Rhodiola Rosea Is a Performance Enhancer

Rhodiola Rosea Can Help You Adapt to Stress

Rhodiola Rosea Is a Performance Enhancer
Capacity for mental work is increased under conditions of fatigue and stress
By Dr. Edward R. Rosick

s a child and teenager, I was an avid reader of science fiction. Back in the 1960s and even the 1970s, a significant portion of that genre portrayed the twenty-first century as one in which the vast majority of the populace would have an abundance of that one commodity in life that is cherished by all: free time. In the twenty-first century, people would be unshackled by their tedious day jobs while living in a socially enlightened, technologically advanced society with plenty of time to pursue their hobbies and dreams.

Unfortunately, that image of the twenty-first century is still in the realm of science fiction. Even though we have witnessed many amazing technological advances during our lifetime, there are few among us who can say their lives are less stressful as a result. In fact, surveys have shown that most people think their lives become more stressful at work when technological advances are implemented there.

Rhodiola rosea May Help with the Stresses of Modern Life

There are many ways in which people attempt to cope with the emotional and physical tolls that excessive stress can exact, such as anxiety and fatigue. Some approaches are harmful (such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption), and some are helpful (such as meditation and exercise). One answer to the myriad stresses of our fast-paced, twenty-first century lifestyle may be found in Rhodiola rosea, an herb used for centuries in Europe and Asia. A variety of healthful properties have been attributed to this safe, natural supplement.*

*See “Better Sleep May Mean Longer Life” in Life Enhancement, June 2003.

Rhodiola rosea has been prized for combating fatigue and depression, enhancing work performance, and helping people cope with stress.1 Although there are many types of Rhodiola used in traditional folk medicine, it is the species R. rosea that has garnered the most public attention and the most scientific scrutiny. Both the physiological and the psychological benefits of R. rosea are thought to be mediated primarily by the actions of rosavins and salidroside, chemical compounds found in R. rosea roots.

R. rosea Is an Adaptogen

Substances such as the active agents in R. rosea and ginseng, which help people cope with and adapt to stressful situations, are called adaptogens. These substances can help a person respond in physiologically and psychologically positive ways to physical, mental, or emotional stressors—without, however, causing physiological changes when the person is not under unusual stress. R. rosea is postulated to meet these adaptogenic criteria through its ability to modulate the levels and activities of certain hormones and brain neurochemicals.

R. rosea has been extensively studied for the past 35 years. Numerous research reports have shown that, in both animals and humans, it can help fight fatigue and stress. Two recent studies in Europe have shown that, when R. rosea was given to physicians or medical students who were under significant stress due to long hours or from working multiple night shifts, it reduced general fatigue and increased perceptive and cognitive functioning.2,3

Capacity for Mental Work Is Compromised by Fatigue and Stress

A study published this year by a team of researchers from Russia and Sweden adds further credence to the belief that R. rosea is an extremely safe and effective adaptogen.4 This randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial was designed, in the authors’ own words, “to study the antistress and stimulant effects of a single dose of SHR-5 in healthy young males against a background of fatigue and stress.” (SHR-5 is a widely used standardized extract of R. rosea.)

When Is Fatigue Chronic?

In today’s high-stress world, everyone feels fatigued at one time or another. Those feelings of being wiped out, both mentally and physically, can strike people who are otherwise in peak condition. Most of the time, feelings of fatigue are just our body’s and mind’s way of telling us, “Hey, it’s time to take a break, and if you don’t, you’re going to be sorry!” For some people, however, even breaks or vacations can’t help them shake off feelings of being tired, weak, and depressed. In those cases, the physical and mental symptoms may be more than just everyday fatigue—they may be signs of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

CFS is a cluster of symptoms that the medical literature has recognized for over a hundred years. It’s defined by several specific criteria, including short-term memory loss, muscle aches, swollen lymph glands, and, of course, unremitting fatigue not relieved by sleep or rest.

The debate over the causes of CFS has been going on since the nineteenth century, and it shows no signs of letting up. Genetic factors, brain abnormalities, infectious agents, and a hyperreactive immune system have all been postulated to be at the root of the syndrome. Yet for all the research going on, doctors still do not have a definitive cause, or treatment, for CFS. While a myriad of medications and supplements have been touted as cures, the fact is that there is no magic bullet that can quickly restore strength and vitality to someone with this disorder.

