Rhodiola is a perennial plant with yellow flowers found in mountainous areas of Europe and Asia. It grows in cold, dry, sandy ground at high altitudes in these regions.
Known for its medicinal, health-boosting properties for physical and mental health, Russia and Scandinavian countries both recognise it as an official medicine for treating fatigue, memory loss and poor concentration. It is a popular herbal supplement.
Rhodiola is available in the UK as a registered traditional herbal medicine (THR) as Rhodiola Stress Relief (THR) to temporarily relieve symptoms associated with stress, such as fatigue and exhaustion. The THR scheme guarantees the ingredients are of a standard quality and have been used in traditional medicine for at least 30 years.
Dr Sarah Brewer says: ‘If you are feeling tired, stressed and lacking in energy, rhodiola has a beneficial, calming, yet energising action. Rhodiola is used as a traditional herbal medicine to increase energy, stamina and strength, improve attention and memory, and enhance the ability to cope with stress.’
What does rhodiola do?
Rhodiola contains unique substances, including rhodioflavonoside, which are believed to help the body adapt to physical and emotional stress. They have a calming action, increasing levels of the ‘feel-good’ brain chemical serotonin, and reducing levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Rhodiola also helps to increase mental alertness, concentration, memory and stamina. It has an energising action which is particularly helpful when burn-out causes fatigue, reduced energy, sleep difficulties, poor appetite, irritability, hypertension and headaches.
Stress and fatigue
Rhodiola has been tested as a remedy to help people cope with fatigue during stressful periods. Students given rhodiola supplements during a 20-day period of examinations saw a greater improvement in physical fitness, mental fatigue and neural motor tests, than those given a placebo. Their self-assessed wellbeing was also significantly better than students given the dummy treatment.
Another Russian study found that cadets working against a background of stress and fatigue, given a rhodiola supplement suffered less fatigue than those given a placebo, and scientists said this was highly statistically significant.
Depression and mood
Rhodiola is used to treat mild to moderate depression, and its effects were recently compared against the antidepressant drug, sertraline. The study, by the University of Pennsylvania, found that after 12 weeks, those taking rhodiola were 40 per cent more likely to show improvement than those on a placebo. And while those prescribed sertraline fared better, they experienced twice the side effects, such as nausea and sexual dysfunction.
Rhodiola may improve cognitive performance and ability during prolonged periods of mental activity.
A 12-week long study in people with physical and cognitive deficiencies who took rhodiola had positive results, with 80 per cent of patients rating the treatments as good or very good. The symptoms evaluated included concentration, forgetfulness, decreased memory, susceptibility to stress and irritability, as well as physical disturbances such as exhaustion and sleep problems.
Getting rhodiola from your diet
You can drink rhodiola as a tea or a tincture, available from health food stores. For a therapeutic dose, take as a supplement.
Rhodiola is considered safe for most people, although when taken orally, it may cause dizziness and a dry mouth. It’s recommended that you consult your doctor before taking rhodiola if you’re taking blood-thinning medication, are pregnant, breastfeeding or under medical supervision.
There is currently no UK or EU recommended daily allowance or upper safe limit. A suggested dose is one 200mg extract tablet (equivalent to 300 to 1,000mg rhodiola rhizome/root) taken twice a day – once before breakfast and once before lunch.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.