Is what the science is suggesting about this arctic root too good to be true?

When it comes to dietary supplements for the brain, the most popular are adaptogens; to minimize stress and maximize energy. Unlike caffeine, adaptogens are not classified as stimulants. Rather, here is the European Medicines Agency’s definition (1):

“Adaptogenic substances are stated to have the capacity to normalize body functions and strengthen systems compromised by stress. They are reported to have a protective effect on health against a wide variety of environmental assaults and emotional conditions.”

The word is only used for herbal remedies. It’s not yet a recognized term in pharmacology/western medicine. Whatever the case, one of the most popular adaptogens happens to be this plant.

What is rhodiola rosea?

Most herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine come from the East, but this one first became famous in the west.

Other names include golden root, arctic root, rose root, orpin rose, lignum rhodium, king’s crown, and Aaron’s rod. Depending on where you are in the world, be aware that some of these names reference other species.

white northern rabbitThis perennial flowering plant thrives in high altitudes and frigid climates. The closer you get to the arctic, the more likely you will be to find golden root. Places such as Russia, Canada, and the Alpine regions of Europe. It can even be found along the east coast of the United States, albeit rarely (2).

A short plant with a thick stem, rhodiola rosea only grows up to 16 inches in height. Its hardy green leaves are capped with a beautiful yellow flower atop the stalk. The rose is prized for its scent, but it’s the use of the rhizome (rootstalks) which date back to the days of Jesus.

Was this herb used in the Holy Land?

You may assume that, given the nickname Aaron’s rod (in homage to the staves carried by the brother of Moses in the Bible). However, other plants have that name too and archaeological evidence for using rhodiola in Israel is lacking.

Though it is within the realm of possibility, given that the Greeks and Romans were making use of it…

History of use

The Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides recorded its use in De Materia Medica (a 12th century printing of it is pictured below). The book was originally published in the year 50 to 70 AD (3). He believed roseroot offered curative benefits for his patients.

De Materia Medica in Arabic, Spain, 12th-13th century

This was a man considered to be a leading authority on drugs. Not just while he was alive, either. His advice for analgesics, antiseptics, and even primitive cancer treatments were still considered to be among the best until just a few hundred years ago. You can read about these in Dioscorides on Pharmacy and Medicine (History of Science).

A millennium ago, the Nordic Vikings were believed to use it for boosting their stamina, though concrete evidence to prove that is lacking (4). More recent uses for rhodiola rosea do have historical documentation:

  • Published in 1755, Pharmacopoea of Sweden (first edition) included it for headaches (5).
  • For centuries, the Russians have reportedly used siberian rhodiola rosea for dealing with the brutal stress of their subzero climate (6).
  • Chinese herbalists were actually among the last to use it, probably because the plant’s native growing region barely touches the country (primarily Xinjiang, Shanxi and Hebei). Known as hong jing tian, altitude sickness is what TCM practitioners advise the root for. They also believe it boosts Chi (Qi), aides the spleen, and promotes cognition, as stated in volume one of the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China, which was published in 2005 by the government.
  • European Medicines Agency calls it arctic root. In 2014, they said it “can be used for temporary relief of symptoms of stress, such as fatigue and sensation of weakness” (7).

Take note of that last sentence. That’s the European Union’s Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products who said that. Their assessment (8):

“…although there is insufficient evidence from clinical trials, the effectiveness of these herbal medicines is plausible and there is evidence that they have been used safely in this way for at least 30 years…”

They report negative side effects of rhodiola rosea have not yet been reported to them.

As far as being beneficial, they admitted that “a possible effect in the temporary relief of symptoms of stress” was observed in studies. Since they consider those “inefficient evidence” their conclusion was ultimately based on the root extract’s longstanding use as an anti-stress supplement.

Still, it’s remarkable to hear a major regulatory body like the EU leave the door open like that as to the possibility. Note that they did not comment on using it for depression, ADHD, anxiety, or bodybuilding/fitness (we will discuss those other things, too).

