Rhodiola rosea

rhodiola-roseaThe marketing hype surrounding Rhodiola rosea would suggest that anyone taking it would be cured of almost any ailment and have renewed vitality. It might have some benefits, as yet unproven, because of the presence of natural products known as rosavins, which may or may not be physiologically active. But, the idea that it could allow you to live long and prosper? Well, there are no peer-reviewed scientific research papers to support such claims, as far as I know and there are never likely to be. There are no panaceas, no elixirs of youth. Get over it people.

R rosea (aka golden root, roseroot, hóng jǐng tiān in TCM) is a member of the Crassulaceae family and grows across the Arctic, the mountains of Central Asia, the Rockies, the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Carpathian Mountains, Scandinavia, Iceland, Great Britain and Ireland.

The Wikipedia entry for R rosea says it may be effective for improving mood and alleviating depression and early stage studies on people have shown some efficacy in improving physical and mental performance, alleviating fatigue, and reducing high-altitude sickness. Someone achieving their healthcare management MBA would find these studies very helpful. A possible mode of action involves what the entry describes as, “optimizing serotonin and dopamine levels”. This apparently happens by inhibition of the enzyme monoamine oxidase, which supposedly ties in with an effect on endorphins, the body’s natural opiates.

A press release that I received could be used as a source in a final project of a student studying their masters in health administration. It was about R rosea and highlights a previously published article that claims that, “the roots appear to aid the brain by alertness and energy, without any trace of stimulants such as caffeine.” Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? If the root stimulates the brain, then surely by definition it is a stimulant?

I asked the author of the press release, Linda Todten of publicity company TMC Communications, to explain exactly what the description was intended to convey, this is what she had to say:

As you know, the trend is for “energy drinks” that combine large amounts of caffeine, or caffeine containing plants such as Guarana, along with high amounts of carbs for a big “energy boost.” The studies that the Swedes and Russians have done over the years have shown how this category of plant, the Adaptogen, can actually bring the body back to its full energy level without being over stimulated as happens with caffeine. Plus, the extract SHR-5 has been shown to have a very solid mental acuity boost via double-blind, placebo controlled studies in students or night shift physicians and others.

But, any product with a physiological effect cannot work without some side-effects; no herbal extract could be that specific at the molecular level.

Indeed, the plant root contains a variety of chemical natural products including rosavin, rosarin, rosin and salidroside (and sometimes p-tyrosol, rhodioniside, rhodiolin and rosiridin), which are all described as active ingredients of R rosea. These compounds are polyphenols, they may have some antioxidant activity but good evidence for positive health effects in people remains elusive, indeed that is the case for most antioxidant supplements.

R rosea products are marketed in the USA and elsewhere. Todten had this suggestion: “Think about the fact that this one product (Arctic Root brand) has sold over 400 million doses. Not many dietary supplements can claim that. That says, to me, that people must like the way it works to reduce stress or energize,” she told me. “People are not sheep, and they wouldn’t make a product a best seller in Europe over ten years with hundreds of millions taken if it didn’t do something that they liked!”

Well, couldn’t that simply be the power of marketing? What we need are references in the medical literature that provide results from large-scale, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials of R rosea. I don’t think there are any such studies published in the peer-reviewed journals yet.

Fundamentally, there is no difference between a “natural” chemical and a “synthetic” one and equally no difference between the active component in a herbal remedy and that present in a pharmaceutical product. Indeed, some 40% of prescription drugs are based on natural products or derivatives of the active components of herbal medicines.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that just because there is some equivalence that all herbal medicines are active. Many are stufff and nonsense and the claims of some marketers for any given product, whether ginseng, hoodia, St John’s Wort, R rosea etc are often entirely sales hype. Moreover, a herbal remedy may contain a range of other components that are not beneficial and may even be detrimental, such as heavy metal contaminants or toxins.

One website describes R rosea thus: “Extracts of the roots have a reputation for stimulating the nervous system, relieving depression, enhancing work performance, improving cognition and memory function, eliminating fatigue and preventing high altitude sickness. The extract has been classified as an adaptogen. In simple terms, an adaptogen helps produce adjustments in the body to resist stress (e.g. chemical, biological, and physical). In addition, Rhodiola rosea also contains a range of antioxidant compounds.”

It’s that phrase “have a reputation for” that is most intriguing. Lots of things have a reputation but reputations are not scientific proof, nor are anecdotes from the countless people who email me or comment on this post claiming to have some insight into R rosea. As I understand it the word “adaptogen” is nothing more than modern pseudoscientific rebranding of the word “restorative” or “tonic”.

