Rhodiola rosea: A Possible Plant Adaptogen
Gregory S. Kelly, ND
Rhodiola rosea is a popular plant in traditional medical systems in Eastern Europe and Asia with a reputation for stimulating the nervous system, decreasing depression, enhancing work performance, eliminating fatigue, and preventing high altitude sickness. Rhodiola rosea has been categorized as an adaptogen by Russian researchers due to its observed ability to increase resistance to a variety of chemical, biological, and physical stressors. Its claimed benefits include antidepressant, anticancer, cardioprotective, and central nervous system enhancement. Research also indicates great utility in asthenic conditions (decline in work performance, sleep difficulties, poor appetite, irritability, hypertension, headaches, and fatigue) developing subsequent to intense physical or intellectual strain. The adaptogenic, cardiopulmonary protective, and central nervous system activities of Rhodiola rosea have been attributed primarily to its ability to influence levels and activity of monoamines and opioid peptides such as beta-endorphins.
(Altern Med Rev 2001;6(3):293-302)
Subjecting animals and humans to a period of stress produces characteristic changes in several hormones and parameters associated with the central nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). HPA changes include an increase in cortisol, a reduced sensitivity of the HPA to feedback down-regulation, and a disruption in the circadian rhythm of cortisol secretion. Central nervous system changes include the stress-induced depletion of catecholamine neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and dopamine. An acute increase in beta-endorphin levels is also observed under stressful conditions.
To successfully combat stress and stressful situations, adaptation is required. Adaptation might be best thought of as the ability to be exposed to a stressor, while responding with either decreased or no characteristic hormonal perturbations. Adaptation also implies being prepared to and capable of rapidly reassuming homeostasis after the stressor is withdrawn. As an example, a well-trained athlete can participate in an event that would induce a large HPA perturbation (stress response) in a sedentary person, and yet the athlete will be relatively unaffected. This is a result of adaptation that has occurred during the athlete's training process. Additionally, if athletes are exposed to stressors they were not trained for, hormonal perturbations characteristic of a stress response would be expected; however, this response might not be as great as that found in less fit individuals. Furthermore, after the stress ended, their physiology would be expected to re-establish homeostasis rapidly. This is a result of non-specific resistance to stress gained by virtue of a training-induced higher level of fitness.
The utility of plant adaptogens is analogous to the training an athlete undergoes in order to prepare for competition. Plant adaptogens cause our physiology to begin the adaptation process to stress. When a stressful situation occurs, consuming adaptogens generates a degree of generalized adaptation (or non-specific resistance) that allows our physiology to handle the stressful situation in a more resourceful manner.
As an example of this process, Rhodiola rosea administration promotes a moderate increase in the amount of serum immunoreactive beta-endorphin in rats under basal conditions. This moderate increase is similar to that found when rats are adapted to exercise. When Rhodiola rosea-treated rats were subjected to a 4-hour period of non-specific stress, the expected elevation in beta-endorphin was either not observed or substantially decreased. Consequently, the characteristic perturbations of the HPA were decreased or totally prevented.3 In these rats administration of Rhodiola rosea appears to have generated non-specific resistance and prepared the rats to respond more appropriately to the eventual stressful situation.
Spasov et al investigated the effects of SHR-5 on male medical students during an exam period. Forty students were randomized to receive either 50 mg SHR-5 or placebo twice daily for a period of 20 days. The students receiving the standardized extract of Rhodiola rosea demonstrated significant improvements in physical fitness, psychomotor function, mental performance, and general wellbeing. Subjects receiving the Rhodiola rosea extract also reported statistically significant reductions in mental fatigue, improved sleep patterns, a reduced need for sleep, greater mood stability, and a greater motivation to study. The average exam scores between students receiving the Rhodiola rosea extract and placebo were 3.47 and 3.20, respectively. 25
24. Darbinyan V, Kteyan A, Panossian A, 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;7:365-371.
25. Spasov AA, Wikman GK, Mandrikov VB, et al. A double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of the stimulating and adaptogenic effect of Rhodiola rosea SHR-5 extract on the fatigue of students caused by stress during an examination period with a repeated low-dose regimen. Phytomedicine 2000;7:85-89.