The EU authorities say it may actually work for fatigue and they’re not aware of risky side effects. Is this too good to be true?

Rhodiola crenulata vs. rhodiola rosea     

These are two different species, albeit very similar. The crenulata is the name for a variety which grows along the Tibetan mountains. Rosea is more prevalent elsewhere.

It’s not the full spectrum, but the salidroside and rosavin which are believed to be the active ingredients (9). Almost all of the research and supplements for sale are for rosea rather than crenulata. The essential oils of both do not contain those active compounds and therefore, are not considered relevant. It’s the powdered and liquid root extract which are considered to be nootropics.

Anti-fatigue benefits

fatigued businessman working lateThe NIH’s PubMed database yields over 40 clinical human trials which make use of this herb, many of which are related to studying its effects on fatigue.

The people tested in these include men and women, young and old, the overweight and the athletic.

Most of the studies are looking at just this herb, not a combination like ashwagandha and rhodiola rosea together, or with panax ginseng, mucuna pruriens, and L theanine, as some products have (e.g. Viridian Nutrition in the UK, Swanson Vitamins in the US).

That’s a good thing, as many herbal products that undergo the expense of clinical trials are brands of products with a proprietary formulation of multiple ingredients. With golden root, there is good data looking at just the extract without those other distractions.

Here are a few studies in particular which are worth discussing on their own, given the demographics used; occupations involving high stress and discipline.

Doctors on night duty

doctorThis is one of the most interesting because the participants were all medical doctors (10). It was conducted by the Department of Neurology at Armenian State Medical University. Among the thousands of clinical trials we have evaluated, never before have we seen one which used all doctors for receiving treatment.

  • Double-blinded, placebo-controlled, randomized cross-over study with a wash-out period.
  • 56 men and women participated, from 24 to 35 years of age.
  • All were healthy Armenian physicians who worked the night shift.
  • Each received 170 mg rhodiola dosage (containing 4.5 mg salidroside) which was taken once daily for two weeks. The control group received a placebo of the same weight and appearance.
  • 3 periods of two weeks each, with a washout period beforehand.
  • Before and after their night duty shifts, 5 different tests were given to measure visual and audio perception, attention capacity, and short-term memory.

The results?

  • Total fatigue index was “significantly improved after two weeks” however it was during the first two week period where the results were statistically significant.
  • No side effects were reported.

“These results suggest that RRE [rhodiola rosea supplements] can reduce general fatigue under certain stressful conditions.”

Stressed out students

female student studyingWhen it comes to optional health advantages (versus required treatments), not many trials study the effects in minors/teens due to safety and liability concerns. That’s why we were also surprised to come across this one, which specifically looked at teenage students as young as 17 and up to 19 years old (11).

  • Double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study.
  • During a stressful exam period, 40 students were given the supplement. All were Indian students attending a Russian university.
  • For 20 days, students received The Swedish Herbal Institute’s SHR-5 Original Arctic Root rhodiola rosea. While this is a branded supplement, it only uses that one active ingredient. The proprietary aspect has to do with claimed quality and extraction processes, it’s not a formulation involving other herbs.
  • Low dosage of only 50 mg was used, taken twice daily.

The results?

“The overall conclusion is that the study drug gave significant results compared to the placebo group but that the dose level probably was suboptimal.”

Here are the results for you to see yourself…

Parameters Placebo Rhodiola Supplement
Before After Before After
PWC-170 (kgm/min) 810 ± 43 920 ± 52 810 ± 42 980 ± 40
Accuracy of muscular movements 14 ± 4.7 12 ± 3.2 12 ± 3.5 6 ± 2.4
Number of corrected symbols 230 ± 21 300 ± 13 220 ± 15 310 ± 17
Number of mistakes in correction table (%) 27 ± 5.5 20 ± 6.1 23 ± 4.5 15 ± 5.4
Tapping test (# of taps per 30 sec) 180 ± 5.5 190 ± 5.0 180 ± 6.0 190 ± 3.0

The researchers knew the dosage was very low going into this, but they were trying to see how little may be needed to still produce positive results. They emphasized that most published studies used “over 3 times the dose” and some as high as 6 times, or even 15 times in one that was done by a psychiatric practice.