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116 thoughts on “Rhodiola rosea

  1. @Anne Why would I want to try it? I’m writing about it from the perspective of a science journalist, not as a putative consumer. Yes, you have the choice regarding this and other products. I am merely highlighting the fact that there is no evidence. I would not take anything or give anything to my kids that was based purely on anecdote there are too many confounding factors and potential for adverse reactions (way more than with conventional pharma, despite the tabloid scare stories).

    I love the way you put scientific consensus in quote marks, as if the knowledge and evidence of years of peer-reviewed work can be shrugged off on the basis of a single anecdote and marketing.

    Anyway, this is an old post. I no longer have time to argue these points and have closed comments. Thanks for your interest.

  2. I take your point on your trying Rhodiola Rosea being non-scientific. And you could try it and, I suppose, have a placebo effect even if you expected it not to work.

    On the other hand, some effects are so dramatic that I can’t deny their efficacy. One example of such is given by my daughter, who has a form of ADD where much of her brain is overactive. As a result, if unmedicated, she feels absolutely driven to ‘do’, that is she is constantly thinking about what she wants to do next, pretty unaware of what is going on around her, and almost constantly frustrated and angry about the things she envisions doing but is not able to make happen. Through Amen Clinics we found out that GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid – the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain) helps this kind of condition. But the “scientific” consensus is that it can’t help because it does not cross the blood brain barrier. I have been told by doctors that it can’t be doing anything because of this. But with GABA she calms down and relaxes, laughs at things that would have made her angry, turns into a pretty normal happy kid. Take her off of it for 48 hours and she goes back to the way she used to be.

    The point is that if you put herbals in order from least obviously acting to most obviously acting (with GABA in my daughter being towards the ‘most obviously’ end), there is no bright line anywhere along this continuum where you can says, “OK, below this point we want to have scientific proof, and above this point the evidence is so dramatic that we can accept anecdotal evidence and be pretty sure that it works”. It is not necessary to scientifically proof absolutely every assertion before you accept it. If I required, or was required, to meet this standard, my daughter’s and my family’s lives would be much more difficult and much less happy. But each person has to draw this line for themselves. You just draw your line further up towards the obviously effective than I do. Every person draws that line in a different place depending on their need and experience, and that is OK. I see, and hope you see, a really good role for you in this area is helping people make an informed decision about where they draw their line between what they accept as believable and what they want harder proof for.

    My own perspective on looking for help for my spouse/partner for her CFIDS was that I immediately discounted anything where the messenger said something like “and for the ultimate cure buy our super deluxe energy rejuvenator”.

    On Complex and emergent systems, I must apologize for my non-sequitur. I wasn’t bringing the subject up as relevant to this particular thread, but was just wondering if perhaps you had another thread going somewhere that discussed these areas

  3. @Anne The point I was trying to make is that you seemed to be suggesting that I couldn’t discuss the science (or lack thereof) behind a product because I hadn’t tried it myself. That suggests a rather skewed perception of how science gathers evidence. I have no reason nor inclination to take this stuff and am simply commenting (as a science blogger with a chemistry background) on the hype surrounding it. I have written about the hype used to market other such products. If research offers up data in a proper clinical trial setting that shows it to have efficacy for specific problems.

    I don’t see the relevance of discussions on complexity or emergent systems. The marketing claims for a herbal extract have nothing to do with emergent systems, although I am sure marketeers would love to be able to attach such labels if it helped them sell more snake oil.

  4. Frankly David, I have no idea how many herbal remedies you have under discussion – this is the only one I have looked at. So I was primarily referring to this herbal remedy – I can’t speak to the others. I would not necessarily have assumed that you were primarily, or even frequently given to covering herbals, given the name of your blog, but hey, if you are you are.

    Does make me wonder though – are you having any discussions on complexity and emergent systems? A favorite subject of mine, although I was having trouble finding books on it until I realized that they are mostly in the computer section at the bookstores. One of my favorites is Out of Control by Kevin Kelly, but it was published in 1994, but I haven’t found anything more recent that is similar in approach.

    But back to the original subject, given the history of this particular herbal it is hard to imagine (assuming you aren’t highly allergic) that it could do you any harm taken for a short time. Of course you are in the position of having to decide which of however many herbal remedies you might try, if you were to start down this road, so I can to some extent understand your reluctance. My own experience with it was that it noticeably lifted my mood and increased my energy, and my partner has the same experience.

  5. @Anne So…you think I ought to “try” all the herbal remedies that I mention on my blog regardless of whether or not I have the ailments they’re alleged to treat? Bizarre.

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