Rhodiola The Natural Adaptogen To Help With Burnout

Rhodiola: The natural adaptogen to help with burnout

Rhodiola rosea goes by many names including rhodiola, golden root, rose root and Aaron’s rod. It has a long history of use as an adaptogen and may help in conditions such as “burnout syndrome”.

In traditional medicine rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) has many uses and was first described by Dioscorides in De Materia Medica in about 60 AD. In Russia, Scandinavia, Mongolia and China rhodiola has been used for centuries to cope with the bitterly cold climate and stressful lives. It was also used to increase physical endurance and resistance to high altitudes. Its main use was as a brain tonic but was also used to relieve anaemia, fatigue and depression as well as for infections, infertility, impotence and gastrointestinal disorders. While there is some debate about the effectiveness of rhodiola (largely due to lack of recent clinical research), there is a long history of its effective use in these countries.

Active ingredients

The roots are used medicinally and contain over 140 compounds including phenols (the essential oils rosavin, rosin, rosarin), organic acids, terpenoids, phenolic acids, flavonoids, anthraquinones, alkaloids and salidroside among others. The essential oil from rhodiola varies when grown in different countries, plants grown in Russia having the highest concentrations. The leaves and shoots are eaten raw (despite their bitter taste) or cooked like spinach. An extract of rhodiola is added as a flavouring to vodka.

Therapeutic uses

Adaptogens are a special class of metabolic regulators that enable organisms to resist adverse stressors of any kind, including physical, chemical or biological, by generating a non-specific resistance to these stressors. This allows the body to preadapt itself, becoming more capable of dealing with the demands placed upon it.

Adaptogens have been used to increase attention span and endurance during fatigue and to reduce or prevent stress-related impairment in the neuroendocrine and immune systems. An interesting study showed that rhodiola was the most potent adaptogen when compared to Siberian ginseng, Korean ginseng and schisandra.

Rhodiola has been shown to have neuroprotective properties and improves symptoms of depression, fatigue and cognitive dysfunction.

This can manifest in various ways, from improving physical performance and endurance in athletes, to increasing work capacity, to improvement in both acute and chronic stress management, to the increase in energy and cognitive abilities in people who are exhausted.

A trial on 60 patients with “burnout” syndrome showed considerable improvement in measures of weakness, poor concentration, lack of drive, difficulty sleeping, depressive moods and fatigue. Early morning cortisol tests also improved.

Rhodiola is the adaptogen of choice in patients at higher risk for cardiovascular disease as it moderates stress-induced damage in cardiovascular tissue, including stabilising arrythmias.

Central nervous system
In the central nervous system rhodiola has the ability to influence levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine in the cerebral cortex, brain stem and hypothalamus. Its adaptogenic activity may also regulate the activation of both central and peripheral opioid receptors.

Rhodiola has been shown to have neuroprotective properties and improves symptoms of depression, fatigue and cognitive dysfunction. Its potent neuroprotective effects reduce oxidative stress, neuroinflammation and excitotoxicity in brain tissues. As such it has potential for the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Clinical studies in humans have shown that rhodiola has an antidepressant action in adult humans, regulating the cell response to stress through a variety of mechanisms resulting in beneficial effects on mood.

Rhodiola is not only useful to relieve the symptoms of depression; it also may play a role in reducing anxiety. A small clinical trial was conducted on patients with GAD (generalised anxiety disorder) over 10 weeks and the results were promising, with participant scores showing measurable reductions in anxiety levels.

A single dose of rhodiola has been shown to significantly increase mental performance for four to six hours, being used successfully by students sitting for exams.

Immune system
Rhodiola has immunomodulatory activity by regulating various cytokines in both Th1 cells and Th2 cells, also reducing inflammation. It has also been shown to suppress tumour necrosis factor-α (TNF-α), a main inflammatory molecule associated with severe sepsis and cancer. The survival rate in septic rats measurably improved when given this herb.

An interesting study was conducted on 100 participants with severe chronic fatigue. Supplementing with rhodiola for eight weeks resulted in a variety of measures — physical fatigue, mental fatigue, reduced activity and prolonged exhaustion — showing marked improvement. Sleep quality, symptoms of stress and depression and impaired cognitive function also improved. Rhodiola had a measurable positive impact on the daily lives of the subjects.

The phenolic compounds in rhodiola have strong antioxidant properties, and animal studies have shown that rhodiola, given in combination with chemotherapy, decreases the toxicity of chemotherapy agents such as cyclophosphamide rubomycin and adriamycin, while enhancing their anticarcinogenic effects. The same researchers found that rhodiola suppressed tumour growth in mice with lung carcinoma and reduced metastases.


The dose of rhodiola needs to be considered. In neurological terms low to medium doses (100 to 600mg/day) are stimulating whereas high doses (more than 600mg/day) have more sedative effects, potentially providing a dual action of cognitive stimulation and emotional calming.

Cautions and contraindications

Rhodiola is generally considered non-toxic and is well tolerated. Safety studies have not been done in pregnancy but it is not known to be contraindicated. Rhodiola has no known adverse interactions.

Dr Karen Bridgman

Dr Karen Bridgman

Karen Bridgman is a holistic practitioner at Lotus Health and Lotus Dental in Neutral Bay.

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