All hope is not lost, however: there are now studies showing that, through a graded exercise program and behavior-modification counseling, some people with CFS can get significant relief from their fatigue and can resume their normal activities. And although no formal studies have been done, it makes sense, knowing its mode of action, that an adaptogenic herb such as R. rosea might also help in reducing many of the debilitating symptoms of CFS.

The healthy young males were 161 Russian military cadets, aged 19 to 21. Between 4 and 5 o’clock in the afternoon, after having gone through a typical day of training and exercise, they took three different types of tests of their capacity for mental work: (1) tests for the assessment of visual perception and information processing; (2) tests for the evaluation of short-term memory; and (3) tests involving higher mental functions. Their pulse pressure (the difference between the systolic and diastolic blood pressures) and pulse rate were also measured. The cadets then continued with their duties for the rest of the night and long into the morning.

R. rosea Helps Overcome the Effects of Fatigue and Stress

At 4:00 a.m., one group of cadets was given two capsules of R. rosea (185 mg per capsule, for a total of 370 mg), one group was given three capsules of R. rosea (555 mg), one group was given placebo capsules, and one group (as an additional control group) was given nothing. One hour later, all four groups were retested. To evaluate the results, the researchers devised a calculated measure of performance that they called the antifatigue index (AFI), which combined measurements of the amount of mental work accomplished per unit time, as well as of the quality of that work.

The sleep-deprived and
stressed-out cadets taking
Rhodiola rosea had significantly
less fatigue than the cadets
taking a placebo or taking nothing.

The results showed that the sleep-deprived and stressed-out cadets taking R. rosea had significantly less fatigue than the cadets taking a placebo or taking nothing. The cadets taking R. rosea scored higher in all the tests than the cadets taking placebo or nothing; this was reflected in their significantly higher AFI scores. It was also observed that there were no significant differences in performance between the two test groups, which took either 370 mg or 555 mg of R. rosea, nor were there any significant differences between the placebo group and the nothing group. Finally, the cadets taking R. rosea showed slight but relatively insignificant improvements in their pulse pressure (higher) and pulse rate (lower).

Looking Forward to a Rosier Future

Perhaps one day we will live in a world with more harmony and love, a world in which we will have the time we need to fulfill our deepest hopes and aspirations. Until that day comes, however, we all need to learn some healthy and useful ways in which to cope with the many stresses of daily life and the physical and mental fatigue they can bring on. In addition to eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, it may be helpful to take safe and natural adaptogenic supplements, such as Rhodiola rosea, so we can enjoy the time we have now, while we hope for a better future.


  1. Kelly GS. Rhodiola rosea: a possible plant adaptogen. Altern Med Rev 2001;6(3):293-302.
  2. Darbinyan V et al. 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;7(5):365-71.
  3. Spasov AA et al. 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;7(2):85-9.
  4. Shevtsov VA et al. A randomized trial of two different doses of a SHR-5 Rhodiola rosea extract versus placebo and control of capacity for mental work. Phytomedicine 2003;10:95-105.

The Three Faces of Stress

Although most people associate stress with something bad, the truth is that both your body and your mind (not that they’re all that different) need some stress to stay healthy. Think about it—without the physical stressors of exercise, your bones and muscles—including that all-important heart muscle—would atrophy. And research has shown that unless you have plenty of mental stimulation (a form of stressor) throughout your lifetime, you may be at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.* Use it or lose it.

*A stressor is any external factor that causes stress, which is the body’s physiological response to stressors—and that response can be spectacular, biochemically speaking. Depending on the circumstances, the chemical compounds released throughout the body can be either healthful or harmful.

In the social sciences, stress is often viewed as being of three different types. Eustress is a good type of stress (the Greek prefix eu means good), arising from events or circumstances that are exciting or inspiring, such as winning the lottery or listening to Mozart. Neustress refers to a response that is neither good nor bad—it’s neutral—and has no significant consequence; an example would be hearing the news about a typhoon in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when you’re living in the middle of Iowa. From a scientific point of view, neustress has no real meaning.

When people talk about the negative effects of stress, they’re actually talking about the third kind of stress, distress, which can be further broken down into two types: acute distress, which comes on quickly (in seconds to minutes), then disappears quickly, and chronic distress, which may take a while to appear but then lasts for anywhere from hours to years. It is this latter type of stress that most medical researchers believe contributes to the development of chronic diseases, such as depression, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer.

Dr. Rosick is an attending physician and clinical assistant professor of medicine at Pennsylvania State University, where he specializes in preventive and alternative medicine. He also holds a master’s degree in healthcare administration.

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