When I was a kid I used to have huge amounts of stage fright. I still have acute memories of my epic fourth grade meltdown in music class when I had to sing a song in front of the everyone, couldn’t muster up the courage, and just broke down crying uncontrollably.
I was so inconsolable that the music teacher had to bring in the assistant principle just to calm me the f*** down. For the next 45 minutes tears flowed down my face like miniature waterfalls. It was a huge debacle. Maybe I wet myself in the midst of my hysteria, I don’t remember….but it was about that bad. Everyone else in class had a partner. For someone reason I didn’t and the idea of going up there in front of everyone by myself and flexing my vocal chords was ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING. I had no idea what to sing, so I think I settled on some crappy pop song that was playing on the radio at the time……..I think it was something by Ace of Base. (In fact, maybe in hindsight….my anxiety was justified. I cringe at the thought of my 10 year old self trying to sing “All That She Wants” in front 30 temperamental classmates. That sounds brutal).
Stress: It Does A Body No Good
The 10 year old me completely crumbled at the prospect of being in a difficult situation with no viable alternatives. My coping mechanisms were completely shot. It was either Ace of Base or Meltdown. I chose meltdown.
The 30 year old me however, now understands what was going on in my adolescent body that made me feel that way. My adrenal glands were pumping out cortisol and catecholamines were leeching out of it like a leaky bucket. My endorphins were shot. Tragedy ensued.
Which brings us to Rhodiola. It’s a plant russians grow to make themselves feel better. (Life probably does get you a little down in the tundra, after all).
The herbalistopathic name for weeds of its ilk is an adaptogen. This is a generic term for an herb that gives your body an increased ability to withstand the impacts of physiological stress. They do this in a variety of ways:
- Reducing the impacts of cortisol, aka “The Stress Hormone”. Cortisol has a well-deserved reputation as a chemical that causes funny things to happen in your body if it runs amok. Inflammation, tummy fat, turkey neck, sagging jowls, anxiety, jell-o arms, limp dick, acting like a little b**** when you don’t have to….the list goes on and on. In the appropriate moments it has its place, but you don’t want your adrenal gland acting like the hoover dam, letting it gush out without inhibition ’round the clock.
- Increased production of catecholamines. Aka, dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine. These are very important for controlling your energy levels and perceived level of effort. They also affect your mood. Your body’s usually producing a lot of them after you exercise which is why working out feels gratifying. Happy and calm people typically have stable levels of catecholamines in the “half full” range. Depressed and manic people usually don’t.
- A mild opiate-like effect. Exciting, huh? Rhodiola might just give you a lil’ bit of the scratch you get from shooting heroin or snorting crack, but without the nasty side-effects. Of course this is because the effect is an order of magnitude lower than what you’d get with those drugs, but rhodiola does fire up your beta-endorphins, which is the primary opioid peptide responsible for euphoria that comes with illicit substances.
All Gain, No Pain
A unique property of adaptogens is that they normalize your adaptation to stress, as opposed to just jacking up your body indiscriminately in one direction or another. This makes them unique among supplements because many of them exert their effect by causing a certain part of your body to “throw up” some extra chemical that you eventually have to compensate for. When you’re done with your metabolic burp, the party’s over and somebody has to refill the punch bowl. That’s when you get the tummy ache.
This unique, system-wide, controlled effect makes Rhodiola a useful remedy for a variety of ends. Rhodiola has purported benefits for your heart (by causing your BP and pulse rate to ease up a bit) and inhibition of tumor growth (doesn’t everything cause or start cancer at some point?), but we’re going to focus the rest of the article on its two most verified benefits: mental health and physical performance.
Big, Bold, Resilient
Physiological stress happens to you in a variety of ways. Intense exercise, being out in the cold, exposure to a toxin, singing Ace of Base in public, realizing that you forgot to pickup your wife’s dry cleaning…….they all put your system in a bind. However, while the external circumstances that can increase the stress response are practically endless, some of the underlying pathways that kick in when it happens have a lot in common.
Chief among them is the release of cortisol, but your body also has an avalanche of proteins, signaling molecules, and endocrine hormones that activate when you’re put under the bright lights.
The other peeps at the party are: hsp70 (a gazillion year old protein that regulates how you respond to toxins), protein-kinase JNK (stress hormones that react to inflammation) and daf-16 (protein that modifies insulin receptors and extends lifespan). All seem to become more resilient when put under adaptogenic influence.
The end result is that dosing with Rhodiola has a broad range of beneficial performance benefits that are so diverse it almost seems silly: altitude sickness, vertigo, endurance exercise, ability to withstand extreme temperatures and resistance to poison all seem to improve with about 200-800 mg of rhodiola.
Calm, Cool, Collected
Stress happens to the brain just as easily as it happens to your muscles. Your noggin is a vacuum for energy and nutrients and having an inflamed brain is like trying to drink a milkshake through a cocktail straw. The beast gets starved, which can make normal men go crazy.
Because of its ability to normalize monoamine levels, rhodiola has a beneficial effect on a variety of mood conditions. The most studied is depression, and this meta-analysis does a nice job of summarizing the big picture. The basic jist is that about 200-400 mg of Rhodiola seems to be enough to help people with mild mood impairment experience a noticeable benefit without significant side effects.
Since rhodiola doesn’t brazenly shoot your hormone levels into the stratosphere at high doses it’s pretty easy to get a clinically effective dose without nasty side effects. The effective dose seems to range somewhere between 170-600 mg, whereas unwanted side effects seem to take place at around 3g. Unless you’re baking it into your brownies or using it as soup base you should be safe.
You should also be sure to use the genus of Rhodiola called rosea, but in my experience almost all Rhodiola products use this so I don’t think it’s an issue.
Rhodiola’s chief biologically active molecule is named salidroside and it’s generally recommended that you shoot for about 3.6 to 7.2 mg per serving. Most extracts of Rhodiola will be standardized to 1-3% salidroside, so adjust your dose accordingly.
Rhodiola’s a complex substance, and has a word salad of about 12 other compounds within it that contribute to its biological activity: p-tyrosol, rhodioloside, rhodiolin, rosin, rosarin, and rosiridin, among others. (Do you get confused reading that? Me too). It’s generally recommended that your Rhodiola extract to be standardized to contain about 3-6% of this stuff by weight.
Will you? Let me know if you find out.
Kosanovic, D. et. al. “Rhodiola: an ordinary plant or a promising future therapy for pulmonary hypertension? a brief review” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4070792/
Hung, SK, et. al. “The effectiveness and efficacy of Rhodiola rosea L.: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21036578
Darbinyan, V. et. al. “Rhodiola rosea in stress induced fatigue – A double blind cross-over study of a standardized extract SHR-5 with a repeated low-dose regimen on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty.” http://www.curador.net/index_fr/rosea/Darbinyan.pdf
Kelly, Gregory. “Rhodiola: A Possible Plant Adaptogen” http://www.brainlife.org/fulltext/2001/kelly_gs010600.pdf
Noreen, EE, et. al. “The effects of an acute dose of Rhodiola rosea on endurance exercise performance.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23443221
Panossian, A, et. al. “Rosenroot (Rhodiola rosea): traditional use, chemical composition, pharmacology and clinical efficacy.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20378318
Olsson, EM, et. al. “A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardised extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19016404