“Taking these differences into account, the results could in fact be seen as encouraging in view of the low dose investigated. Future studies of this kind should aim at finding a more optimal dose, presumably somewhat higher…”

Military men

Your job may be stressful, but it’s unlikely to be as bad as a military regimen!

This study used the same SHR-5 supplement as the last, but how much used was higher and rather than students, it was all Russian military cadets (12).

  • Double-blind, randomized, four-parallel-group study.
  • 161 soldiers, age 19 to 21 years old.

These men were split into 4 treatment groups. They were given the branded freeze dried siberian rhodiola rosea extract (now discontinued) or a placebo. They were taken at 4:00 am, one hour before testing.

  • Group 1: 370 mg dose from 2 capsules (41 people)
  • Group 2: 555 mg dose from 3 capsules (20 people)
  • Group 3: Placebo of 2 capsules (40 people)
  • Group 4: Untreated control (20 people)

anti-fatigue results chart

“The study showed a pronounced antifatigue effect reflected in an antifatigue index defined as a ratio called AFI.”

What’s most interesting is that “no significant difference” between the two doses was observed and in some tests, the higher dose of 555 mg had results which were lower than that of the 370 mg.

“There was a possible trend in favour of the lower dose in the psychometric tests.”

This supports the bell-curve theory about the recommended rhodiola dosage being not too low, but not too high either. It appears the sweet spot or optimal dosage for this supplement is more than 100 mg per day, but less than 600 mg. At least for when it comes to the amount for boosting energy and cognition. Some label these as being adrenal fatigue benefits, but we will address the real hormonal response in a moment.

Does rhodiola rosea work?

Impressive results suggesting less fatigue with little to no side effects may have you itching your credit card, ready to place an order. Do studies ever show it’s bad for you?

There is at least one study which did not replicate the positive results.

A total of 48 nursing students from the University of Alberta from 18 to 55 years old were broken up into two groups (13):

  • 24 people received 364 mg golden root supplements.
  • 24 people received placebo.
  • Both groups took their supplements daily after waking up, with the option of taking an extra half-dose 4 hours later.
  • The trial lasted 42 days.

There was actually worse fatigue for those on shift work using the supplement. Though it was said:

“…however, the results should be interpreted with caution.”

Why? Because of imbalances in demographics and a small number of participants. They admitted that things like medication, whether or not they were married, as well as physical and emotional problems may have played a part.

The study design was subpar and they seem to infer that, too. What we were shocked to see was the extra half-dose of 182 mg which was “self-determined” rather than standardized for everybody.

How much rhodiola rosea should I take? That’s not a question participants should be asking themselves in a controlled clinical trial!

This sub-optimal study still need to be considered. Because it’s still evidence that rhodiola rosea is bad for you, maybe. You can’t just praise the good stuff and totally ignore findings like these.

Depression and mood, too?

person holding up unhappy face drawingA decade ago there was a study done in Armenia where patients with mild to moderate depression were given the herb (14).

  • 89 people participated.
  • Adult men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 70.
  • They were split into 3 groups; 340 mg/day, 680 mg/day, or a placebo. The amount was given as two tablets taken once daily.

The results?

“…shows anti-depressive potency in patients with mild to moderate depression when administered in dosages of either 340 or 680 mg/day over a 6-week period.”

chart of using rhodiola rosea for depression

The side effects of emotional stability and insomnia were said to be improved in the treated groups. As far as adverse reactions from the rhodiola rosea root extract, none that were “serious” were observed.

Does that mean there were non-serious reactions?

If those happened, they weren’t addressed in the published report.

A more recent study published in 2015 by the University of Pennsylvania pitted the herbal remedy against the prescription sertraline for major depressive disorder, also known as MDD (15).

