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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 to 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 have many other cognitive and physical benefits [3, 4, 5].
Practitioners of traditional medicine have long prized Rhodiola for its sweet, floral fragrance and its potent medicinal value. Practitioners in Asia, Russia, Scandinavia, and Greece have used it for centuries to treat a variety of conditions including fatigue, depression and nervous system disorders. There is evidence that the Vikings used it keep their spirits up on their long, rough sea voyages. It is still found in hair and skin treatments in Norway. Mongolian doctors have prescribed it for tuberculosis and Siberian doctors have given it to married couples to boost fertility.
Numerous studies have been conducted on the plant. While some results appear promising, many of the studies have been small, biased, or flawed. As such, experts say more research needs to be done to determine how Rhodiola rosea is effective, and whether it should be included in treatment plans.
Meanwhile, Rhodiola rosea has a low risk of side effects and appears to offer some benefits for many of these conditions. Therefore, it may be a natural option that is worth trying for its supposed uses.
Rhodiola has been proven to increase your sense of well-being and reduce depression. Having a positive mindset is always helpful when you’re trying to make major changes like losing weight, but Rhodiola adds even more to the mix. One study found that Rhodiola does just that. People who took it lost significantly more weight than people in a control group who didn’t, although both groups were following a diet and exercise program. Better yet, much of the fat loss was from visceral fat.
A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition compared different herbal supplements and their effect on exercise performance.
This study showed significant improvement in the uptake of oxygen and other markers of workout performance. In addition, research has found that rhodiola boosts the production of red blood cells, which helps your body use energy more efficiently.
One of the many incredible characteristics of rhodiola is that it helps your body burn stored fat more efficiently as fuel. We all know that exercise — especially interval exercise like burst training — can increase fat loss, but if you want an extra edge, then consider taking rhodiola along with regularly exercising to accelerate your weight loss efforts.
What allows rhodiola to help lose belly fat? Certain animal studies have found evidence that Rhodiola rosea might reduce visceral white adipose tissue and increase hypothalamic norepinephrine to help prevent diet-induced obesity. (7)
Rhodiola’s most active compound, rosavin, has been shown to trigger a fat-burning response. Because it helps normalize cortisol levels, rhodiola may also reduce cravings for unhealthy “comfort foods” and delay fat-accumulation that is tied to high cortisol levels (especially fat around the abdomen/belly).
Rhodiola’s efficacy was confirmed in a 2011 review of 11 placebo-controlled human studies. The reviewers considered studies that all had study designs rated as moderate to good quality, and the analysis of their combined data concluded that Rhodiola rosea might have beneficial effects on physical performance, mental performance, and certain mental health conditions. The reviewers noted that very few adverse events are reported, suggesting a good safety profile.
Early research suggests that rhodiola might decrease fatigue in stressful situations. A specific rhodiola extract seems to decrease fatigue and increase a sense of well-being in students taking exams, night-shift workers, and sleep-deprived military cadets. Other rhodiola extracts also seem to reduce mental fatigue in first-year college students and adults experiencing burnout. There is conflicting evidence regarding a combination product containing rhodiola extract, schisandra berry extract, and Siberian ginseng extract. Some research shows it improves mental performance in tired individuals performing mental tasks. Other research shows it doesn’t work.
There is conflicting evidence on the effectiveness of rhodiola for improving athletic performance. Overall, it seems that short-term but not long-term doses of rhodiola might improve some measurements of athletic performance. However, neither short-term nor long-term doses appear to improve muscle function or reduce muscle damage due to exercise.
Rhodiola can improve cognitive functioning in persons who experience a reduction in fatigue, but there is insufficient evidence to support an outright increase in cognition (which should occur in non-fatigued persons) and not enough studies have assessed cognitive decline for conclusions to be made.
Other potential uses of rhodiola include preliminary evidence that it is highly neuroprotective against toxins (requires more evidence) and that ingestion of rhodiola or its active component can reduce stress-induced binge eating in female rats. In the brain, rhodiola appears to be highly serotonergic (increases serotonin) and reduces corticosteroids; the inhibition of monoamine oxidases (MAOs) commonly attributed to rhodiola may not be relevant following oral ingestion of rhodiola, however.
Some supplements may also help, including rhodiola.
One study tested its effects on mental fatigue in 56 physicians working night duty (17).
The physicians were randomly assigned to receive either 170 mg of rhodiola or a placebo pill per day for two weeks.
Rhodiola reduced mental fatigue and improved performance on work-related tasks by 20%, compared to the placebo.
Another study looked at the effects of rhodiola in military cadets performing night duties. The cadets consumed either 370 mg or 555 mg of rhodiola, or one of two placebos daily for five days (18).
Both doses were found to improve the cadets’ capacity for mental work, compared to the placebos.
Side effects of rhodiola rosea are generally rare and mild to moderate. They may include headache, stomach upset, drowsiness, dizziness, and difficulty sleeping.
You may experience drowsiness if you combine rhodiola rosea with benzodiazepines, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).
Do not take rhodiola rosea if you are pregnant or nursing, or taking prescription monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).
There are no known risks associated with rhodiola rosea; however, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the production of herbs and supplements. Most herbs and supplements are not thoroughly tested, and there is no guarantee regarding the ingredients or safety of the products.
It’s best to take rhodiola on an empty stomach, but not before bedtime, as it has a slight stimulatory effect (38).