The hardy flowering plant called rhodiola, native to northern Europe and Asia, flourishes above the Arctic Circle. With bright blooms and thick leaves reminiscent of a succulent, the small plant stands out clearly against the barren landscape. Rhodiola’s distinctive appearance has helped guide indigenous peoples to find these hardy plants for generations.

In the frigid darkness of the Arctic winter, survival could depend on thin margins. Fortitude of both mind and body was paramount. The roots of the rhodiola plant, ground up or brewed into tea, were said to provide that crucial boost. Common wisdom in Europe, Asia and North America held that rhodiola could cure fatigue, weakness and altitude sickness, and help increase endurance and performance.

In the long Arctic winters, rhodiola may have even helped fight seasonal depression.

The Modern Rise of Rhodiola

Today, the plant, sometimes called golden root, rose root, roseroot,  Aaron's rod, Arctic root or king's crown, continues to fascinate researchers and health enthusiasts. Along with other plants like ashwagandha, it’s sometimes referred to as an adaptogen, the term for a class of substances that bolsters the human body’s response to stress, both physical and mental (Panossian and Wikman, 2010). There are several species within the genus Rhodiola, though you’ll most often see Rhodiola rosea extract used today.

While not every study thus far has produced positive results, a number of small experiments have indicated rhodiola may provide protection against mental fatigue and burnout, and improve physical performance.

That matters, because mental stress doesn’t only leave an imprint on our minds. Studies link chronic exposure to stress with increased inflammation, greater risk of cardiovascular disease and other physical symptoms (Cohen et al, 2012; Yao et al., 2019).

And the more fatigued we get, the less able we are to deal with stressful situations, creating a negative feedback loop of continual strain. We can’t always control what stressful events may crop up in our lives, but we can certainly control how we deal with them. So consider taking a leaf (or a root) from the book of the hardy Arctic dwellers, and learn about what rhodiola can do for you.

Taking Rhodiola for Fatigue

Tired woman working from home with several empty coffee cups
If coffee doesn’t perk you up – or, worse, gives you jitters – dial back on the caffeine and add rhodiola to your routine.

Following the path of traditional wisdom, scientists are now learning more about how rhodiola can act to safeguard both mind and body, especially in those at heightened risk of chronic stress. Potential benefits include not only stress reduction and improved cognition, but protection against some key processes of physical fatigue.

A review study of clinical research on rhodiola from 2012 notes that there’s scientific evidence from some double-blinded, placebo-controlled studies supporting the supplement’s effects for both cognition and physical performance (Ishaque et al., 2012).

In one of the more impressive studies, 24 participants got either 200 mg of Rhodiola rosea extract or a placebo an hour before undergoing several different tests of physical function. The subjects who took the supplement did better on key indicators of physical stamina, including time to exhaustion and oxygen uptake (De Bock et al., 2004).

In another study looking at long-term effects, 30 adults took either a rhodiola supplement or a placebo for 30 days, then took a cycling test. Those on a steady regimen of rhodiola had decreased levels of C-reactive protein, a common marker of inflammation that shows how our bodies are responding to exertion. The people getting rhodiola were better protected from the effects of intense exercise (Abidov et al., 2004).

Can Rhodiola Treat Stress?

On the mental side of the fatigue spectrum, researchers have assessed how rhodiola helps people cope with the cumulative effects of stress. In one study from Sweden, researchers took 60 people suffering from fatigue syndrome and gave half of them 576 mg of rhodiola a day, while the other half got a placebo. After 28 days, the group that got the rhodiola scored better on a standard test of chronic stress and had improved levels of attention (Olsson et al., 2009).

In a more general test, students in a placebo-controlled trial of rhodiola saw significant improvements in hand-eye coordination, mental fatigue and general well-being after getting rhodiola supplements (Spasov et al., 2000).