Over a period of 12 weeks, 57 people received either 340 mg of rhodiola rosea powder taken in a capsule, 50 mgs of the Rx sertraline, or a placebo.

The conclusion was…

“…the present findings suggest that R. rosea may possess modest antidepressant effects in some patients with mild to moderate MDD [major depressive disorder]. R. rosea may be better tolerated than sertraline, which suggests its potential as a treatment alternative for patients who are intolerant to the adverse effects of conventional anti-depressants.”

They also mentioned that if they had used a higher dose, the antidepressive effects may have been even better. They chose those dosages because they were safely used in the prior antidepressant trial.

When you compare the rhodiola side effects versus placebo and the medication, the results seem promising…

Side Effect # of patients affected in each group
Placebo Rhodiola Rosea Sertraline
Nausea 0 0 10
Sexual dysfunction 0 0 7
Appetite change 0 0 4
Insomnia 0 0 4
Heart palpatations 0 0 4
GI disturbance 0 0 3
Yawning 0 0 3
Dry mouth 0 0 2
Fatigue 0 0 2
Headache 0 0 2
Nervousness 2 2 2
Dizziness 0 2 0

This seems to support what the EU said a year prior, that side effects for arctic root are not being widely reported.

Safety concerns with SSRIs

prescription bottle with pillsIs it safe to take rhodiola rosea with antidepressants? That does seems risky to do, unless someone’s doctor specifically authorizes it and carefully monitors what happens when both are being taken.

Why? Because it’s unknown how the herb may influence a prescription medication like Zoloft or Prozac, either for better or for worse.

For the same reason, it would be a bad idea to take Valium or Xanax with rhodiola rosea, as well as any other medication for anxiety and panic disorders.

No one knows if there are drug interactions with antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. Only two studies have been done and they were either/or treatments, not both the root and a medication at the same time. For these reasons, supplements of rhodiola should not be considered safe to take for people who are also prescribed mind altering medications like the those.

What about ADHD?

There is not a single piece of literature on PubMed about Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and golden root.

But maybe that’s about to change.

In 2016 a phase 4 clinical trial began which is evaluating rhodiola rosea for ADHD. Those in the trial are being given a 800 mg dose or the root extract or placebo (16).

Stay tuned to see how this turns out.

Please keep in mind this supplement is not a medical treatment for depression (nor any other disease) and should not be used as such.

Effects on the body

So far the apparent health benefits are linked to the mind, but what about physical? The roseroot may offer 3 possibilities…

1. Reduced fatigue = better physical performance

fit female runner or joggerThere is some research suggesting it helps boost physical stamina, but that gain might be due to lower mental fatigue, which leads to a person pushing themselves harder physically.

2. Weight loss from less stress eating

Does rhodiola rosea cause weight gain? Perhaps the opposite is happening and there’s a possibility of weight loss as a side effect.

Given that all of the studies are short term – ranging from days to a couple months – it’s really hard to gauge one way or another. The good news at least is that gaining weight has not been observed in the studies.

Dropping pounds hasn’t been seen either, but for people who stress eat, it would be interesting to see if the long term effects of rhodiola might lead to a reduction in BMI.

3. Weight loss from less carb absorption

In theory, type 2 diabetes and hypertension may be helped by the plant’s ability to inhibit carbohydrate absorption. This was seen with both rhodiola crenulata and rhodiola rosea when tested in the lab.

So far no human studies have tested this, but the enzymatic activity seen in experiments does suggest it may be possible, however this benefit (if it exists) is likely minimal (17).

What we do and don’t know

rhodiola rosea essential oil

There is such thing as liquid extract, but rhodiola essential oil probably doesn’t offer the same advantages. The dried rhizomes are only 0.05% essential oil and the two active compounds (salidroside and rosavin) are not found in the oil (18).

Can rosea give you headaches or make you tired? How about people pre-dispositioned to them, like those with chronic migraines or a past head injury?

