Rhodiola rosea has been used in traditional medicine for many years, particularly in Russia, Scandinavia, and other cold, mountainous areas. Some people believe the herb can treat anxiety, depression, fatigue, anemia, and headaches.
Numerous studies have been conducted on the plant. While some results appear promising, many of the studies have been small, biased, or flawed. As such, experts say more research needs to be done to determine how Rhodiola rosea is effective, and whether it should be included in treatment plans.
Meanwhile, Rhodiola rosea has a low risk of side effects and appears to offer some benefits for many of these conditions. Therefore, it may be a natural option that is worth trying for its supposed uses.
Benefits and evidence
The evidence for Rhodiola rosea's health claims varies. The following are some of its popular uses and what research says about each one. The health benefits of this herbal root are probably linked to anti-inflammatory properties it may have.
Rhodiola rosea is a flowering herb that has been used in traditional medicine for many years.
One of the best-known claims about Rhodiola rosea is its power as a substance that helps the body adapt to stress, otherwise known as an adaptogen.
Its specific abilities and qualities, however, have not yet been scientifically proven with enough well-designed studies.
A report published in Alternative Medicine Review found that Rhodiola rosea shows promise as an adaptogen. Based on evidence from several small studies, the author states that the plant's extracts provide benefits for mental health and heart function.
Another 2005 article describes Rhodiola rosea as "a versatile adaptogen," stating that the herb can increase resistance to stress. In particular, the authors state that it holds promise as a possible treatment for reducing stress hormone levels and stress-induced heart problems.
Physical and mental performance
Some people take Rhodiola rosea to enhance physical performance before exercise or as a way to improve concentration and thinking. There are also claims that it helps reduce physical and mental fatigue.
A number of studies touch on these claims. They include the following:
- A review that states Rhodiola rosea may hold promise as an aid for enhanced physical and mental performance. The authors conclude that more research on the plant is needed to further examine and prove its effects.
- A study in 2009 found that women who took a high dose of Rhodiola rosea were able to run faster than those who got a placebo. The study examined 15 college-age women.
- Another study suggests that taking a standardized extract of Rhodiola rosea may improve concentration and reduce fatigue. The research looked at 60 men and women, who took an extract called SHR-5. The dosage given for these effects was 576 milligrams (mg) per day.
Despite these results, a large 2012 review published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine looked at 206 studies on Rhodiola rosea and fatigue but found only 11 were suitable to include.
Five of these trials determined that Rhodiola rosea helped with symptoms of physical and mental fatigue. But, the reviewers state, all of the studies had a high risk of bias or had reporting flaws with an unknown bias.
The reviewers conclude that research on Rhodiola rosea is "contradictory and inconclusive." They recommend a non-biased, valid trial of the herb before it is put forward as a treatment for fatigue.
Depression and anxiety
One study found evidence to suggest that Rhodiola rosea may reduce symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Ten people were included in this study, and they took 340 mg of Rhodiola rosea extract for 10 weeks.
Another study in Phytomedicine found that Rhodiola rosea reduced symptoms of depression, but its effects were mild. The herb did not reduce symptoms as effectively as sertraline, a prescription antidepressant, although it had fewer and milder side effects.
The authors of this 2015 study concluded that, as it may be better tolerated by some people and did provide benefit, Rhodiola rosea may be suitable as a treatment for mild to moderate depression. The study included 57 people who took the herb for 12 weeks.
Stress-induced eating disorders
An active ingredient in Rhodiola rosea known as salidroside, was studied for its effects on binge eating. This study, published in Physiology & Behavior, was done using rats. It found that a dry extract of Rhodiola rosea that included 3.12 percent salidroside did help reduce or eliminate binge eating in the animals.
The rats that took Rhodiola rosea also had lower blood levels of a stress hormone that may play a role in binge eating.
Another study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, similarly conducted on rats, determined that Rhodiola rosea may reduce stress-induced anorexia. The authors say their findings provide evidence to support claims that the herb has anti-stress properties.
How to take it
Rhodiola rosea is available in many forms. Any side effects experienced will likely be mild.
Like many herbs, Rhodiola rosea is available in the form of capsules, tablets, dried powder, and liquid extract.
The dosage and amount of extract varies between brands and product types.
Herbs and supplements are regulated as food, not drugs, by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
As a result, knowing what dose to take and how much is included in the product is not always clear. There may also be issues with quality or purity.
Although some studies have listed dosages used for specific purposes, it appears that the herb may be taken at different strengths to treat different problems. In the Alternative Medicine Review article, the author says the dosage may vary, depending on how much standardized extract it contains.
Rosavin, in particular, is one of the compounds named as having an effect on reducing stress. The author of the review suggests approximately:
- 360-600 mg daily of an extract standardized for 1 percent rosavin
- 180-300 mg of an extract standardized for 2 percent rosavin
- 100-170 mg for an extract standardized for 3.6 percent rosavin
Risks and side effects
Though its therapeutic effects have yet to be proven, the studies on Rhodiola rosea all seem to agree that any side effects are mild.
Side effects have included:
- dry mouth
- sleep problems
Jitteriness is a particular problem among those prone to anxiety who take higher doses of the supplement.
As it has a mild stimulant-type effect, Rhodiola rosea is not recommended for people who have bipolar disorder or who are taking other stimulants.
One article suggests that people can take the herb on an empty stomach 30 minutes before breakfast and lunch. Avoiding it in the evening may help reduce sleep problems at night.
Rhodiola rosea has a long tradition of being used to help increase stamina, concentration, and mental well-being.
Large, valid studies on these effects are lacking. However, the herb's low risk of side effects makes it an attractive option for people looking to improve their health in these specific areas.
As with any supplement, it is best for people to speak with a doctor before taking it.
Problems such as fatigue and trouble concentrating can sometimes be symptoms of an underlying health condition that needs treatment. Likewise, depression and anxiety can be serious mental health conditions that require the care of a doctor.