Rhodiola Rosea Anti-Stress, Adaptogenic and Neuroendocrine Effects

Understanding how rhodiola benefits are produced may help you feel more confident putting time, effort and money into researching whether or not Rhodiola Rosea will help you. In this section of the Rhodiola Rosea Phytomedicinal Overview, doctors Richard Brown, Patricia Gerbarg and Rhodiola Rosea founder Zakir Ramazanov explain the important origins of defining adaptogens and refer to several studies that will help you understand how researchers discovered the promise of the adaptogenic uses for this supplement.

Their clinical and theoretical suggestions illustrate how taking taking R. rosea for herbal stress relief may make sense for you.

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Rhodiola Rosea Anti-Stress, Adaptogenic and Neuroendocrine Effects

In their classic 1968 paper, Soviet pharmacologists Brekhman and Dardymov surveyed the literature on 189 medicinal plants and identified five (including R. rosea) that met the three defining criteria for an adaptogen.75

Defining Adaptogens

The three defining criteria for an adaptogen:

  • An adaptogen should be innocuous and cause minimal disturbance of the normal physiological functions of an organism;
  • The action of an adaptogen should be nonspecific (i.e., it should increase resistance to adverse influences of a wide range of harmful factors of physical, chemical, and biological nature);
  • An adaptogen may possess normalizing action irrespective of the direction of the preceding pathological changes (i.e., if a body parameter is high, the adaptogen brings it down towards normal;
    if a parameter is low, the adaptogen brings it up towards normal).

Rhodiola Rosea Rosavin

The Porsolt Test

The forced swimming test, used by Russian scientists to measure nonspecific resistance to stress, was later named after Porsolt who assigned specific parameters such as water temperature and the dimensions of the glass cylinder in which a mouse or rat was forced to swim to exhaustion (about 15 minutes). After an initial period of vigorous activity, the rodent adopts a characteristic immobile posture, making only the minimal movements necessary to stay afloat.76 The validity of the Porsolt swim test and its relationship to depression have been discussed extensively77,78 and it subsequently became a screening test for antidepressant agents by pharmaceutical companies.

Although different laboratories have made minor technical modifications, the fundamentals of the test remain the same. Adaptogens and antidepressants increase the amount of time the animal is able to keep swimming actively.75 Panossian and colleagues propose to update the definition of adaptogen by highlighting more specific biochemical actions as metabolic regulators.70 The wide range of medical benefits and physiological actions may be based on the effects of adaptogens on regulatory systems found in many organs and tissues (e.g., immune, hormonal, CNS, cardiovascular, muscular, etc.). They hypothesize that adaptogens reduce damage from stressors by altering the reactivity of the organism’s defense system, including the hypothalamic pituitary axis (HPA) and the efferent sympatho-adrenal system (SAS).70

Additional Research On Enhancing Nonspecific Resistance

A recent study showed that Rhodiola rosea and eleuthero protected the embryos of freshwater snails (Lymnaea stagnalis) from a variety of environmental stressors.79 Enhancement in resistance was studied by applying phyto-adaptogen extracts for a period of 20 hours to 3-day old L. stagnalis larvae. Subsequently the larvae were exposed to the following highly toxic environmental stressors: a physical stress (heat shock: 43 degrees C for 4 minutes); an oxidative stress (superoxide radicals induced by menadione 600 microM for 2 hours); and heavy metal-induced stress (copper 50 microM for 1 hour or cadmium 20 microM for 1 hour).

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Both eleuthero and R. rosea strongly protected snail embryos from lethal heat shock, from the adverse effects of menadione-induced superoxide radicals, and from toxic exposure to heavy metals (copper and cadmium). Although the degree to which resistance was enhanced depended on the type of stressor applied, these results confirm the definition of phyto-adaptogens as being universal enhancers of non-specific resistance against different kinds of stress conditions. The mechanisms of nonspecific resistance are not entirely clear, but probably involve improvements in cellular energy metabolism, based in part on ATP (as discussed above).

Nonspecific Resistance And Human Neurological Mechanisms

In higher animals and humans, nonspecific resistance may also be enhanced by improvements in the neurological mechanisms of dealing with stress (catecholamines, serotonin, and endorphins). The serotonin system is necessary for the stress response reaction, adaptation to new environmental conditions, and tolerance of hypoxia. Numerous stressors decrease serotonin in the hypothalamus. Theoretically, the ability of R. rosea to increase the nonspecific resistance of animals may be related to its capacity to increase serotonin in the hypothalamus and midbrain. Additional research showed that an intact hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis and participation of the gonads and thymus were necessary for this anti-stress effect.2

Rhodiola Rosea Effects on the Heart During Emotional and Physical Stress

Rhodiola Rosea Effects on the Heart During Emotional and Physical Stress

Furthermore, R. rosea reduces the activation of several components of the stress response system. For example, it modestly increased serum beta-endorphins that protected rats against subsequent stress-induced excess endorphin elevation.80 In addition, R. rosea moderates the release of opioid peptides that occurs as part of the pituitary adrenal axis response to stress. This reduced release protects against sudden excess opioid and catecholamine (NE and DA) levels (which interfere with normal brain functions and can lead to heart damage), while allowing a more moderate release that increases stress tolerance without damaging the central nervous system or the cardiovascular system (see Diagram 2). Rhodiola rosea extracts also protect the brain and heart by reducing the secretion of corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF) under stress.80,81


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