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Crazy busy lifestyles and the ubiquitous race to achieve work-family balance means stress is pretty much a given for most of us these days. Managing stress well is definitely no small task but if left alone to fester, ongoing stress can have a huge impact on health, affecting energy levels, mental clarity, and physical stamina, not to mention sex drive, sex hormones, mood and much more. And if that’s not enough, stress can also help bring about more serious consequences such as major diseases, in the long term.  
 
There’s no question that lifestyle choices such as getting adequate exercise and practicing regular meditation are essential pieces of the stress management puzzle; adding adaptogen supplements such as Rhodiola rosea also offer an array of benefits in banishing the unwanted effects of stress. So what is an adaptogen? Well,  an adaptogen is a herb that supports the body in adapting to and dealing with stress naturally. With plenty of good research to back it up, Rhodiola rosea is just what’s needed for those of us living stressful lives to step up our game and banish the unwanted health effects of stress.

Acute Stress Versus Chronic Stress

Though the term is thrown around a lot, most are not fully aware of the complex effects of short and longterm stress on the biochemistry of the body.  Since hunter-gatherer days, the human body used a mechanism called “flight or fight” to respond to a stressor (such as an imminent attack by a wild animal or a perceived harmful attack from human equivalents 😀 ).  In other words, “flight or fight” is a response that prepares our body to stay and fight or run away. This response leads to physiological changes in our bodies such as increased blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar (associated with over-reaction of the sympathetic nervous system) and a consequent burst of key stress hormones (namely cortisol and epinephrine) to kick us into gear to fight the stressor. After the threat is gone, the parasympathetic nervous system brings these hormones back down to normal levels again –  that is, until the next threat arrives.
 
This system is pretty amazing for dealing with acute stress. However, for those experiencing more frequent stress, such as encroaching deadlines, sitting through traffic, or bills that are due (that is, perceived or psychological stress or anxiety), over-engagement of the flight or fight mechanism can lead to a range of problems. The problems arise because the flight or fight response eventually depletes hormones in the body such as cortisol, which causes adrenal fatigue (also known as HPA axis dysfunction). In addition, its also depletes  “feel good” hormones such as DHEA, other down-stream sex hormones and even neurotransmitters. What’s more, the physiological and psychological consequences of acute and chronic stress on the body can stick around well past the stressful event; and lead to issues with managing blood sugar, combating inflammation and decreasing immune function.

Adapting to Life’s Challenges and Managing Ongoing Stress

It’s easy to see why ongoing stress should not be ignored; one of the best ways to help our bodies buffer the effects of stress is with herbs like Rhodiola. The idea of adaptogens or plants that help the body resist stressors of all kinds, was first born during World War II with the search for a pill that could help improve mental and physical performance in healthy people.¹ Later, in the fifties and sixties, the idea of using herbal medicinal plants to increase stamina and survival in harmful environment was  developed. The concept of adaptogens, coined by a toxicologist who sought to describe compounds which could increase “the state of non-specific resistance” in stress, was born.  
 
Among the herbal adaptogens, one of the most powerful ones in use today is Rhodiola, an herb native to the high altitude regions of Asia, Europe and the Northern Hemisphere. Rhodiola helps relieve stress by balancing the body’s stress-response system (remember our “flight or fight response”). During ongoing stress, the system becomes unbalanced, and Rhodiola rosea actually helps re-establish balance by strengthening the body’s response to physical, mental, and emotional stressors. It protects the nervous system by boosting important neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, in different parts of the brain.   
 
As a result, the adrenals can much better manage increasing cortisol levels caused by stress, preventing fatigue, exhaustion and dampened immunity, and helping us feel less edgy, tired, and anxious. Rhodiola also contains a range of antioxidants and flavonoids, which add to its stress-blasting capability. Since chronic stress causes oxidative damage by promoting the generation of free radicals, Rhodiola’s antioxidant power offers additional protection from the damaging effects of long-term stress.²

Energy, Focus and Mental Balance

Quite a few well-done studies have explored the effects of Rhodiola rosea on mental stress. This type of stress can affect us in many ways, manifesting as headaches, fatigue, pain and more. One key study investigated the stimulating and normalizing effect of Rhodiola rosea extract in students during a stressful exam period. The study, a 20-day, double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial, found Rhodiola led to a significant improvement in physical fitness, mental fatigue and neuro-motor agility.³  
 
Similar effects were also found in a 6-week study of 56 physicians working night shifts; those who took repeated low-dose Rhodiola rosea experienced a statistically significant improvement in energy levels without side-effects, suggesting Rhodiola helps support energy levels under stress.
 