No one knows.

The human trials don’t generally report headaches happening, nor other common side effects like higher blood pressure, blood sugar, or increased blood thinning.

As you know, many herbal supplements produce one or even all of those symptoms in at least some people. To not hear much about these is unusual.

Since no one has done long term testing, it’s unknown if there are adverse reactions over time. Plus, the trials typically used healthy people or those with a specific condition, like depression. Not something like heart disease.

Perhaps the closest to looking at those with cardiovascular problems was a recently published clinical trial involving patients with the lung disease COPD (19). It did appear to help COPD, but further trials are needed to know.

Effects on muscles, fitness

male runner on trackSetting aside the possibility of secondary effects (mind over body), does this supplement have any measurable effects on the muscles themselves? There might be benefits of rhodiola rosea for bodybuilding and sports but with only a couple studies, it’s even more premature to say.

14 Italian competitive athletes were given the supplement for a period of four weeks. Blood samples were taken to measure metabolic parameters and antioxidant status. Changes in blood sugar or inflammatory markers weren’t seen, but they did discover this (20):

“…supplementation is able to reduce both lactate levels and parameters of skeletal muscle damage after an exhaustive exercise session. Moreover this supplementation seems to ameliorate fatty acid consumption.”

Scientists at a university in Belgium also did a 4 week study (21):

  • Double blind, placebo-controlled, and randomized.
  • 24 male and female students participated, averaging around 21 years of age.
  • 12 received 200 mg of golden root and 12 received placebo.
  • 5 tests were administered to measure endurance, muscle strength, limb movement speed, reaction time, and sustained attention.

The results?

Mental alertness “clearly did not improve” but it wouldn’t be expected to, being that rhodiola rosea is not a stimulant. However endurance was another story…

On a cycling test, time to exhaustion increased and coinciding with this was higher oxygen uptake and CO2 output. They did question if the anti-fatigue mental benefit might be the cause of this. Whatever the case, their conclusion was…

“…can improve endurance exercise capacity in young healthy volunteers.”

That sounds promising and you may read about positive testimonials and reviews by bodybuilders, but right now, there is too little clinical data to know whether this health benefit exists for muscles and bone.

Effects on cancer cells

lab experiment using well plateThe salidroside compound which is naturally occurring in the plant may have some anti-cancer characteristics. Rather than study the full spectrum rhodiola rosea extract, much of the research is focusing on its salidroside.

Breast

Apoptosis was said to be observed in cultured breast cell lines of MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231 which were treated with salidroside (22). The Chinese researchers opinion was that it “may be a promising candidate for breast cancer treatment.”

Stomach

The SGC-7901 cell line was said to be inhibited by salidroside in the lab (23).

Bladder

Over 20 years ago, 12 patients with bladder cancer (superficial T1G1-2) were said to have half the risk of relapse from taking Russian rhodiola rosea. But this was such a small study and apparent improvement could not be deemed statistically significant (24).

A more recent study published in 2012 was done by UC Irvine, they studied bladder cancers in the lab (25):

“…the R. rosea extract and salidroside deserve further study as novel agents for chemoprevention of bladder carcinogenesis.”

Conclusion?

Many natural plant compounds produce results like these in the lab. It’s something else if they actually translate to working that way in a human. There are many compounds which seem to work in a Petri dish, but don’t work in a body.

There is very little research for this plant derivative and cancer, relative to some others like guanabana (which is also unproven). Ultimately, any blogs or comments talking about a rhodiola rosea cancer treatment are offering false hope, which is not only misleading but also dangerous if that bad advice leads to someone delaying or forgoing proven options like radiation and chemotherapy.

Effects on hormones

Rhodiola rosea effects on testosterone are non-existent, or at least there’s no evidence to support them. So be wary of any fitness supplements or “testosterone boosters” for sale which claim this ingredient is somehow doing that.

In fact, there aren’t even studies which suggest it alters levels of this hormone. The closet study focusing on this topic looked at ginseng and rhodiola together (26). No effects were seen.

