Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen with a long history of traditional use against stress, fatigue, and more. Does the science back it up? Learn more here.
Rhodiola rosea is a flowering plant that grows in very cold climates and at high altitudes. Its root has been used in traditional medicine in the Caucasus Mountains, Scandinavia, China, and Russia, where practitioners believe that it can improve focus and endurance in both body and mind [1, 2].
Other species closely related to R. rosea are also used in traditional medicine. These include Rhodiola imbricata, Rhodiola algida, and Rhodiola crenulata. Together, these herbs are best known as adaptogens: substances that help combat stress. However, Rhodiola roots and extracts are also being investigated for other potential cognitive and physical benefits [3, 4, 5].
Rhodiola has many other names: in China, it is called hóng jǐng tiān. Elsewhere, it may be called rosenroot, rose root, Arctic root, golden root, or king’s crown. In French, it is l’orpin rose [6, 7, 8, 9, 10].
- May reduce stress and fatigue
- May boost the immune system
- May improve mood
- May increase fat burning
- May improve sexual function
- Possible dangerous drug interactions
- Clinical research lacking for many purported benefits
Rhodiola has produced positive results in at least one study on each of the potential benefits in this section, but larger and more robust studies are required to confirm its effectiveness. The FDA has not approved rhodiola or its extracts for any medical purpose or health claim. Talk to your doctor before starting a new supplement.
Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen: a compound purported to combat stress by helping the body (and especially the brain and the immune system) return to and maintain a normal, balanced state .
Perhaps because this is rhodiola’s best-known purpose, several human trials have already been conducted.
In 101 volunteers with “life-stress symptoms,” 200 mg of rhodiola extract began to produce significant improvements in their stress levels and daily functioning just three days after starting the trial. After four weeks, all participants had significantly improved. Unfortunately, this study did not have a control group, and a placebo effect was likely .
In another study of 80 patients with mild anxiety, 400 mg of rhodiola extract per day for two weeks produced significant reductions in stress, anxiety, and negative emotions. This study did include a control group, but the controls were not given a placebo. The authors concluded that rhodiola was likely responsible for the improvements, but they cautioned that no causal link could yet be drawn with certainty .
Finally, in a study of 118 people with burnout, 400 mg of rhodiola extract per day started to produce improvements to stress and mood after one week. Patients continued to improve until the study ended after twelve weeks. Again, however, there was no control group .
Reductions in fatigue were significant compared to the placebo groups, but the studies were small and brief.
Salidroside, like many adaptogens, acts on the HPA axis: the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland. This system of glands controls many of the body’s stress responses, such as the release of cortisol [11, 17].
Adaptogens like salidroside also affect the expression of Hsp70, a heat-shock protein that helps cells adapt to repeated exposure to the same source of stress. However, the actual effect of salidroside on Hsp70 is unclear [18, 11, 19]:
Some studies suggest that adaptogens like Rhodiola generally increase Hsp70 expression, which increases tolerance to emotional and physical stress in healthy people.
Other studies conclude that salidroside decreases Hsp70 expression in stomach cancer cells, which contributes to its cancer-fighting effects. The bottom line is that healthy and cancerous cells do not behave in the same way. Salidroside’s effects on Hsp70 seem to be always beneficial, but whether it turns this pathway “on” or “off” may depend on the cells it targets and their health.
In cell studies, rhodiola extract directly activated four important neurotransmitters: norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine. Low dopamine, in particular, is strongly associated with depression and often overlooked; this plant’s effect on dopamine may explain its mood-lifting effects [22, 23].
In one study, salidroside from Rhodiola significantly decreased inflammatory cytokines and returned neurotransmitter levels to normal in rat brains. These two effects are probably linked; inflammation often contributes to depression [20, 24].
Monoamine oxidase is also the target of some antidepressant drugs like selegiline, phenelzine, and isocarboxazid. This class of drugs may interact dangerously with rhodiola; see the section on drug interactions below [26, 27].
The following purported benefits are only supported by limited, low-quality clinical studies. There is insufficient evidence to support the use of rhodiola for any of the below-listed uses. Remember to speak with a doctor before taking rhodiola supplements, and never use them in place of something your doctor recommends or prescribes.
However, many claims about improved sexual function originate from a single study. This study, which was conducted on 120 adults over 50, did not include a placebo or control group and was not focused solely on sexual function, but on a variety of physical and cognitive symptoms [29, 30].
In fact, Rhodiola’s potential effect on sexual function is probably linked to its antidepressant properties. One study found that it reduced all symptoms in people with burnout, including sexual dysfunction .
