Revving Up with Rhodiola

This Siberian energy booster may also retard the aging process.

By Lisa James

March 2006

The end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union has led to a number of unintended consequences. One of the most beneficial: the spread of an herbal energy elixir called rhodiola from Siberia’s cold, high steppes to the West, where it has become a hot seller.

Studies involving rhodiola were stashed away in classified documents by the Soviet government until the political thaw of the early 1990s. Now this material has been translated and disseminated, so that researchers from around the world can extend our knowledge of this remarkable herb’s fatigue-, stress- and age-fighting properties.

Secret Weapon

During World War II and afterwards, the Soviets looked for herbal remedies that could help their soldiers excel under the duress of battle. They were especially interested in adaptogens, herbs that help the body cope with such challenges as temperature extremes and lack of sleep. Rhodiola, long valued by native herbalists, intrigued them, and with good reason: Military cadets who took it experienced an expanded capacity for mental work while fatigued, as did night-duty physicians at hospitals and students studying for exams.

“In extensive animal and human testing, Rhodiola rosea has proved to be a model adaptogen,” write Richard Brown, MD, and Barbara Graham in The Rhodiola Revolution (Rodale). “It not only enhances performance, it also aids survival against the most severe physical stressors...Perhaps most significantly, rhodiola could increase longevity by reducing the damage associated with age and illness.”

How does rhodiola fight aging and enhance well-being? Brown and Graham list several possibilities: It may boost cellular defenses, protect cell membranes against damage by errant molecules called free radicals, hinder excess fat storage and help insulin control blood sugar, and reduce inflammation, now seen as a key player in disease development.

Rhodiola’s ability to quell fatigue has led practitioners to recommend it for chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and related illnesses. Brown can vouch for the herb from personal experience; his wife, Pat, was able to overcome the pain, energy depletion, and memory and attention-span lapses of chronic Lyme disease with rhodiola’s help.

Shaking Off Stress

Stress, the kind that’s common in our complicated lives, also sets the aging clock to run faster than it should. Rhodiola helps slow that clock by improving the stress-response system, bringing the body into gentle balance.

Stress is just one trigger that can set off debilitating bouts of depression in susceptible people. Brown, a psychiatrist, notes that while there haven’t been a lot of studies done on rhodiola and mood disorders, many of the folks he sees in his practice find that this herb “seems to add spice to life—feelings of joy, pleasure and excitement.”

Those excited feelings also extend to the bedroom, where both stress and depression can cast a pall. Newlyweds at traditional Siberian weddings are presented with rhodiola bouquets, and little wonder: “Rhodiola can make all the difference because the herb improves both sexual function and mood,” coo Brown and Graham. “What’s more, it’s the only sex enhancer we know that revives both male and female libidos.”

Feeling tired, stressed, depressed and older than you are? Let rhodiola ride to the rescue.

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