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Rhodiola rosea: A Phytomedicinal Overview

Rhodiola rosea: A Phytomedicinal Overview

by Richard P. Brown, M.D., Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D., and Zakir Ramazanov, Ph.D., D.S.

Rhodiola rosea L., also known as "golden root" or "roseroot" belongs to the plant family Crassulaceae.1 R. rosea grows primarily in dry sandy ground at high altitudes in the arctic areas of Europe and Asia.2 The plant reaches a height of 12 to 30 inches (70cm) and produces yellow blossoms. It is a perennial with a thick rhizome, fragrant when cut. The Greek physician, Dioscorides, first recorded medicinal applications of rodia riza in 77 C.E. in De Materia Medica.3 Linnaeus renamed it Rhodiola rosea, referring to the rose-like attar (fragrance) of the fresh cut rootstock.4

For centuries, R. rosea has been used in the traditional medicine of Russia, Scandinavia, and other countries. Between 1725 and 1960, various medicinal applications of R. rosea appeared in the scientific literature of Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, and Iceland.2,4-12 Since 1960, more than 180 pharmacological, phytochemical, and clinical studies have been published. Although R. rosea has been extensively studied as an adaptogen with various health-promoting effects, its properties remain largely unknown in the West. In part this may be due to the fact that the bulk of research has been published in Slavic and Scandinavian languages. This review provides an introduction to some of the traditional uses of R. rosea, its phytochemistry, scientific studies exploring its diverse physiological effects, and its current and future medical applications.

Rhodiola rosea in Traditional Medicine

Traditional folk medicine used R. rosea to increase physical endurance, work productivity, longevity, resistance to high altitude sickness, and to treat fatigue, depression, anemia, impotence, gastrointestinal ailments, infections, and nervous system disorders. In mountain villages of Siberia, a bouquet of roots is still given to couples prior to marriage to enhance fertility and assure the birth of healthy children.2 In Middle Asia, R. rosea tea was the most effective treatment for cold and flu during severe Asian winters. Mongolian doctors prescribed it for tuberculosis and cancer.13 For centuries, only family members knew where to harvest the wild "golden roots" and the methods of extraction.2 Siberians secretly transported the herb down ancient trails to the Caucasian Mountains where it was traded for Georgian wines, fruits, garlic, and honey. Chinese emperors sent expeditions to Siberia to bring back the "golden root" for medicinal preparations.

Linnaeus wrote of R. rosea as an astringent and for the treatment of hernia, leucorrhoea (vaginal discharge), hysteria, and headache.4,7 In 1755 R. rosea was included in the first Swedish Pharmacopoeia. Vikings used the herb to enhance their physical strength and endurance.14 German researchers described the benefits of R. rosea for pain, headache, scurvy, hemorrhoids, as a stimulant, and as an anti-inflammatory.15,16

In 1961, G.V. Krylov, a Russian botanist and taxonomist in the Department of Botany at the Novosibirsk Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, led an expedition to the cedar taiga in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia where he located and identified the "golden root" as Rhodiola rosea.17 Extracts of the R. rosea root were found to contain powerful adaptogens. Research revealed that it protected animals and humans from mental and physical stress, toxins, and cold.2,17 The quest for new medicines to treat diseases such as cancer and radiation sickness, and to enhance physical and mental performance, led to the discovery of a group of phenylpropanoids that are specific to R. rosea. (See Phytochemistry section below.)

Geographical Distribution and Taxonomy of Rhodiola rosea

While Rhodiola as a genus may have originated in the mountainous regions of Southwest China and the Himalayas,18 botanists have established that various species of the genus Rhodiola naturally display a circumpolar distribution in mountainous regions in the higher latitudes and elevations of the Northern Hemisphere. In Central and Northern Asia, the genus is distributed from the Altai Mountains across Mongolia into many parts of Siberia.19 According to Hegi, its distribution in Europe extends from Iceland and the British Isles across Scandinavia as far south as the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Carpathian Mountains and other mountainous Balkan regions. Several varieties of Rhodiola species have also been identified across Alaska, Canada, and the northern mountains of the continental United States.20 In fact, the world database of botanical literature shows many citations identifying a broad range of species of the genus Rhodiola, in some cases including R. rosea, in many diverse locations in northern latitudes (see Table 1).

