When the cold war officially ended about a couple of decades ago, the Western world started to learn many of the secrets that the Russians were keeping from us. Government policies, weapons information and space exploration aside, I think that one of the most significant “discoveries” was that of a plant known as Rhodiola Rosea.
Rhodiola Rosea, also recognized as arctic root or golden root, is an adaptogen, having a nonspecific way of increasing the body’s natural resistance to physical and emotional stress, fatigue, depression, and illness. More powerful than Siberian ginseng, it grows wild at high altitudes in the arctic regions of Siberia. Siberians using rhodiola root tea were said to commonly live to over 100 years of age. In fact, it was secretly trafficked across the Russian border to China and used by ancient Chinese emperors seeking longevity and immortality.
It is interesting to note that the Russian government was all too willing to share information about Siberian Ginseng with the rest of the world, of which there is significant scientific study. But, protected from observation behind the iron curtain, they were studying Rhodiola Rosea at the same time, and finding that it was the preferred herb to use. During the cold war Rhodiola Rosea was secretly used for Russian military officers, Olympic athletes, key political leaders, international financiers, cosmonauts, master chess players, and the researchers themselves.
Adaptogens, as used in herbal parlance, are herbs that have a normalizing effect, are restorative as opposed to curative on equilibrium, and are pronounced as harmless and without side effects. They are called nature’s answer to stress, which is involved to some degree in all disease, injury, disability, and death and is at the root of a huge percentage of all illness, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and diabetes.
An organism becomes pre-adapted upon taking them, and is more capable of responding appropriately when stresses are encountered. To be an adaptogen a plant compound must meet three specific criteria…
- An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response to stress in an organism, for example, as increased resistance to multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological (as opposed to Echinacea, which produces a specific effect on the immune system).
- An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology irrespective of the deviation of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor. In other words, it helps return cellular function to normal, regardless of the stress induced.
- An adaptogen is incapable of influencing normal body functions more than required to gain nonspecific resistance. In essence, the body will use what it needs and extra will just be wasted, not harmful.
Rhodiola rosea satisfies all three criteria according to Russian researchers, even more efficiently than Ginseng, without side effects.
Stress is defined as the sum total of sensory input, both physical and emotional, that affects the body. The chemical changes that occur in response to a stressor are the body’s way of preserving life… a phenomenon called homeostasis. However, the human body was not built to withstand the ravages that occur from constantly being exposed to continuous stress.
During times of stress certain chemicals and hormones are manufactured that cause changes allowing the body to adapt to the particular stressor. Going back to ancient times, when a Saber-tooth Tiger jumped into our cave the body would respond by making chemicals that cause increased blood flow to the brain, eyes and muscles so that we could either fight or run. Other physiologic changes that occur are sweating, increased blood pressure and heart rate, relaxation of the bronchioles, and excess glucose released from the liver for immediate energy. After the initial response the adrenal glands continue to release the “hormones of stress.” These are also known as catecholamines (ex. adrenaline or epinephrine) and corticosteroids (ex. cortisol or hydrocortisone).
Again, this cascade of events is a life saving phenomenon. But what happens when someone is constantly exposed to stress over long periods of time?
What happens is that this life saving mechanism becomes responsible for practically every chronic disease known to man. The changes that occur in the body over extended periods, caused by exposure to cortisol and other chemicals, are the very same changes that we label as diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc. The catecholamines release lipids and glucose into the bloodstream, increase cholesterol, and exacerbate diabetes. Noradrenaline, adrenaline, and cortisol directly damage heart tissue and disrupt its rhythm. Catecholamines cause heart muscle fibers to over contract and rupture, producing dysfunctional heart muscle, and eventually arrhythmias. Cortisol also increases excretion of potassium, which is needed to relax cardiac muscle.
Another important effect of stress is the burning out of the immune system from chronic, unrelenting stress. Going back to the cave scenario, at the moment that the tiger was about to attack, the body was preparing to have to fix itself after the attack, including fighting off infection. But, constant stress over extended time periods cause immune system dysfunction (over stimulation followed by under- response) that may be a reason for the increased prevalence of both cancer and supposed “auto-immune” diseases like chronic fatigue today.
What kinds of things are considered stressful? Of course, the obvious things like car accidents or the death of a loved one. But also the less overt stresses like the constant pressure of maintaining one’s “status” in society… the need to work harder and longer hours to keep up with the Joneses. Or the responsibility that society puts on us to be a better wage earner or Madison Avenue puts on us to be thinner and prettier. Exposure to chemical pesticides, artificial colorings and flavorings, smog and impure tap water (to name just a few things) in our food products and in the environment all are individual straws on the stress camel’s back.
The physiological effects that Rhodiola Rosea mediates are numerous and important…
- It prevents the cortisol and adrenaline burn on the heart by reducing their release by the adrenal glands during stress.
- It prevents the increase in cholesterol and triglycerides produced by stress.
- It improves athletic performance by affecting the following: increased muscle-to-fat ratio, hemoglobin and erythrocytes in the blood, the capacity to increase body weight, increase muscle ATP (energy) and creatine phosphate and mobilizing fatty acid stores during prolonged exercise.
- It can help eliminate depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and insomnia by enhancing the transport of serotonin precursors tryptophan and 5-hydroxytryptophan into the brain and inhibiting two enzymes that metabolize serotonin, catechol-o-methyltransferase (COMT) and monoamine oxidase (MAO).
- It has potent antioxidant properties which help prevent diseases associated with aging and limits free radical damage, which is associated with cell mutations or cancer.
- It enhances our immune systems ability to fight against cancer by inhibiting the stress chemicals adrenaline and noradrenaline (these catecholamines suppress our body’s own natural killer cells, which kill cancer cells) and inhibiting cortisol (which inhibits other important chemicals in our body’s defense system, interleukin-2 and interferon).
There are about 20 different species of Rhodiola used in Asia medicinally. Some active ingredients are common to all Rhodiola species, such as P-tyrosol and rhodioloside (salidroside). Important constituents like rhodioniside, rhodiolin, rosin, rosavin, and rosiridin are peculiar to Rhodiola Rosea and are critical for its adaptogenic properties. Because there is a huge potential for confusion and misrepresentation of products on the market, the preferred supplement to use would be one that has been standardized to contain specific amounts of these components. A therapeutic dose for chronic use would range from 3.6mg to 6.2mg of Rosavin daily. Triple this dose would be employed for a single use, like for an exam or athletic competition. Side effects are practically non-existent, except in extremely high doses. Because of lack of study, use should be avoided during pregnancy or nursing.
So, the next time stress seems to be affecting your health, consider trying an herbal approach. When you see a season coming during which you know you are going to get a cold or flu (especially around the change of seasons, when we are most vulnerable) try pre-adapting yourself by starting a course of Artic Root about 2 weeks before and see how your resistance increases. Or on your next visit to the doctor to renew your prescription for that high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes medicine you take, consider the affect that stress may play with these “diseases” and take a stab at getting to the root of the problem instead of merely treating the symptom. And for you athletes, try doing what the Russian Olympians have been doing for decades now, and see if you don’t improve your performance!