Sexual function and stress are, of course, closely related. By increasing stress resilience and antioxidants, this adaptogen may contribute to a healthy libido. In other cases, though, sexual and erectile dysfunction are not linked to stress. In those cases, Rhodiola probably won’t have an effect .
All in all, Rhodiola may improve sexual function, especially in people suffering from mental health issues and erectile dysfunction, but much more research is required.
No clinical evidence supports the use of rhodiola for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
Nootropics are an eclectic group of substances believed to enhance brain function. The widely-used nootropic is caffeine; a variety of plants may also have nootropic effects, such as ginseng, ginkgo, turmeric, and sage (Salvia) [31, 32, 33, 34].
Some users believe that rhodiola is a nootropic. In animal models, it stimulated activity in the brain and activated the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine. However, this has not been observed in human trials [35, 22].
Rhodiola extract could potentially improve the body’s natural immune response to threats from bacteria and viruses.
Right after high–stress exercise, athletes have a dip in their immune function: a period during which they are more likely to, for example, catch a cold. This period is sometimes called the open window .
Rhodiola may help close the open window by boosting immune function at just the right time. In one study, marathon runners took 600mg/day of Rhodiola for a month before and a week after their race .
Researchers then took blood samples from the runners and introduced viruses into them. In the runners who had been taking Rhodiola, the virus grew and spread more slowly than in those who had not; this result suggests that people taking Rhodiola supplements may have an extra layer of protection during the open window .
Rhodiola activates three important immune response genes – RIG-I, MDA5, and ISG – in a type of white blood cells called monocytes. In one study of the dengue virus, this epigenetic effect increased cytokines in infected cells; these cytokines then improved the cells’ ability to eliminate the virus .
Cytokines are often labeled as the “bad guys” because they are high in chronic inflammation. During acute infection, however, your immune system needs the right balance of cytokines to mount a successful attack. However, this pathway may already be over-activated in your body if you suffer from chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases (Th1 dominance).
T helper cells are a type of white blood cell that activates other immune cells by releasing cytokines. They can be further divided into Th1 and Th2 cells. Th1 cells are important for fighting bacterial infection, while Th2 cells induce allergic reactions and responses against physically larger threats like parasites [42, 43].
In one mouse study, Rhodiola extract increased the production of Th1 cytokines and did not appear to affect Th2 cytokines. It also prevented T cells from dying and improved the overall survival rate of the mice during infection [42, 43].
Overall, Rhodiola enhances the Th1 response, without affecting the Th2 response much. It may even balance the immune system and actively decrease inflammatory cytokines in some cases. See the section on anti-inflammatory properties below for more details .
Free radicals are potentially harmful molecules that are produced during energy metabolism in a healthy cell. Free radicals are completely natural, but they need to exist in balance with antioxidants to prevent excessive oxidative stress, which can damage fats, proteins, and DNA. Unfortunately, a lot of free radicals can be created through exposure to radiation or to harmful substances like cigarette smoke, air pollutants, and industrial chemicals .
Salidroside from Rhodiola rosea helped restore the balance between free radicals and antioxidants in cell and animal studies. It protected animal brains against poor blood flow and stroke (ischemia). Salidroside activates the Nrf2 pathway, which turns on protective genes, increases antioxidant proteins, and protects cells [46, 47, 48].
Rhodiola may reduce and prevent oxidative stress by activating AMPK. As mentioned, AMPK activates antioxidant proteins; it may also boost the Nrf2 pathway, giving Rhodiola a two-pronged antioxidant mechanism [49, 50].
For example, osteoporosis, a disease that causes bone density to decrease as a person ages, is partially caused by oxidative stress. In one study, salidroside from rhodiola prevented the loss of calcium in human bone cells and in a mouse model of osteoporosis .
Extracts and dried Rhodiola root can kill the bacteria directly exposed to them. In one study, it could fight every species of bacteria studied, including the common disease-causing Staphylococcus aureus, Listeria monocytogenes, and Escherichia coli .
Salidroside may also fight acne on contact. Standard acne treatments can trigger antibiotic resistance in bacteria on the skin, making effective alternatives more important than ever. On contact, salidroside disrupted the acne biofilm: the thin, slimy layer of bacterial cells that stick to each other under your skin. Biofilms protect bacteria from damage and they are difficult to get rid of [54, 40].
Rhodiola and its extracts have yet to be studied in human acne trials.
JAK2 and STAT3 are two genes that, when combined, form a pathway that increases inflammation. Salidroside prevents the JAK2-STAT3 pathway from being activated; in this way, it decreases inflammation [55, 56].
Rhodiola may selectively decrease the inflammatory cytokines IL-1, IL-6, and TNF-alpha. Its extracts may reduce the expression of these cytokines throughout the body. In one study of mice injected with an E. coli toxin, a large dose of Rhodiola extract significantly lowered inflammation in the kidney and brain .
