The herb Rhodiola rosea has been used traditionally in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and other European countries as a “tonic herb,” said to fight fatigue, aid convalescence from illness, prevent infections, and enhance sexual function. In the twentieth century, Soviet physicians classified rhodiola as an adaptogen. This invented term refers to a hypothetical treatment described as follows: An adaptogen helps the body adapt to stresses of various kinds, whether heat, cold, exertion, trauma, sleep deprivation, toxic exposure, radiation, infection, or psychological stress. Furthermore, an adaptogen supposedly causes no side effects, treats a wide variety of illnesses, and helps return an organism toward balance no matter what may have gone wrong.
Perhaps the only indisputable example of an adaptogen is a healthful lifestyle. By eating right, exercising regularly, and generally living a life of balance and moderation, you will increase your physical fitness and ability to resist illnesses of all types. Multivitamin/multimineral supplements could offer similarly general benefits, at least in people whose diet is deficient in basic nutrients. Whether there are any herbs that offer adaptogenic benefits, however, remains unproven (and somewhat unlikely). Nonetheless, advocates of the adaptogen concept believe that rhodiola (as well as ginseng, ashwagandha, reishi, suma, and several other herbs) have this property.
What Is Rhodiola Used for Today?
Rhodiola is currently marketed as the “new ginseng,” said to fight fatigue, enhance mental function, increase general wellness, improve sports performance, and enhance sex drive in both men and women. A few double-blind studies involving a single proprietary product support the first two of these uses, finding that the use of this particular rhodiola extract by people in stressful, fatiguing circumstances may help maintain normal mental function.
For example, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 56 physicians on night-duty evaluated the potential benefits of rhodiola for maintaining mental acuity.1 Participants received either placebo or rhodiola extract (170 mg daily) for a period of 2 weeks. The results showed that participants taking rhodiola retained a higher level of mental function as measured by tests, such as mental arithmetic.
Another double-blind, placebo-controlled study evaluated one-time use of the same rhodiola extract (at a dose of 370 mg or 555 mg) in 161 male military cadets undergoing sleep deprivation and stress.2 The results showed that rhodiola was more effective than placebo at fighting the effects of fatigue.
Finally, a third double-blind, placebo-controlled study examined the effects of a low dose of this rhodiola extract (100 mg daily for 20 days) in 40 foreign students undergoing examinations (presumably a highly stressful situation).3 The results showed modest benefits on some measurements of fatigue and mental function, and no significant benefit on others. The study authors considered the outcome relatively unimpressive, and blamed this on the dose chosen.
While these results may sound impressive overall, they were all performed in former Soviet republics, and studies from these sources must be viewed with caution. For reasons that are unclear, double-blind studies performed in the former USSR (or China) almost always find the tested treatment effective.4 This consistent pattern of excessively positive results has made outside observers highly skeptical. For this reason, only if confirmation is obtained in a more reliable setting can rhodiola be considered to have real supporting evidence behind it.
One small double-blind trial performed in Belgium did find evidence that use of a different rhodiola extract at a dose of 200 mg 1 hour before endurance exercise may improve performance.5 However, another study failed to find benefit with a combination of cordyceps and rhodiola.6
Rhodiola has also been studied as a treatment for depression.11 In a randomized trial, 89 people with mild to moderate depression received rhodiola extract 340 mg, rhodiola extract 680 mg, or a placebo for 6 weeks. Those in both rhodiola groups experienced an improvement in most of their depression symptoms, whereas those in the placebo group experienced no such benefit.
Rhodiola extracts are standardized to their content of salidroside (also called rhodioloside). A typical dosage of 170 to 185 mg daily supplies 4.5 mg of salidroside. When rhodiola is used as a one-time treatment, two to three times this dose is often used. Note: Most published studies involved a single proprietary product. It is not clear that the results of these studies apply to products using different rhodiola sources, or different methods of extraction.
There are no known or suspected safety risks with rhodiola, and in clinical trials, no severe adverse effects have been reported.1,2,3,10 However, comprehensive safety studies have not been performed. Safety in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or people with severe liver or kidney disease has not been established.
1. Darbinyan V, Kteyan A, Panossian A, 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;7:365-371.
2. Shevtsov VA, Zholus BI, Shervarly VI, et al. A randomized trial of two different doses of a SHR-5 Rhodiolarosea extract versus placebo and control of capacity for mental work. Phytomedicine. 2003;10:95-105.
3. Spasov AA, Wikman GK, Mandrikov VB, 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;7:85-89.
4. Vickers A, Goyal N, Harland R, et al. Do certain countries produce only positive results? A systematic review of controlled trials. Control Clin Trials. 1998;19:159-166.
5. De Bock K, Eijnde BO, Ramaekers M, et al. Acute Rhodiola rosea intake can improve endurance exercise performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2004;14:298-307.
6. Colson SN, Wyatt FB, Johnston DL, et al. Cordyceps sinensis - and Rhodiola rosea -based supplementation in male cyclists and its effect on muscle tissue oxygen saturation. J Strength Cond Res. 2005;19:358-363.
7. Wing SL, Askew EW, Luetkemeier MJ, Ryujin DT, Kamimori GH, Grissom CK. Lack of effect of Rhodiola or oxygenated water supplementation on hypoxemia and oxidative stress. Wilderness Environ Med. 2003;14:9-16.
8. Udintsev SN, Krylova SG, Fomina TI. The enhancement of the efficacy of adriamycin by using hepatoprotectors of plant origin in metastases of Ehrlich's adenocarcinoma to the liver in mice [in Russian]. Vopr Onkol. 1992;38:1217-1222.
9. Udintsev SN, Schakhov VP. Decrease of cyclophosphamide haematotoxicity by Rhodiola rosea root extract in mice with Ehrlich and Lewis transplantable tumors. Eur J Cancer. 1991;27:1182.
10. Fintelmann V, Gruenwald J. Efficacy and tolerability of a rhodiola rosea extract in adults with physical and cognitive deficiencies. Adv Ther. 2007;24:929-939.
11. Darbinyan V, Aslanyan G, Amroyan E, Gabrielyan E, Malmström C, Panossian A. Clinical trial of Rhodiola rosea L. extract SHR-5 in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. Nord J Psychiatry. 2007;61(5):343-348.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board Last Updated: 12/15/2015