Depression afflicts more than 19 million Americans annually.
And nearly three in four do not fully respond to their initial therapy.
Drugs called serotonin selective re-uptake inhibitors or SSRIs – such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft) – are the leading antidepressants.
The costs of these prescription antidepressants – and their adverse side effects – lead many patients to discontinue their use prematurely.
Accordingly, some depression sufferers try natural alternatives and adjuncts such as St. John's Wort, SAM-e, saffron, and 5-HTP (a precursor to mood-boosting serotonin).
A little-known herb ranks among the most promising alternatives or adjuncts to SSRIs, with good evidence supporting its potential.
Rhodiola: Eurasian root enjoys long history and growing evidence
The peoples of Central and Northern Eurasia must endure long, cold winters.
And some who live in Scandinavia, Russia, Siberia, or Northern China also dwell at high, oxygen-poor altitudes.
To bolster spirit and body alike, people in these regions have long relied on a flowering shrub that botanists named Rhodiola rosea, for its rosy fragrance.
Rhodiola (rode-ee-oh-lah) is also known as Golden Root, Arctic Root, Rose Root, and Aaron's Rod.
Modern researchers coined the term "adaptogen” to describe medicinal plants – such as rhodiola, ginseng, and schizandra – that can boost endurance and ease mental stress.
Rhodiola's efficacy and safety enjoy substantial, growing support from many cell and animal studies … as well as dozens of clinical studies in Scandinavia, Russia, and Eastern Europe*.
In 2002, psychiatrists Richard Brown, M.D. (Columbia University), and Patricia Gerbarg, M.D. (New York Medical College), co-authored a summary of 92 such studies, 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.” (For example, see Herbal Fountain of Youth?.)
UMASS ethnobotanist Chris Kilham is a big booster: "Rhodiola is by far my favorite medicinal plant because of its long laundry list of health benefits ... [it's] one of the most astonishing ‘feel good' plants.” (View Kilham's videos: Stalking Rhodiola and Rhodiola and Mood.)
Most of the extant human studies affirm rhodiola's reputed mood and stamina benefits … but proving the reality of its reputation will require more high-quality clinical trials*.
Fortunately, Western scientists are beginning to conduct serious clinical studies … such as an encouraging one just published by U.S. academics.
Rhodiola rivaled Zoloft in clinical trial, with fewer side effects
The new clinical trial comes from the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine.
A team led by Jun Mao, M.D., conducted the first high-quality (randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled) clinical trial to test rhodiola versus a top antidepressant drug.
Their study compared the effects of rhodiola versus those of the antidepressant drug sertraline (Zoloft) in 57 people with mild to moderate major depressive disorder (Mao JJ et al. 2015).
All the participants exhibited two or more major depressive episodes, depressed mood and/or loss of interest or pleasure in life activities for at least two weeks.
And they'd displayed serious symptoms, including significant unintentional weight loss or gain, insomnia or sleeping too much, fatigue, less ability to concentrate, and/or recurrent thoughts of death.
For 12 weeks, the volunteers received one of three daily treatments:
  • Placebo
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Rhodiola rosea extract
The participants were given three standard diagnostic tests at the outset, and again at the end.
Compared with those who took rhodiola, the sertraline group were more likely to show improvement ... although the differences between the herb and drug were not statistically significant.
Versus those taking placebo pills, patients taking rhodiola were 1.4 times more likely to improve, while the patients given sertraline were 1.9 times more likely to improve.
Although they had a greater chance of improvement, people in the sertraline group were twice as likely to report adverse side effects, compared with the rhodiola group.
The results showed that 63 percent of the sertraline group reported adverse side effects – mostly nausea and/or sexual dysfunction – compared with only 30 percent of the rhodiola group.
As the authors wrote, "Although R. rosea produced less antidepressant effect versus sertraline, it also resulted in significantly fewer adverse events and was better tolerated. These findings suggest that R. rosea, although less effective than sertraline, may possess a more favorable risk to benefit ratio for individuals with mild to moderate depression.” (Mao JJ et al. 2015)
Dr. Mao put it this way: "These results are a bit preliminary but suggest that herbal [Rhodiola] therapy may have the potential to help patients with depression who cannot tolerate conventional antidepressants due to side effects.” (UP 2015)
Of course, as he noted, "Larger studies will be needed to fully evaluate the benefit and harm of R. rosea as compared to conventional antidepressants.”
In fact, compared with SSRI drugs, rhodiola root causes no trouble to the vast majority of users ... as witnessed by its long folk-medicinal history, a great deal of lab and animal evidence, and substantial safety evidence from human trials*.
That said, anyone suffering from depression should consult a professional, and avoid combining any natural remedy with an SSRI or other mood drug without expert medical advice and supervision.
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, and the Jack Warsaw Fund for Research in Biological Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
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