Rhodiola Rosea – Queen of Adaptogens

This article is so meta.

It’s a review of two review articles that they themselves reviewed review articles; researching this stuff made me want to watch Inception again.

The first article reviewed (Which can be found here) was against Rhodiola Rosea supplementation, and the latter was Pro-Rhodiola supplementation (Here). Two review articles, both done in the last two years, in opposition of each other?

Fucking Jackpot

The latter study also had this phrase, which if said in real time would make me grab the popcorn.

In the conclusion the focus on the paper was primarily on finding failings of the studies without any systematic assessment of the level of scientific evidences of the efficacy of Rhodiola rosea (Rhodiola).

Which I can only imagine was as cutting to their motives as 400°C Graphene knife through butter.

Given how these were the first two review studies I found, and given my past experiences (mostly good) with Rhodiola Rosea, my interested was piqued. I’m going to try my best for an impartial review, which I believe I can accomplish since my knowledge of Rhodiola Rosea’s actions on the body are non-existent (Blank slates nary carry a bias). So take the conclusions found here, titrate them a little bit towards the ‘no-effect’ side of things to counter my possible bias with good anecdotal experiences in the past, and then this should be a fairly unbiased review.

This article is just going to proceed looking at what the plant is and what it does in the body. Then it will look at the two review studies and compare and contrast them, seeing if these effects are actually noticeable and significant.

(This article is not going to have many direct citations henceforth. The two review studies are review studies of review studies. Anybody who would have benefited from me directly linking sources should have read the full text anyways, in which they would have found everything I talked about. Most pharmacology of Rhodiola Rosea is in the latter study with the review studies under the ‘Pharmacological activity and mechanisms of action’ section, and the review of these studies may be found in the first linked review study; I will cite anything that is not encompassed in the former two articles, or anything which is highly notable and is worth a direct citation)

Rhodiola Rosea in Review: What is it?

The plant itself

Rhodiola Rosea is a plant, simple enough. It also goes by the name Rosenroot. It belongs to a class of plants that are all called ‘Rhodiola’ (24 in total). Out of all of the Rhodiola, ‘Rosea‘ is the one with the most active constituents. All the plants share similar compounds, but Rosea has the most of the ones were are concerned with.

It is called an ‘adaptogen’, which can be defined as a ‘compound that alleviates perceived stress and better allows a person to adapt to mental and physical stressors’. Well established adaptogens include Bryonia Alba, Rhodiola Rosea, Eleutherococcus senticocus, and Schisandra Chinensis. (Other compounds, such as Panax Ginseng or Withania Somnifera (Ashwaghanda), are adaptogenic in nature but either not as potent or well studied) it is recommended to get a licensed massage therapist once in a while to reduce the stress.

Adaptogens typically act upon the neuroendrocrineimmunologic system (Neuro = brain; Endocrine = hormone, Immuno = Immune system; logic = random ending), which is an all-encompassing system of how the immune system and brain interact with hormones.

Rhodiola Rosea has been standardized in the supplement industry to an extract called SHR-5, this is what you will find in most supplements and research reports. You can also visit TranquilMe to learn more about massages that make the body more relaxed and healthy.

Like all plants however, growing conditions influences how much extract it has. Pharmaceuticals like synthesized Aspirin or Metformin will almost always have the label dose of the active ingredient whereas plants use the label dose as an approximate value (they did tests in the past, found a value, and use that value on labels unless growing conditions change significantly).

So, if you decide to buy Rhodiola Rosea, buy from a reputable seller. If the label or website states that they use the SHR-5 standardized extract, even better.

Pharmacology: What happens in the body

Since Rhodiola is a cocktail of compounds there will be a few mentioned in this section.

The compound Salidroside (Also known as Rhodioloside or Rhodosin) is the most biologically active compound in Rhodiola. It shares many of it’s effects with its sister compound Rosavin. Salidroside can also influence the uptake of glucose into muscle cells via activation of AMPK [x]

The compound Rosavin is the compound that encompasses the highest percent of Rhodiola Rosea active constituents per gram, and is the measure by which to standardize SHR-5. It’s actions in vivo are similar to Salidroside for the most part.