Finally, in a third randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study that looked at efficacy of the Rhodiola rosea extract in men and women suffering from stress-related fatigue, significant improvements were observed for both groups, highlighting an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental performance, particularly in concentration, and an ability to decrease the cortisol response to the stress caused by awakening in those with burnout and fatigue.

Physical Energy and Endurance

In addition to fueling the brain, Rhodiola rosea has also been shown to improve physical endurance, even after taking it once. In a study of 18 subjects given a one-time dose of the herb, improvements were found in their physical performance, and levels of exertion.6 Positive results were found in another study of 24 participants in the length of time to exhaustion during exercise.7 Participants were able to exercise for a longer time before getting exhausted. This shows that Rhodiola Rosea can improve physical energy and endurance.

Bolstering Mood, Naturally

Considering its effects on neurotransmitters, it comes as no surprise that Rhodiola has also been found to be quite helpful in supporting a balanced and healthy mood. In a gold standard clinical trial of 57 subjects randomized to twelve weeks of either Rhodiola rosea extract, an anti-depressant drug, or a placebo, Rhodiola produced less antidepressant effect compared to the anti-depressant, but resulted in significantly fewer adverse events and was better tolerated, prompting researchers to suggest it may be a preferable option for people with mild to moderate depression.8 An additional review of literature published in 2016 also concluded that Rhodiola rosea acts on multiple body targets to regulate our body’s response to stress, and affects part of the hormonal, neurotransmitter receptor and molecular networks associated with a bolstered mood.9

Take Home Message

The diverse array of stress that comes along with a busy lifestyle is not going anywhere, but  supplementing Rhodiola is a great way to support your body and mind while navigating super-packed days. Given its wide array of evidence-based benefits for balancing the effects of physical and mental stress, as well as mood and energy levels, Rhodiola rosea is a one-stop shop addition to your arsenal for achieving better life balance.
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Sources

1. Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010;3(1):188-224.

2. Rhodiola rosea. Monograph. Alternative medicine review : a journal of clinical therapeutic. 2002;7(5):421-423.

3. Spasov AA, Wikman GK, Mandrikov VB, Mironova IA, Neumoin VV. A double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of the stimulating and adaptogenic effect of Rhodiola rosea SHR-5 extract on the fatigue of students caused by stress during an examination period with a repeated low-dose regimen. Phytomedicine : international journal of phytotherapy and phytopharmacology. 2000;7(2):85-89.

4. Darbinyan V, Kteyan A, Panossian A, Gabrielian E, Wikman G, Wagner H. Rhodiola rosea in stress induced fatigue–a double blind cross-over study of a standardized extract SHR-5 with a repeated low-dose regimen on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty. Phytomedicine : international journal of phytotherapy and phytopharmacology. 2000;7(5):365-371.

5. Olsson EM, von Scheele B, Panossian AG. A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardised extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue. Planta medica. 2009;75(2):105-112.

6. Noreen EE, Buckley JG, Lewis SL, Brandauer J, Stuempfle KJ. The effects of an acute dose of Rhodiola rosea on endurance exercise performance. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2013;27(3):839-847.

7. De Bock K, Eijnde BO, Ramaekers M, Hespel P. Acute Rhodiola rosea intake can improve endurance exercise performance. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism. 2004;14(3):298-307.

8. Mao JJ, Xie SX, Zee J, et al. Rhodiola rosea versus sertraline for major depressive disorder: A randomized placebo-controlled trial. Phytomedicine : international journal of phytotherapy and phytopharmacology. 2015;22(3):394-399.

9. Amsterdam JD, Panossian AG. Rhodiola rosea L. as a putative botanical antidepressant. Phytomedicine : international journal of phytotherapy and phytopharmacology. 2016;23(7):770-783.

 

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