Rhodiola

by Danielle Charles

This is the time of year that I start resembling an insane person. I’m not kidding.  I walk into a room and forget where I was going and what I was doing – people looking at my questioningly as I stand there scratching my head. Or, worse,  I end up walking in circles, starting and stopping like a malfunctioning robot (should I do this? No, that needs doing. Waite, what about that other thing?)

I’ve also been caught mumbling to myself on several instances.  I exclaim things I’m thinking  out loud as though people have  somehow been following the thought dialogue in my head  ( yes I should put paprika in the potatoes, shouldn’t I!).  And I have developed a terrible habit of not listening to what anybody is saying to me, because I’m so caught up in my personal world of worry  (like last night, when I looked up at my husband and realized he was waiting for me to reply to something he had just said, but I hadn’t the faintest idea what he’d been talking about – poor man!).

In addition to feeling like a circus is being conducted in my head at all times, I also paradoxically feel exhausted, which is hard to describe. It’s as though you feel incredibly motivated to go somewhere, but then you find your legs are stuck in quicksand, or you can’t quite remember where it is you’re supposed to go. I think there is a phrase for this…let’s see….oh yes! Wired and tired. Fair to say, I am wired and tired.

Fortunately, there is a little voice of sanity that snaps on at some point – a warning light alerting the pilot to imminent danger – and I remember to start taking care of myself  just in time to avert me  from plowing my body right into the ground. Amongst other things, like taking deep breaths, going for long walks and eating vegetables, the voice reminds me to take my rhodiola.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is a small succulent plant in the Sedum family. It grows in Northern arctic regions including Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia, as well as the Alps, Pyrenees and Carpathian mountain chains in Europe. If ever there was a plant made for helping us withstand stress, this was it.  It prefers (yes prefers) growing in areas of high elevation, where the radiation from the sun is strong, the oxygen quality is low, and the soil sandy, dry and rocky. That is pretty hard-core for a tender little plant of 10 cm.

As you might expect, rhodiola is just brimming with antioxidant plant compounds to help it withstand all that solar radiation, and it is extremely radioprotective/ antioxidant when used as a medicine.  I always carry it with me when I fly or expose myself to sun at higher elevations for protection from the radiation, where it’s immune stimulating properties also come in handy.  And, as the plant thrives in areas of very low oxygen, it can be used to help us do the same, being a great remedy for hypoxia (lack of oxygen) associated with elevation changes.

Because rhodiola is such a great antioxidant, it is, of course,  neuroprotective and cardioprotective as well, helping to protect our nerves and blood vessels from the damaging effects of stress (ie free radicals) from daily life.

But my main reason for using rhodiola, and the thing I find most remarkable about it, is what it does to the central nervous system – where it acts as an antidepressantstimulant and an anxiolytic. When people under stressful situations are given rhiodiola, they report feeling less mental and physical fatigue; perform better on cognitive tasks;  exhibit improved physical endurance;  and report greater feelings of well-being (all demonstrated in double-blind, randomized placebo controlled trials – the gold standard for clinical research). Unlike other adaptogenic (stress buffering) plants, rhodiola does all of this after just one dose, rather than the 2-3 weeks required by most plants with these effects.

Based on research done so far, there a few theories in place about just how Rhodiola works. The main theory explains rhodiola’s actions by its impact on a part of the brain called The Reticular Activating System, which is involved in arousal and wakefulness.  Studies show that rhodiola increases the concentrations of all three neurotransmitters (dopamine, seratonin and norepinephrine) used in nerve transmission for this area of the brain. Other research shows that rhodiola impacts opioid receptors and enhances the release of endorphins involved in reducing the perception of pain and fatigue and enhancing mood (the same that are releases when exercising). It has also been found to enhance ATP and creatine phosphate (sources of usable energy) in brain and muscle tissue – which may also contribute to its anti-fatiguing effects. If that isn’t enough, it also seems to modulate the effects of the sympathetic nervous system (involved in the fight or flight stress response), protecting the body from the impact of stress.

But however it works, it really does work, and it works quickly. That’s what I love about it. This time of year, when stress and holiday chaos are upon us, it’s just so lovely to have something other than caffeine or chocolate to give you a little burst and get you through the day. It’s like having a little bit of Zen in a bottle.

I find that rhodiola is most beneficial to these constitutional types:

  • people who become very depressed and sluggish with the cold weather, who can’t think at all and have no energy, and who exhibit accumulations of damp and cold (the kapha in Ayurvedic medicine), or
  • people who become extremely unfocused and frazzled under stress (ADD types), who fluctuate between anxiety with restlessness and bouts of fatigue with some depression, and who tend to burn the candle at both ends when they do have energy (the vata constitution in Ayurveda). These people exhibit accumulations of wind and cold.

Because rhodiola is warm and dry, it is perfect for a person of the first description as is. For a more windy and dry vata constitution, however, it needs to be combined with a moist and nutritive herb such as oats (a nervous system tonic) or licorice (an endocrine tonic).

The dosage is typically 1/2 teaspoon of an alcohol extract morning and noon, avoiding usage in the afternoon and evening as it is somewhat stimulating. As I’ve said above, this is great to bring along when you’re traveling for the holidays – not only protecting you from the radiation and reducing your stress, but enhancing your immunity as well. Just perfect.

As a note, I especially like combining it with kava for acute stress. This may sound odd, as though they would cancel each other out – but they seem to actually combine quite nicely. The kava calms and quiets the nervous system, while the rhodiola focuses the mind and enhances mental performance. For someone like me, who tends to shut down when stressed and find my tongue tied in a knot, it’s just perfect. Gets me through all those holiday parties like a breeze.

Start taking some rhodiola and stay tuned for my next post, part of the blog party hosted by Brigitte over at My Herb Corner on coping with holiday stress, where rhodiola is sure to feature again.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to start running in circles again…