The component Rosidirin acts as a MAO-a/b inhibitor (Monoamine Oxidase, an enzyme that degrades dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline). Supplementing with MAO inhibitors is related to temporary increased levels of certain neuropeptides (such as the three just named).

Rhodiola also contains Proanthocyanidins (anthocyanidins are the beneficial compound of blueberries that the media circlejerked about a few years back; pro- just means that they are the precursor) and may be in part the reason why Rhodiola Rosea exerts such a potent antioxidant effect in vitro. Proanthocyanidins exert a powerful antioxidant effect from themselves and can be measured via ORAC, but they are not causative of the increase in intrinsic anti-oxidant defenses typical of Rhodiola Rosea (That is an end result of the soon to be described stress-induction and adaptation cycle). Proanthocyanidins are also quite neuroprotective in nature, but this is also mostly through anti-oxidant abilities.

Effects that can be contributed to Rhodiola Rosea (most likely to Rhodosin and Rosavin) are an initial spike in and subsequent modulation in The stress response’. I use such vague terminology as Rhodiola Rosea seems to act on many compounds that end up mimicking the stress response without any actual physical or psychological stimuli. (For those wishing to research this further, the stress response is induced via increasing concentrations of corticosteroids and Heat Shock proteins, specifically HSP70 and HSP72, both of which act as metabolic levers in cells and cause downstream effects on DAF-16, Forkhead Box O, JNK1, and Nitric Oxide)

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Heat shock proteins also have a lot of protective and regulatory effects that prevent cells from dying during stress, but that is beyond the scope of the article (and manipulating these via supplements is not well researched, so talking about HSPs here would be less fitness and more biochemistry circlejerking)

An effect that is also present after ingestion of Rhodiola Rosea is the prevention of early apoptosis (cell death) and protection in cells from stress or stimulant induced death (oxygen reperfusion, excitotoxicity in neurons from glutamate), possibly via the aforementioned HSPs. It seems that Rhodiola Rosea is capable of both inducing a stress response, and either Rhodiola Rosea itself or a downstream effect of Rhodiola Rosea ingestion protects cells from being overly damaged from this induced stress, while awaiting the body to beneficially counter the stress. [x] [x]

In lay terminology, Rhodiola Rosea is like exercise. It causes an acute stress response and then causes the body to adapt to better handle that same response in the future.

It has been noted that these exercise-like effects occur in athletes in addition to the exercise induced effects, suggesting an additive effect of stress adaptation rather than an either-or mechanism. Whether piling one adaptogen onto another onto another during exercise causes adaptation to a super-stressor, as each adaptogen has different mechanisms of action, is not known (but you know I’m going to try this soon; for science!) [x]

The basic premise of ‘induce stressor – counter stressor’ can be applied to:

  • The stress response; as it induces release of stress hormones and peptides initially and then ultimately causes the body to better handle the,
  • The inflammation response; as it induces biosynthesis of eicosanoids and prostaglandins and eventually hinders either over/underproduction of these inflammation signals. (And can also act as a weak COX-1, COX-2 inhibitor)
  • Oxidation, as it may increase oxidation vicariously through the stress response yet counters this with increases in intrinsic antioxidant production.

In sum, Rhodiola Rosea increases stress responses in the body at the first few doses. These stress responses signal effects in the body to counter them and return to homeostasis, and this later wave of regulation shows improvements all over the body and resets homeostasis. If changes are done unto the body during the resetting of homeostasis, these changes will become the new set-point for the body to assume homeostasis at.

Hence, adaptation.

Actual effects: What people report

When supplementing with Rhodiola Rosea, what people generally report are:

  • Decrease in anxiety( specially if they take kratom products from http://kratommasters.com/kratom-extract-vs-powder/, along with it)
  • Elevation in mood
  • Decreased stress response from stressful situation
  • More vitality (non-exercise endurance)
  • General higher level of well-being

There are also many studies looking at ‘Greater Cognition’, which is both perceived by the individual via self-report and demonstrated with intellectual standardized tests with and without Rhodiola Rosea.

