For millennia, people in Scandinavia and Siberia struggled to survive long, cold winters and high altitudes.
To help them withstand these stresses, they came to rely on the root of a yellow-flowered shrub that botanists named Rhodiola rosea, in recognition of its rosy flavor and fragrance.
Throughout its natural range, rhodiola root has been used for centuries – perhaps longer – to enhance physical and mental endurance.
Modern researchers coined the term "adaptogen” to describe medicinal plants – such as rhodiola, ginseng, and schizandra – shown to ease the adverse effects of physical and mental stress.
The efficiacy and safety of rhodiola enjoy scientific support from hundreds of cell, animal, and clinical studies ... conducted mostly in Russia and Eastern Europe.
The search for life extension
Calorie restriction is proven to extend the lives of various species, including yeast, fish, rodents, and dogs … though not primates.
Very-low-calorie diets are also proven to reduce disease risk factors and delay signs of aging in various animals, including primates (monkeys).
For obvious reasons, life-long calorie restriction has never been tested in humans, but evidence from clinical trials of limited duration suggest that is yields some of the same apparent health benefits seen in lower primates.
Given the difficulty of following low-calorie diets for decades at a time, researchers have been looking for safe natural chemicals that can mimic its life-extending, health-enhancing effects.
Resveratrol – a polyphenol-class antioxidant from grapes – can extend the lives and enhance the health of obese rodents … but it does nothing for healthy, normal-weight animals.
Psychiatrists Richard Brown, M.D. (Columbia University), and Patricia Gerbarg, M.D. (New York Medical College), analyzed the first English translations of 92 studies (Brown RP et al. 2002).
In 2002, the American Botanical Council published the Browns' landmark summary of rhodiola research ... and more clinical studies have since been published in the West.
As the Browns wrote, "Studies in cell cultures, animals, and humans have revealed anti-fatigue, anti-stress, anti-hypoxic (protection against damaging effects of oxygen deprivation), anticancer, antioxidant, immune enhancing and sexual stimulating effects.”
Most, but not all, human trials affirm rhodiola's reputed benefits … but proving the reality of its traditional reputation will require that scientists conduct large, high-quality clinical trials.
The authors of a recent evidence review noted the need for better studies: "… methodological flaws [in the extant trials] limit accurate assessment of efficacy. A rigorously-designed well reported RCT [randomized controlled trial] that minimizes bias is needed to determine true efficacy of R. rosea for fatigue.”
In the meantime, there's enough evidence to warrant personal experimentation with a reputable rhodiola supplement, to see if it enhances mood, energy, endurance, or well-being.
(Successful clinical trials have used extracts standardized to provide 3% rosavins and 1% salidroside, and lasted for several weeks or longer.)
Now, a U.S. academic study suggests that rhodiola may possess previously unsuspected powers related to lifespan and health-span.
Rhodiola extended flies' lives, without dietary restrictions
A team of researchers from UC Irvine report that rhodiola extract extended the lifespans of fruit flies by 24 percent – nearly one-quarter.
Better yet, rhodiola also extended the widely studied insects' "health-spans” … that is, the proportion of their lives spent in good health.
And the researchers discovered that rhodiola works in a way unrelated to calorie restriction, affecting different molecular pathways.
Study co-leader Mahtab Jafari, Pharm.D., called this significant because calorie restriction is the only proven way to extend the lifespans of any animal.
Accordingly, scientists have been anxious to identify compounds that can mimic the effects of calorie restriction without requiring people to endure food cravings.
As she said, "We found that Rhodiola actually increases lifespan on top of [the life-extending effect of] dietary restriction. It demonstrates that Rhodiola can act even in individuals [flies] who are already long-lived and healthy.”
Finally, Rhodiola also delayed the declines in physical performance normally seen in fruit flies as they age.
Rhodiola extended lives in a unique way
For their study, the UCI researchers put flies on a calorie-restricted yeast diet, which normally causes flies to live longer.
They expected that if rhodiola worked in the same way as calorie restriction, it would not produce additional life extension in these flies … but it did.
And, rhodiola worked on flies in which the molecular pathways by which calorie restriction extends lifespans had been inactivated genetically, further proving that the herb works in unique ways to extend fruit flies' lives.
How might rhodiola extend lifespans and healthspans?
Previously, professor Jafari's group found that rhodiola extract reduced production of free radicals in the flies' mitochondria (cellular energy factories) … and it protected them against the damaging oxidative stress that free radicals produce.
Significantly, the UCI conducted another test in which rhodiola extract protected cultured human cells against oxidative stress.
Of course, the UCI findings do not prove that rhodiola supplements will extend people's lives. But there's ample evidence suggesting that Rhodiola provides significant benefits.
Dr. Jafari's research group is currently exploring the plant's potential to kill cancer cells, improve Alzheimer's disease, and help stem cells grow.
Brown RP, Gerbarg PL, Ramazanov Z. Rhodiola rosea: A Phytomedicinal Overview.
HerbalGram. 2002; 56:40-52 American Botanical Council. Accessed at http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue56/article2333.html
Ishaque S, Shamseer L, Bukutu C, Vohra S. Rhodiola rosea for physical and mental fatigue: a systematic review. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2012 May 29;12:70. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-12-70. Review.
- Nakagawa S, Lagisz M, Hector KL, Spencer HG. Comparative and meta-analytic insights into life extension via dietary restriction. Aging Cell. 2012 Jun;11(3):401-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1474-9726.2012.00798.x. Epub 2012 Feb 22.
- Schriner SE, Lee K, Truong S, Salvadora KT, Maler S, Nam A, Lee T, Jafari M. Extension of Drosophila Lifespan by Rhodiola rosea through a Mechanism Independent from Dietary Restriction. PLoS One. 2013 May 21;8(5):e63886. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0063886. Print 2013.
- UC Irvine. Herbal extract boosts fruit fly lifespan by nearly 25 percent, UCI study finds. June 18, 2013. Accessed at http://news.uci.edu/press-releases/herbal-extract-boosts-fruit-fly-lifespan-by-nearly-25-percent-uci-study-finds/ Wang C, Wheeler CT, Alberico T, Sun X, Seeberger J, Laslo M, Spangler E, Kern B, de Cabo R, Zou S. The effect of resveratrol on lifespan depends on both gender and dietary nutrient composition in Drosophila melanogaster. Age (Dordr). 2013 Feb;35(1):69-81. doi: 10.1007/s11357-011-9332-3. Epub 2011 Nov 16.