Rhodiola Rosea is an adaptogenic herb that grows primarily in the harsh environments and mountainous regions of Central Asia and North America. This perennial consists of a thick rhizome with yellow blossoms. When supplementing rhodiola, it is the plant’s root tissue that is ingested, as this is where the active constituents are located. When cut, the fragrance of the rootstock appears as a rose-like color, hence its name “Rosea”. Like most adaptogens, rhodiola is stimulating in low doses and sedating in higher doses. Although, evidence suggests that doses higher than ~1g are largely ineffective.
An adaptogen is a natural substance that assists the body in maintaining homeostasis. When under stress the body produces and releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that are valuable for short-term stress but can be harmful in the long term due to their disruptive cellular interaction.
The difference between using adaptogens and using stimulants is quite simple. Adaptogens work to maintain homeostasis, such that, the effects that they produce will never rebound, rather they will only be reduced to a higher plateau. Whereas stimulants overuse neurological resources and obstruct homeostasis, as a result, the effects they produce will rebound, this is why caffeine and the like tend to make you crash only shortly after the effects peak.
For instance, when under a prolonged period of stress an excess of cortisol will cause beta-lipoproteins to accumulate. Cortisol serves many functions throughout the body, however its role in glucose regulation is critical. When under stress, cortisol inhibits glucose from being transferred from blood vessels. This is a protective response to preserve glucose for executive functions, though this is only beneficial for short-term stress. Long-term stress causes beta-lipoproteins to accumulate, preventing glucose from passing through the cell membrane to be converted into energy. Energy deficient cells are greatly inhibited. This metabolic reaction is the first stage of stress. The second being returning to homeostasis and the third is exhaustion. Adaptogens do not eliminate stress but they are effective in mitigating many of its adverse effects.
Adaptogens also increase the capacity of cells to build mRNA (messenger) and tRNA (transport) which helps the stressed person’s cells have a longer duration of optimal functioning before exhaustion.
Effect on Cognition
There have been many studies exploring the cognitive effects that rhodiola rosea produces. The most notable subjects of focus being neurogenesis, neuroprotective capacity, anxiolysis, memory enhancement and problem-solving enhancement.
An open study was conducted with 27 healthy individuals aged 19-46 years old. Each was administered 100-150mg of rhodiola extract twice per day. The exact duration of the trials varied by individual, all of which were between 2-3 weeks. After several days, the participants were tested in cognitive trials. The extract improved both the quality and quantity of the work. During trials, it was observed that no work was hindered as a result of fatigue. Single instances of administration were found to have a less significant effect on cognitive test results.
Rhodiola is also capable of treating the memory-impairing effects of both scopolamine and β-amyloid, the later case, the inhibition of neurogenesis is also reversed. In clinical testing, salidroside has been found to increase levels antioxidative enzymes and act as a protectant from excitotoxicity.
The primary active components of rhodiola appear to be p-tyrosol, salidroside, rosavin and rosin. Rosarin (another alkaloid that is unique to rhodiola) is a molecular analogue of rosin, however there’s yet to be evidence that would suggest it plays a role in the pharmacology.
Rhodiola primarily functions through the modulation of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Their mechanism is unconventional in that the permeability of the blood-brain barrier is selectively increased for the affected transmitter’s biosynthetic precursors (namely phenylalanine, tyrosine and 5-hydroxytryptophan). This process primarily occurs in the limbic system, the region that is largely responsible for the formation and recollection of memory. A similar effect is observed in neuronal pathways ascending from the brain stem to the cerebral cortex, where the release of 5-HTP, norepinephrine and dopamine is escalated. In conjunction, these processes can significantly improve many functions of the cerebral and frontal cortices such as memory formation, learning, analyzing, calculating, and planning.
Rhodiola rosea also contains inhibitors of acetylcholine esterase, an enzyme that catalyzes the breakdown of acetylcholine and choline based esters. This is suspected to also contribute to rhodiola’s memory enhancing effects, as the acetylcholine system is largely responsible for synaptic functions regarding memory, attention, motivation and arousal.
A stimulatory effect similar to caffeine can also be produced by low doses of salidroside (~2.5mg extract or ~250mg rhodiola), however the exact mechanism of action, beyond the general modulation of dopamine, has not been determined.
Along with the stress reducing and anti-fatiguing effects, rhodiola also carries some additional benefits that are quite uncommon among adaptogens. Rhodiola, as a nootropic, is commonly used as a neuroprotectant, mild stimulant and mood booster. The most commonly reported effects include:
- Mental Stimulation
- Mental Clarity
- Increased Attention/Focus
- Improved Mood
- Increased Motivation
The only notable safety concern regarding rhodiola rosea would its influence on serotonin. While the modulation is weak, it is not recommended to use rhodiola if you are taking other that have a similar mechanism (such as SRIs, SSRIs, SNRIs and opioid painkillers). Something to consider that isn’t related to the pharmacology would be adulterated or fake products. Before purchasing rhodiola rosea, be sure to check for the contents of rosavin, rosarin and rosin. The products that do not list these compounds are untrustworthy even if they do list the salidroside content as salidroside is not unique to rosea.
Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogenic herb that has high potential in treating neurological disorders as well as enhancing certain qualities in healthy individuals. Its effect profile makes it, in many regards, superior to caffeine, despite having weaker stimulatory effects. It increases energy, mental clarity and focus. It reduces stress, improves mood and motivation. It protects neurons from various forms of damage and best of all, these benefits aren’t accompanied by a crash.
Rhodiola rosea for physical and mental fatigue: a systematic review
Committee of Herbal Medicinal Products Assessment
Rhodiola Rosea: A Phytomedicinal Review
Effects of alcohol aqueous extract from Rhodiola rosea L. roots on learning and memory.
Acetylcholinesterase Inhibitors: Pharmacology and Toxicology
Neuroprotective effects of salidroside against beta-amyloid-induced oxidative stress in SH-SY5Y human neuroblastoma cells
Insulin receptor A and Sirtuin 1 synergistically improve learning and spatial memory following chronic salidroside treatment during hypoxia
Function of Adaptogens
Effects of Rhodiola on Nervous System & Stress
Pharmacological,Clinical Studies of Rhodiola rosea and its Constituents Rosavins and Salidroside,Administration Guide.