The above ‘effects’ of Rhodiola aren’t really scientific, but they are what people feel and show that something does occur consistently when you pop the pill.

Explanation: What events in the body could explain reports

The anti-anxiety and increased mood effects are most likely a combination of a one-two punch of increased levels of monoamines that regulate mood (serotonin and dopamine primarily) from the MAO inhibition effect, as well as alleviating the negative effects of excess stress hormones.

The decreased stress response is most likely due to the body triggering a systemic counter-cascade of reactions in response the initial stress-response induced by Rhodiola Rosea (adapting to the stress). This could result in either increased molecules that regulate stress or in a desensitization of receptors involved in the stress response. Either way, the same degree of stressor will no longer hold the same power.

Greater well-being and vitality are very subjective, so no guesses on these ones as the actual phenomenon is changed depending on how the person feels.  The stress response has many downstream effects, so they could be included under the umbrella classification of ‘improvements from the stress response’.

Reviewing the Studies

Anti-Rhodiola Study in Review:

The study in opposition of Rhodiola Rosea was a review study looking at the statistical analysis of 15 studies looking at the effects of Rhodiola when administered to people. (No in vitro or animal studies were looked at).

Initially, this it seems plausible that the researchers cherry-picked information. They found faults with 14 out of 15 of the studies. The Pro-Rhodiola study cited 147 studies, although less than a third of these were undertaken in the same manner (double blind placebo or an otherwise controlled human study) as the 15 the other study looked at (still, 15 studied versus 35 or so).

Most problems with studies were noted with the statistical analysis of the results, mathematical rounding of the results, or the way the studies were structured.

For example, one study was done in with a primary care physician group were Groups A and B received either Rhodiola Rosea or Placebo, then had a two-week washout period, then they received in the second phase what they did not get in the first (so everybody, at some point, received both Placebo and Rhodiola Rosea). The researchers attacked this article as the second trial showed less significant effects than the first in both groups, the original articles’ researchers claimed this was due to fatigue from work, and this article’s researchers pretty much said “That claim is not significant enough to warrant these differences; besides, Rhodiola should have prevented that if it was true”.

For the studies this review article attacked, their concerns on study design were fairly good.

My views on this article are thus:

  1. It has good concerns on the studies, but could have reviewed more studies; there is possibility of cherry-picking although no suspicion thereof in my opinion
  2. Their conclusions were that in some studies the difference observed was not controlled (could have been another factor, such as placebo), and in other studies the differences were not statistically significant.

I realize that from a statistician’s point of view, significant is everything (for legitimate reasons). However, from a dietetic and bodybuilder’s point of view, I merely like how an effect was noted, and I try to figure out why an effect was noted. Despite the structure, I must confess I was a bit biased against this article (maybe since I read the other article first to get a grounds in the pharmacology).

Pro-Rhodiola Study in Review:

The Pro-Rhodiola study aimed to do two things:

  1. Attack the other article and point out flaws, like that article did to others
  2. Establish Rhodiola Rosea’s efficacy, while partially admitting flaws

I say partially as the article just seems too Pro-Rhodiola, given how they are confronting an article that attempted to say it was worthless. I would suspect a bias from these researchers in particular, but I suspect this bias only screwed around with their wording and not their results. 147 citations is a lot more valid that 15, despite many being in vitro.

They also pointed out some possible explanations for the 14 studies the other researchers found fault in. The physician’s study I alluded to earlier has a very low dose of Rhodiola Rosea, and thus these researchers hypothesized that they may have just not been given enough of it.

A few studies also has suspicion that the extract (Rhodiola Rosea SHR-5) was not standardized properly. Remember that Rhodiola Rosea is the plant, but it is merely a bag of nutrients that exert the effects (Rosavin, Salidroside, Proanthocyanidins, Phenolic acids, etc.). Getting a well-grown plant with the proper chemical composition is critical.

Aside from that, this study had many, many in animal and in vitro studies on the mechanisms of Rhodiola Rosea, which is nice to read. However, this can not be directly used to counter the other review article. The mechanisms of action are well accepted (for what is known), but whether they make actual differences when eaten is what is of concern.

