3:1 ratio for the supplement to be effective.
Rhodiola extract must be prepared from the plant using the proper methods and then tested to ensure that the active chemicals are present in therapeutic doses. Otherwise, you will be left with a weak or ineffective product.
This herb has a somewhat limited growing range, and in the past decades, demand has skyrocketed as people outside Russia and Eastern Europe learned of its potent effects.
As demand outstripped supply, some retailers started selling other members of the Rhodiola family, which may be related, but do not have the properties you are seeking from the real deal.
There’s also reports of totally fake supplements, usually made with granulated rice and garlic powder, being passed off on unwitting consumers.
It’s very important to ensure that you are getting your Rhodiola from a good source so you know you aren’t getting sold a bunk product.
Rhodiola is best absorbed when taken on an empty stomach 30 minutes before breakfast and lunch. Some people claim to feel it working on the first dose, but most clinical studies show that the maximum effects kick in after 3-4 weeks of regular dosing.
Rhodiola Rosea Potential Side Effects
Rhodiola is an especially strong nootropic supplement, so extra caution should be taken when using it. It is generally well tolerated, but there are some potential issues to watch out for.
The most commonplace complaint about Rhodiola Rosea is overstimulation.
This is a mild stimulant, not nearly as powerful as amphetamines, or even caffeine, but some people have complained of insomnia when taking it.
We suggest lowering the dose and only taking it in the morning if this is the case.
Rhodiola may interact with other compounds, so if you’re taking medications please be careful and monitor yourself for any signs of negative side-effects.
Consult your doctor before taking rhodiola if you’ve been prescribed: blood pressure medication, diabetes medication, stimulants, anti-depressants (especially MAOIs and SSRIs), sedatives; heart regulating drugs; and antibiotics.
You should cycle off this nootropic for a week or so every couple months (at minimum) to avoid tolerance or potential complications.
The long term effects of daily Rhodiola supplementation are not known (although we suspect they are minimal).
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Do you have questions about, supplementing with Rhodiola Rosea? Do you have experience supplementing with Rhodiola Rosea? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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About the author:
Erik Levi is a co-founder of HolisticNootropics.com and a certified holistic nutritional therapy practitioner.
As an NTP Erik takes a nutrition first approach to health. He has worked with many different people to help them use nutrition to optimize their quality of life.
Erik believes that mental health is a physiological process and cognitive enhancement is not something that can be achieved by just taking some pills with good Amazon reviews.
Instead, true cognitive enhancement comes with the right balance of nutrients, movement, and gratitude. Erik continues to stay up to date with the most current nootropic and holistic health research and promises to deliver the best solutions possible.
You can check out his personal health blog/podcast/YouTube Channel all under the name Holistic A-Hole.