Adaptogens in Focus: Rhodiola

May 18, 2012
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On nearly every continent, there are plants that contain particular substances and chemicals capable of altering the human physiological and emotional reaction to stress. Known for thousands of years and utilized by cultures around the globe, these healing herbs and fungi—what we now call adaptogens—convey a resistance to chemical, physical and psycho-emotional stressors when consumed, providing resiliency to both our minds and bodies by balancing neurotransmitters, increasing cellular energy production, and supporting neuro-endocrine functions.

As most health practitioners will attest, stress and the resulting physical effects of stress are at the core of many health conditions; our societies are just moving and working at a pace that our bodies and minds struggle to keep up with, and it’s taking a huge toll on our health. Because of this, I feel these herbs are an invaluable addition to a healing protocol or supplement regimen, and are needed like never before.

In this series on adaptogens, I’ll be exploring some of the most potent and effective of these adaptogens, outlining their incredible history, physiological and psycho-emotional effects, and appropriate usage guidelines.

So let’s jump right in and start at the top with my absolute favorite, rhodiola.

Siberian strength

Rhodiola rosea (also called Arctic or Golden Root) is an adaptogen that hails from the highlands of Siberia and northern Europe. A staple healer for centuries in the Russian and Arctic cultures, rhodiola has been classically used to increase physical resistance to the cold and stress of such an inhospitable climate. This effect has been consistently proven in laboratory studies, along with seemingly countless other beneficial effects.

Rhodiola has a profound effect on neurotransmitter balance. In laboratory studies, it has been found to increase the sensitivity of neurons to the presence of dopamine and serotonin, two prominent neurotransmitters involved in motivation, focus, enjoyment and mood. Because of this, rhodiola has been used as a successful alternative to antidepressants in Europe, and may offer benefit to those suffering from attention issues or memory loss.

To prevent fatigue, especially at high altitudes, rhodiola is second-to-none. The herb appears to increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of our red blood cells, and has been used by Olympic athletes and Russian cosmonauts for endurance and strength. This effect is also due to the ability of rhodiola to reduce cortisol in our blood, a hormone released in times of stress, and one responsible for various detrimental effects when chronically present.

One of those detrimental effects, as you may know, is stress-related weight gain. Our bodies preferentially store excess weight around the midsection during times of excess and perpetual stress, anticipating that we may be in some kind of physical danger and so must protect the internal organs. By reducing cortisol, rhodiola may help to calm the body and reduce this effect, while at the same time turning on an enzyme, hormone-sensitive lipase, which stimulates the body to break down and utilize the fat stored in abdominal cells. And as extra weight support for those of us who are challenged by stress-related eating behaviors, rhodiola can also help to adjust satiation through increasing dopamine sensitivity, reducing carbohydrate cravings and potentially increasing the pleasure response we get from eating.

This is just a tiny sampling of this plant’s incredible potential benefits, and I encourage you to research and read more on it if you’re interested. Personally, I have been taking rhodiola on and off for about six years, and have never found an herbal supplement to be more powerful or multifaceted in its healing abilities.

Note: Look for a rhodiola supplement that is guaranteed Siberian-grown, as other plants grown in more temperate regions of the world don’t develop the same stress-balancing compounds. New Chapter’s Rhodiola Force is a personal favorite.

Ideal dose has been set at between 100-600 mg per day, depending on your physiology and the effects you’re looking for, taken once a day in the morning. Side effects are minimal to none, though those with high blood pressure conditions are advised to avoid rhodiola. Speak with a Pharmaca practitioner to learn more about appropriate dosage levels.

Ciel is a certified Wellness Coach and Holistic Health Practitioner in Berkeley, Calif., and works at the Rockridge Pharmaca in Oakland. She employs her background in herbs, nutrition, psychoneuroimmunology and Shamanic practices (and a few hundred other modalities) to guide people to a greater understanding of their life processes, leading to vibrant health and much more laughter.

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