The current taxonomical status of the genus Rhodiola has become quite complex. Before World War II, some taxonomists separated different species of Rhodiola into an independent genus, belonging to the subfamily Sedoidae.20 Then Rhodiola was reclassified as a subgenus of the larger genus Sedum, which contained about 10 species. In 1963 Hegi identified more than 50 species of Rhodiola and re-established them as a separate genus.20 Due to their morphological similarities, they form a distinct Rhodiola group.21 There are still differing opinions among specialists about which new species should or should not be included in the genus Rhodiola. The rationale and defining criteria for the boundaries of the genus remain somewhat controversial. This is not, in itself, necessarily counterproductive, since the acquisition of botanical knowledge inevitably stimulates new understanding and insight, creating the need for revised systems of classification. In the case of R. rosea, however, this taxonomic ambiguity may have unexpected and potentially negative consequences.

Popularizing a phytomedicinal plant like R. rosea can create confusion when the public is offered a variety of "Rhodiola" products using the general plant family name instead of the full botanical name of the particular species. For example, products called "Rhodiola spp., Tibetan Rhodiola or Indian Rhodiola" may incorrectly imply equivalence with R. rosea extract. Because of significant species-dependent variation in phytochemistry and pharmacology, the use of "Rhodiola" as a general term is inaccurate and misleading. The correct identification of all Rhodiola species according to precise and generally accepted botanical, phytochemical, and genetic taxonomic criteria is not merely an abstract intellectual exercise. It is critical for both scientific and phytopharmacological accuracy, as well as for product labeling for the public. Consumers may need professional guidance to avoid purchasing ineffective brands, particularly those that do not provide full information, including the complete botanical name of the plant species. Companies may change their suppliers over time. Therefore, consumers should periodically check independent sources of product evaluation, as well as requesting information about quality control and content from manufacturers.

The pharmacological and medicinal properties of Rhodiola are species-dependent phenomena.22 Of all the Rhodiola species, R. rosea has been the predominant subject of phytochemical, animal, and human studies.2,18,23,24 Table 2 compares the research record of R. rosea with all other species of the genus Rhodiola. Approximately 51 percent of all animal studies and 94 percent of all human studies conducted on plants in the genus Rhodiola are on the species R. rosea. Only R. rosea has passed extensive toxicological studies and has been certified safe for both animals and humans.25

Phytochemistry of Rhodiola rosea

The investigation of the phytochemistry of R. rosea root has revealed the presence of six distinct groups of chemical compounds:


  • Phenylpropanoids: rosavin, rosin, rosarin (specific to R. rosea;
  • Phenylethanol derivatives: salidroside (rhodioloside), tyrosol;
  • Flavanoids: rodiolin, rodionin, rodiosin, acetylrodalgin, tricin;
  • Monoterpernes: rosiridol, rosaridin;
  • Triterpenes: daucosterol, beta-sitosterol;
  • Phenolic acids: chlorogenic and hydroxycinnamic, gallic acids.

The standardization of R. rosea root extracts has gone through two distinct phases. Initially, in the 1970s, the compound responsible for its unique pharmacological properties was believed to be salidroside (rhodioloside).2,23,24,26,27 Therefore, the first generation of R. rosea tincture/extracts approved by the Russian Pharmacopoeia Committee was standardized to a minimum of 0.8 percent salidroside content.25

In the late 1980s, demand for R. rosea-based phytomedicines dramatically increased. The wild-crafted raw material was over-harvested, resulting in a steady decline in the quality and effectiveness of "Rhodiola" preparations. Scientific investigation revealed that other species of genus Rhodiola (which also contained salidroside) were being substituted for R. rosea. While some of these mixed batches were highly variable in quality, others had no pharmacological effect. Logically, the suspicion arose that the salidroside standard was inadequate. Based on comparative analysis, the obvious hypothesis was that the original high potency product contained other active compounds specific to R. rosea that had not yet been identified.

Specific compounds set Rhodiola rosea apart from other Rhodiola species

After more than a decade of research, Kurkin and colleagues presented evidence in 1986 that the chemical composition of R. rosea root is, in fact, different from the other species of genus Rhodiola.23 Using newly developed methods of analysis, Dubichev and colleagues demonstrated that R. rosea root contains three cinnamyl alcohol-vicianosides — rosavin, rosin, and rosarin — that are specific to this species.28,29 The term rosavins can be used to include rosavin, rosin, and rosarin (see chemical figures).

It became evident that salidroside is present in all chemically analyzed plants in the genus Rhodiola, and in a wide variety of species outside the genus.2,25-34 The term salidroside is derived from Salix, the genus name for the willows. Salidroside was first isolated in 1926 from Salix triandra L. (Salicaceae).33 Since then it has been detected in Vaccinium vitis-idaea L. (Ericaceae) and in Rhododendron35,36 (plants not belonging to the genus Rhodiola) in concentrations that can be higher than levels found in Rhodiola species, including R. rosea. Therefore, salidroside alone is not a useful marker compound for differentiating true R. rosea from other Rhodiola species; nor should it be used as the only marker compound for the standardization of R. rosea root extracts.