Even though it doesn’t change testosterone levels, there is evidence from an animal study which shows that with rhodiola rosea estrogen actually may decrease. In other words, it may be an anti-estrogen.

Those who are at increased risk for hormone-responsive cancers typically try to avoid dietary sources of phytoestrogens.

differences and similarities between estrogen and phytoestrogen

In a dose dependent manner, researchers found that estradiol binding to the estrogen receptor was observed with this plant. The conclusion was (27):

“…when taken orally, is unlikely to present an estrogenic risk to women who may seek to avoid such agents.”

Some recommend it as a supplement to reduce cortisol, but the data for that too is limited. Many of the anti-stress studies were not measuring this cortisol levels. A Swedish study reported it (28):

“…decreases cortisol response to awakening stress in burnout patients with fatigue syndrome.”

A small endurance exercise study done by Gettysburg College (PA) did measure salivary cortisol, but didn’t see a difference before and after supplementation (29).

Effects on longevity

One of the least talked about, yet most exciting findings, is the possibility that the plant’s salidroside and rosavins might promote longevity.

Three different studies using fruit flies have found lifespans were extended (30).  A 16% average increase in males and a 31% increase in females (31).

These effects were totally independent of a calorie restrictive diet, which is the other way longevity can be accomplished (32).

Drosophila, a type of yeast, are a popular choice among scientists for measuring life spans. They too were tested and here were the results (33):

graphs showing rhodiola rosea anti-aging in yeast

Why or how it was “slowing the clock” in these studies is unknown. The theories put forth include how their minds and bodies may better cope with stress, the supplement boosting antioxidants (indirectly, by promoting internal antioxidant production), and/or by being an AMPK activator.

As of the time of this review arctic root had not been tested on mammals.

Bioavailability

The active ingredient is considered water soluble and readily absorbed through simple digestion.

While some users take the powder sublingual, doing so is not necessary for good absorption. The easiest way how to take rhodiola rosea is simply with a glass of water. It doesn’t need to be taken with a meal or food since the compounds are not fat soluble. How long it takes to work (be absorbed) on an empty stomach should be within 30 to 60 minutes.

brewed tea in cupDrinking organic rhodiola rosea tea is becoming a popular option. We’ve never seen it for sale at a physical store, but you can buy it online. We like this brand of tea which tests as having 3% rosavin and 1% salidrosides (those are good percentages).

After oral ingestion and absorption by the intestines, the half-life of the salidroside has been measured as 40 to 46 minutes in one study involving rats, and another found suggested 92 minutes (34) (35). The latter is the exact same average half-life seen in a study involving humans; active men (36).

Even though its half-life may only be a hour or two, it would not be surprising if the biological effects triggered by it, like the suspected AMPK activation, are what’s responsible for the apparent benefits which seem to extend for much longer after eating or drinking it.

Where to buy rhodiola (and where not to)

Given its surge in popularity, you can probably find the capsule form for sale at your local CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, and Whole Foods. Whether you buy it at these places or online, make sure it’s a brand you trust, because a study published in 2016 tested 29 different bottles purchased at unnamed stores in the UK and the results were disturbing (37):

  • 23% had no rosavin, which is how rosea is differentiated from other species of rhodiola.
  • 5% had no salidroside, which is believed to be the most important compound. These products likely contained none of the plant.

That study suggests about a quarter of the supplements for sale in the UK may be fake or using a different species. Even with the authentic brands, many had lower rosavin content than they should have, based on their advertised dosage.

For these reasons, the best rhodiola rosea supplement will more likely be a name brand. A respected brand whose reputation is on the line. Jarrow Formulas, Gaia, Now Foods, and Life Extension are among the top golden root brands and our personal reviews for each are positive. These large companies tend to have better quality control measures in place versus a reseller, who might just be slapping their label on bottles they buy in bulk.

We can’t tell you the perfect one, but we believe the following are high quality:


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.