Salidroside, in particular, greatly reduced the expression of these cytokines in immune brain cells called the microglia (cell-based study). Inflammation of these supportive cells in the brain often underlies cognitive dysfunction and diseases like Alzheimer’s .
Results on its anti-inflammatory at first seem contradictory. In some studies, it increased the cytokine IFN-gamma; in others, it decreased it. It seems to be beneficial at low doses and becomes toxic at higher levels [42, 58].
In a rat study, salidroside protected against the worst effects of brain damage in different types of stroke. Rats given salidroside before suffering brain damage had less inflammation, and the total volume of damaged tissue was significantly smaller. These results suggest that supplementation may increase brain protection in people at risk of stroke .
A person’s best chance to recover from a stroke is to seek treatment as soon as possible; the longer it takes to get to a hospital, the less likely a full recovery becomes. In a rat study, salidroside from Rhodiola reduced complications of stroke even when standard treatment was delayed .
This adaptogen’s antioxidant effects may explain its ability to protect the nervous system from damage. Free radicals can damage all cells in the brain, including neural stem cells in the growing brain; Rhodiola increases the expression of antioxidant proteins and reduces free radicals in the brain [64, 65].
In Parkinson’s disease, neurons die off in a region of the basal ganglia. Increased stress in a part of the cell called the endoplasmic reticulum may be the underlying trigger. In a cell study, salidroside protected the endoplasmic reticulum of basal ganglia neurons from stress [66, 67].
According to the authors, these results suggest that rhodiola should be studied in animal models of Parkinson’s.
In the heart and elsewhere in the body, AMPK maintains an oxidative balance: in response to oxidative stress, AMPK activates genes that produce antioxidant proteins and reduces blood pressure. Mutations in the AMPK gene can cause problems with heart rhythm and cause Wolf-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare heart condition [68, 69].
We need oxygen to flow constantly through our lungs, but the combination of toxins and oxygen in excess can produce a dangerous cocktail of free radicals and oxidative stress. The lungs are especially vulnerable to oxidative stress .
In the lungs, oxidative stress over a long period of time can lead to asthma, respiratory cancers, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD .
Possibly by increasing the expression of antioxidant proteins and reducing inflammatory cytokines, salidroside from Rhodiola protected against oxidative damage to the lungs of rats .
Both of its major active components, salidroside and rosavin, appear to reduce pain by decreasing inflammation. In this sense, they are similar to many commonly-used anti-inflammatory painkillers (like NSAIDs) [76, 78].
Rhodiola is currently under investigation for its potential to slow the growth of tumors .
When a tumor grows, it stimulates the growth of blood vessels around itself so that it can receive nutrients and get rid of waste. This process is called angiogenesis. Rhodiola extracts inhibit angiogenesis in animals .
Alone, salidroside from rhodiola is being investigated in the context of bladder, breast, stomach, brain, lung, and fibrosarcoma cancers .
Because of some disagreement in the scientific community about the various effects and mechanisms of rhodiola, the FDA has classified it as a poisonous plant. Furthermore, the ingredients and active compounds in commercial Rhodiola supplements may not be accurately labeled. We recommend caution when choosing to supplement [22, 83].
For more about the potential side effects of rhodiola, check out this post.
There is no safe and effective dose of rhodiola or its extracts because no significantly powered study has been conducted to find one. Furthermore, the FDA has not approved rhodiola for any medical purpose or health claim, and in fact, classifies Rhodiola rosea and some related species as poisonous plants.
That being said, it has had a favorable safety profile and produced some promising results in clinical trials.
Rhodiola rosea supplements are available as caplets, tea, or liquid extracts. High-quality extracts, such as those used in medical research, contain at least 3% rosavins and 1% salidroside. Other species of Rhodiola, such as R. crenulata, may contain a much higher concentration of salidrosides [84, 85, 86].
A recent study on Rhodiola supplements found good results with 400 mg/day of dry Rhodiola extract (or 300 – 1,000 mg of the root) to effectively reduce the symptoms of chronic fatigue .
Some psychiatrists may recommend rhodiola as part of a strategy to improve ADHD and focus/learning difficulties. One doctor advises his patients to gradually build up to and not exceed 450 mg/day (three 150 mg capsules) and taking the extract half an hour before a meal .
Consult your own doctor before taking rhodiola supplements.
Rhodiola may work well for people looking to handle stress better, feel more energized and avoid burnout and chronic fatigue. Traditionally, it is also used at high altitudes to increase blood flow, protect the heart, and enhance brain function.
The best evidence available is for rhodiola’s popular use as a stress-buster. Clinical evidence for all other uses is considered insufficient.