According to the revised 1989 Soviet Pharmacopeia,37 the extracts of R. rosea — primarily in the form of water/alcohol tinctures or dried root extract — are now standardized for both rosavins and salidroside. Although rosavins are now the accepted marker for genetically pure R. rosea (and its extracts), they are not necessarily the only pharmacologically active ingredients responsible for the efficacy observed in clinical studies. In fact, precise identification of the compounds responsible for the numerous health benefits of R. rosea remains to be confirmed.

R. rosea extracts used in most human clinical studies were standardized to minimum 3 percent rosavins and 0.8-1 percent salidroside because the naturally occurring ratio of these compounds in R. rosea root is approximately 3:1.

Rhodiola rosea in Modern Medicine

Since 1969, R. rosea has been included in official Russian medicine. The Pharmacological and Pharmacopoeia Committee of the Soviet Ministry of Health recommended medicinal use and industrial production of liquid R. rosea extract. In 1975, the Soviet Ministry of Health approved and registered preparation No. 75/933/14 as a medicine and tonic, allowing large-scale production under the name Rhodiola Extract Liquid, an alcohol-based extract (40 percent ethyl alcohol). Medical and pharmacological texts describe its use as a stimulant for asthenia (fatigue), for somatic and infectious illnesses, in psychiatric and neurological conditions, and in healthy individuals to relieve fatigue and to increase attention span, memory, and work productivity. The common dose is 5-10 drops 2-3 times a day, 15-30 minutes before eating for a period of 10-20 days. In psychiatric disorders with fatigue, a starting dose of 10 drops 2-3 times a day is gradually increased up to 30-40 drops for 1-2 months.

In Sweden, R. rosea was recognized as an Herbal Medicinal Product in 1985 and has been described as an antifatigue agent in the Textbook of Phytomedicine for Pharmacists.9 In the textbook of pharmacology for dispenser training in Sweden, R. rosea is mentioned as a plant with a stimulant action. Also, the Pharmaceutical Book (Lakemedelsboken 97/98) mentions R. rosea as one of the most commonly used psychostimulants in the group of officially registered herbal medicinal products.11 In Denmark, R. rosea is registered as a medical product in the category of botanical drugs. Registered preparations are extensively used in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries to increase mental work capacity during stress, as a psychostimulant, and as a general strengthener.

Pharmacological and Clinical Studies

The traditional use of R. rosea as a tonic in Siberian and Russian medicine stimulated extensive research leading to identification of R. rosea as an adaptogen — a substance that nonspecifically increases the resistance of an organism and does not disturb normal biological parameters. Studies in cell cultures, animals, and humans have revealed antifatigue, anti-stress, antihypoxic (protection against damaging effects of oxygen deprivation), anticancer, antioxidant, immune enhancing and sexual stimulating effects.2,18,24,38-40 Since the Russian and Bulgarian literature is so extensive, this discussion will highlight seminal studies and major reviews. The authors were fortunate to gain access to original reviews, articles, and doctoral theses. This overview relies heavily on monographs and peer-reviewed publications. The research data contained in these documents are helpful for understanding recent human studies in normal and pathological conditions.

Rhodiola in the Future

More scientific research is needed to confirm the preventive and curative benefits of R. rosea. Controlled studies are warranted to explore its use in antidepressant augmentation, disorders of memory and cognition, attention deficit disorder, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson's disease, protection against arrhythmias, sports performance, aviation and space medicine (enhancing physical and mental performance while reducing stress reactions), endocrine disorders (infertility, premenstrual disorder, menopause), sexual dysfunction, disorders of the stress response system (fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and post traumatic stress disorder), and enhancement of chemotherapy/radiation with amelioration of toxicity.

In the course of evolution, R. rosea has adapted to the harsh conditions of high altitude (extreme cold, low oxygen, little rainfall, and intense irradiation from the sun) by producing a group of powerful protective compounds that have diverse beneficial effects in animals and humans. One is struck by the versatility of R. rosea, from its description in Greek medicine, 2000 years ago to its use by 20th century cosmonauts. It is time for modern research, using controlled clinical trials, to develop the potential medical applications of this unique phyto-adaptogen.

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This article was published on Thursday April 14, 2011.
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