Other studies looking at people at high risk of stress or mental fatigue also show rhodiola’s potential to buffer our minds from the effects of long-term stress. One looked at people suffering from “burnout,” or the emotional, physical and mental exhaustion to which long-term daily stress can lead. People suffering from burnout often lose the ability to take joy in everyday things, along with a lack of motivation or even cynicism. In burnout patients, rhodiola reportedly decreased feelings of exhaustion, tension and a lack of joy, as well as helped concentration (Kasper and Dienel, 2017).

Doctor or nurse enjoying working a night shift in a hospital setting
Night-shift physicians got a mental boost from rhodiola, according to one study.

In a similar study of physicians working the grueling night shift, rhodiola reduced mental fatigue induced by long hours caring for patients (Darbinyan et al., 2000).

There’s even some evidence that rhodiola can alleviate some depression symptoms. A 2015 study compared the supplement to a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), the most common class of antidepressants, and one that often come with unpleasant side effects.

The researchers found that rhodiola also reduced levels of depression among the study participants, though the effects weren’t quite as strong compared to the SSRI (Mao et al., 2015). But that was offset by the fact that rhodiola didn’t come with any of the side effects of strong mood-altering pharmaceuticals.

(Read more: Rhodiola Root Rivaled a Top Antidepressant Drug)

Bottom Line:

The evidence so far suggests that rhodiola has the potential to lessen symptoms of physical and mental fatigue and stress, and could help with depression. Additional evidence shows rhodiola could act to lessen some of the inflammatory processes that accompany physical exertion.

​​Paired with longstanding links between stress and worse health, there’s reason to look to mood-lifting supplements for long-term advantages beyond your daily mental health. Keeping stress away helps you live a longer, happier life.

There’s no evidence from clinical studies of any major side effects associated with rhodiola, though the National Institutes of Health does caution that we don’t yet know whether the plant is safe for pregnant women.

Along with anecdotal evidence from multiple cultures, scientific work is beginning to show the positive effects of the roots of this high-latitude flower. Take some — a typical research dosage is between 400 and 600 mg — and this hardy northern plant might help you weather life’s rough weather.

 

Citations:

Abidov M, Grachev S, Seifulla RD, Ziegenfuss TN. Extract of Rhodiola rosea radix reduces the level of C-reactive protein and creatinine kinase in the blood. Bull Exp Biol Med. 2004 Jul;138(1):63-4. doi: 10.1023/b:bebm.0000046940.45382.53.

Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Doyle WJ, Miller GE, Frank E, Rabin BS, Turner RB. Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Apr 17;109(16):5995-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1118355109.

Darbinyan V, Kteyan A, Panossian A, Gabrielian E, Wikman G, Wagner H. 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 Oct;7(5):365-71. doi: 10.1016/S0944-7113(00)80055-0.

De Bock K, Eijnde BO, Ramaekers M, Hespel P. Acute Rhodiola rosea intake can improve endurance exercise performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2004 Jun;14(3):298-307. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.14.3.298.

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.

Kasper S, Dienel A. Multicenter, open-label, exploratory clinical trial with Rhodiola rosea extract in patients suffering from burnout symptoms. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2017 Mar 22;13:889-898. doi: 10.2147/NDT.S120113.

Mao JJ, Xie SX, Zee J, Soeller I, Li QS, Rockwell K, Amsterdam JD. Rhodiola rosea versus sertraline for major depressive disorder: A randomized placebo-controlled trial. Phytomedicine. 2015 Mar 15;22(3):394-9. doi: 10.1016/j.phymed.2015.01.010.

Olsson EM, von Schéele B, Panossian AG. A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardised extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue. Planta Med. 2009 Feb;75(2):105-12. doi: 10.1055/s-0028-1088346.

Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010 Jan 19;3(1):188-224. doi: 10.3390/ph3010188.

Spasov AA, Wikman GK, Mandrikov VB, Mironova IA, Neumoin VV. 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 Apr;7(2):85-9. doi: 10.1016/S0944-7113(00)80078-1.

Yao BC, Meng LB, Hao ML, Zhang YM, Gong T, Guo ZG. Chronic stress: a critical risk factor for atherosclerosis. J Int Med Res. 2019 Apr;47(4):1429-1440. doi: 10.1177/0300060519826820.