Traditional Scandinavian-Siberian medicinal root — Rhodiola — shows promise in novel clinical research
Nowadays, it’s common for busy people to say they feel “burnt out”.
And the demands of today’s fast-paced workplaces seem to be making matters worse.
Burnout is typically associated with office jobs, but research shows that job stress takes a harder health toll on people in blue-collar, service-industry, and pink collar (nursing) jobs.
The term burnout was coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in a 1974 paper titled “Staff Burn-Out”, about a growing loss of job interest and empathy among doctors and nurses.
In that paper, Freudenberger addressed growing evidence that more doctors, nurses, and residential care workers reported feeling exhausted, listless, and unable to cope with the ongoing demands of their jobs.
Four years later, University of California psychologist Christina Maslach found that burnout also affected people in jobs that focus on other people’s needs, often under time pressure.
As she wrote, “The intense involvement with clients required of professional staff in various human service institutions … can result in the emotional exhaustion syndrome of burn-out, in which staff lose all feeling and concern for their clients and treat them in detached or even dehumanized ways.”
Surprisingly, there's still no agreed definition of burnout — a deficiency that makes it hard to diagnose or to pinpoint the percentage of Americans affected.
Emotional stress seems key, since people in medical and other caring professions often combine long, unpredictable hours with constant attention to the needs of others.
Burnout may be most prevalent among people in health care and social work, but the term applies to anyone who feels overwhelmed and under-supported at work.
It also applies to many among the fast-growing legions of family caregivers — mostly women — at a time when Alzheimer’s disease is growing fast.
Punishing hours and pressures
Japanese office workers — notably men — succumb to karoshi, or “overwork death” with alarming frequency.
The same phenomenon is called gwarosa in South Korea and guolaosi in China, and heart attack or stroke is usually the immediate cause.
Fewer American office workers work such insanely long hours — but growing numbers of Americans work more than one job, and growing numbers say they suffer from burnout.
The burnout epidemic afflicting Americans may be due in part to the two-week annual vacations typical of this country, versus the four to six weeks common in European nations.
However, burnout affects nearly one in four employees in the European Union's 27 member states, with many citing high workload and lack of support.
European studies suggest that stress is a factor in about half of all lost working days, and long-term, work-related stress accounts for an estimated 16% of male and 22% of female cardiovascular disease in the EU.
And European research actually shows that long-term job strain is worse for your heart than gaining 40 lbs or aging 30 years.
Today, burnout affects overstretched employees, working parents, family caregivers, and others — which would explain why the term burnout has become more broadly used.
Psychologists typically advise a break from work, but that’s often easier said than done.
There’s probably no miracle cure for burnout, but a new study suggests that one traditional medicine — Rhodiola rosea root — holds potential for easing the strain.
What is Rhodiola?
Rhodiola rosea is a shrub that grows from Scandinavia to Siberia, where its root has long been a traditional remedy for mental or physical stress and depressed mood.
Rhodiola's efficacy and safety enjoy substantial, growing support from many cell and animal studies … as well as dozens of clinical studies, mostly from Scandinavia, Russia, China, and Eastern Europe.
In 2002, psychiatrists Richard Brown, M.D. of Columbia University and Patricia Gerbarg, M.D. of New York Medical College co-authored a summary of 92 Rhodiola studies, many of which had been translated into English for the first time (Brown RP et al. 2002).
As they wrote, "Studies in cell cultures, animals, and humans have revealed anti-fatigue, anti-stress, anticancer, antioxidant, immune enhancing, sexual stimulating, and anti-hypoxic (protection against oxygen deprivation) effects.”
According to the American Botanical Council, “Scientists have identified about 140 chemical compounds in the roots of Rhodiola, including phenols, rosavin, rosin, rosarin, organic acids, terpenoids, phenolcarbonic acids and derivatives thereof, and flavonoids.”
However, most of the clinical research has employed extracts that provide substantial, standardized amounts of salidroside and rosavins, which may be the primary active ingredients versus stress and fatigue.
Interestingly, salidroside is related to tyrosol — an unusually potent polyphenol antioxidant found in wine and extra-virgin olive oil.
Clinical study finds Rhodiola benefited people suffering burnout
Scientists from Austria and Germany recently reported the results of a clinical study designed to test the effects of Rhodiola extract in people with burnout syndrome.
The study was conducted by scientists from the Medical University of Vienna and Germany’s Schwabe GmbH & Co., which manufactures the Rhodiola extract used for this research (Kasper S, Dienel A 2017).
It wasn’t a “gold standard” clinical trial (randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled) — but it’s positive results should prompt further clinical research of greater rigor.
The study was conducted by Drs. Siegfried Kasper and Angelika Dienel, who recruited 118 men and women aged between 30 and 60 who reported symptoms of burnout.
The participants were asked to take 400 mg of Rhodiola extract daily for 12 weeks.
Compliance with the daily Rhodiola regimen was high, and the participants reported very few adverse side effects, which supports prior research on the safety of Rhodiola.
The participants reported improvements in burnout symptoms such as emotional exhaustion, fatigue, exhaustion, lack of joy, loss of zest for life, and “depersonalization”.
And, the participants reported feeling greater sexual desire and enjoying better sexual performance.
Interestingly, many participants reported experiencing some improvements during the first week.
This was the first clinical study designed to test the effects of Rhodiola in people reporting burnout, but the results fit with previously reported benefits regarding stress, mental and physical fatigue, depression, and energy.
The authors had this to say about the potential for Rhodiola to rapidly alleviate a condition that develops over time: “… the reduction of core values such as exhaustion, fatigue, and subjective stress perception during the treatment with R. rosea extract might be an important first step toward a continuous alleviation of burnout symptoms ...”.
And their conclusion seems warranted: “The results presented provide an encouraging basis for clinical trials further investigating the clinical outcomes of R. rosea extract in patients with the burnout syndrome,” concluded Kasper and Dienel.
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