My conclusions on the two Review Studies

The pharmacological effects of Rhodiola Rosea are very enticing, as many seem to be able to induce and adapt to stressors (induce stress yet control it from becoming excessive and hurting the body, then await the body to respond beneficially). This may lend some notions as to why the body ‘adapts’ with adaptogens.

The ability of Rhodiola Rosea to exert it’s own anti-oxidant protective effects in addition to helping produce some of the body’s intrinsic antioxidant systems (primarily the H202 defense system via the stress response) is interesting, and Rhodiola Rosea‘s various protective effects on neurons and cardiac cells from stimulation-induced death via either substrates of Rhodiola Rosea (Salidroside) or via HSPs should be of interest to anybody who takes the idea of ‘excess’ to the extremes. This, I should say, applies to athletes and people with much higher metabolic rates / oxygen consumption.

The liver protective effects of Rhodiola Rosea seem interesting in regards to being able to alleviate Acetaminophen induced toxicity, but outside of that Rhodiola Rosea does not seem to be very unique in it’s ability to protect the liver. Milk Thistle still wins the liver protection contest.

Rhodiola Rosea‘s effects on glucose metabolism are incredibly interesting (increasing muscle uptake, decreasing adipocyte uptake by downregulating PPAR-γ expression), it doesn’t seem to be overly potent like some other glucose disposal agents such as chromium, Na-R-ALA, or water-soluble cinnamon extract; but it does help.

It’s effects on exercise and physical output with Rhodiola Rosea supplementation are, meh. Fair bit of science on it, and it does look promising; only problem here is that many of the studies performed contradict each other.

In regards to the salient effects of Rhodiola Rosea supplementation, the following reactions:

  • Increased Mood
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Increased perceived and demonstrated cognition

Seem to be fairly standard in the studies. Damn near everybody who supplemented with Rhodiola Rosea just feels better. The significant of these improvements differs greatly, with some people feeling kinda slightly maybe better  and others feeling capable of fighting bears blindfolded, but the increased are consistent.

My Conclusions on whether to supplement with Rhodiola Rosea

High Validity

There seems to be a lot of evidence for mood elevation and stress alleviation for Rhodiola Rosea. The degree of which it occurs differs from person to person, but it exists.

If you want to feel better and not get stressed as easily, Rhodiola Rosea in doses of 288-600mg of the SHR-5 extract (the one typically sold in stores) is a great decision.

Moderate Validity

The cell protection and life-extending properties (by this I mean regulation of cell apoptosis) are proven in vitro, but it is hard to prove that taking Rhodiola Rosea will make you live longer or live better. This requires long-term studies with a large population base that just do not exist at the time.

The glucose deposition in muscle cells also seems to be an effect which looks promising, but is not conclusive as of yet.

There is much sociological and anecdotal evidence since Rhodiola Rosea has been used for a long time as a folk medicine though, which lends some credence to it’s benefits and is the reason the health benefits are not in Low Validity.

If you want to supplement for longevity, cell protection or glucose deposition, Rhodiola Rosea may help, but there may be better options out there.

Low Validity

The claims that Rhodiola Rosea can increase physical output and capacity are not that backed up. My personal experience with them is that they really do help, but this is rivaling Broscience at the moment. More research is needed since the stuff at the time is all over the place (many good, many inconclusive).

If you want to supplement to increase exercise capacity, there are better options out there than Rhodiola Rosea.


Declarations of Conflict of Interests

I got this idea from the studies where they were forced to admit whether they had any vested interests or personal involvement in the success of their compounds. Its a really cool idea, so I think I’m going to use it from now on out. It will be helpful if I ever receive kickbacks or start selling things (Really, if you’re reading this, I’m not opposed to getting free stuff; I’d just have to disclose it if it matters in the future) By the way, I recently started to use the Fitness Training Programs from Elev8, make sure you check them out, so far they are the best I’ve tried.

I declare no conflicts of interest whatsoever and a slight pro-supplement bias.


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  1. phrakture says:

    You posted this because of my comment on the Supplementation post, didn’t you?

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