But I haven’t explored adaptogens yet, which are plants and herbs that contain bioactive compounds that can also support your brain.
Adaptogenic herbs increase your resilience to physical and mental stress. They can calm you down, or increase your energy, depending on what your body needs. They help the body normalize itself and reach a state of physical and mental balance (6, 7, 8).
Unlike pharmaceuticals, they don’t disrupt normal biological functions. Rather, they help the body find its natural, healthy “sweet spot”.
It's similar to how a thermostat will increase or decrease the temperature in your home to maintain a desired temperature.
Ancient healers have used adaptogens for hundreds of years, the Vikings used them to increase physical and mental stamina, and the Russians experimented with them during the Cold War.
But they aren’t very well known in the Western world.
So I want to share with you one of my favourite adaptogenic herbs – one that has really helped me with depression and fatigue over the years.
I take this adaptogenic herb on a semi-regular basis to maintain my mood and energy, although I don’t need to take it as consistently anymore.
It’s called Rhodiola.
The Herbal Breakthrough of the 21st Century
Rhodiola, also known as golden root or arctic root, is a Traditional Chinese Medicine and Scandinavian herb and one of the most popular adaptogens used to increase physical and mental stamina. It can be found at high altitudes in the mountainous regions of Europe and Asia.
In his book “The Rhodiola Revolution: Transform Your Health with the Herbal Breakthrough of the 21st Century,” Dr. Richard Brown explains that the Soviet Union began testing and using Rhodiola in the 1960s and found that it was effective for improving physical and mental performance. As a result, Russian astronauts, soldiers and Olympic athletes started using it so that they would have an unfair advantage over the United States.
Natural healers have also been aware of Rhodiola’s benefits for centuries. Despite this, modern science is only now catching up and verifying its beneficial effects and health-promoting properties (27).
5 Brain Health and Mental Health Benefits of Rhodiola
As awareness of this remarkable herb increases, more and more people are starting to supplement with it so they can experience its multiple benefits.
Below, you will find five reasons why you might want to start taking it regularly.
If you decide to take it, it is important to find a Rhodiola rosea root extract that contains at least 1% salidriside and 3% rosavins. I use and recommend this brand. You can get it here or here. Since it is slightly stimulating, you should take it earlier in the day so that it doesn't disrupt your sleep.
It's also part of this all-in-one mental health supplement.
1. Rhodiola Treats Depression
If you suffer from a mood disorder, Rhodiola may be exactly what you need.
It contains powerful mood-boosting and emotional-stabilizing properties that increase wellbeing and contentment (1).
In fact, last year, a group of researchers suggested that Rhodiola is a better option than pharmaceuticals for the management of moderate depression. They discovered that the herb works better than placebo, and has fewer side effects than Zoloft, a common SSRI antidepressant (2).
In another clinical trial, 150 people suffering from depression took Rhodiola, and two-thirds of them experienced full remission of their depressive symptoms (3).
Other research has clearly shown that people experience significant improvements in their depression and are more emotionally stable when they take Rhodiola compared to placebo. It’s also important to note that the herb starts working within one week for most people – much quicker than antidepressants (4).
Rsearchers thinks rhodiola works by slowing down the breakdown of our "feel good" neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin. By doing this, the brain receives higher concentrations of serotonin and dopamine, which can reduce depressive symptoms (28-32).
And if you take medication to manage your depression, it may alleviate some of the side effects, as it’s been shown to improve the mood, thought processes and motor activity of individuals already on antidepressants (5).
It’s a shame that many doctors are quick to throw patients on antidepressants without considering natural alternatives like Rhodiola. On top of this, people often aren't warned and educated on the severe side effects and withdrawal symptoms that result from antidepressants. I know I wasn’t.
So Rhodiola is worth giving this a shot if you suffer from depression.
I used to take it every day to manage my depression, but now that my mood is naturally steady and consistent, I just take 250 mg on an empty stomach whenever I feel like I need a mental boost.
2. Rhodiola Reduces Cognitive Fatigue
Many studies show that Rhodiola significantly increases physical and cognitive energy (9).
A lot of people today suffer from stress-induced fatigue, and Rhodiola can help with that.
When my anxiety was at its worst, I often got very tired, very easily. I was completely burnt out.
That’s because it takes a lot of energy to worry about things. Stress uses up excess energy to activate our “fight-or-flight” response. And when the response continues for a long time, you end up physically and mentally exhausted.
Rhodiola can help you snap out of this vicious anxiety-fatigue cycle. It's been shown to significantly reduce fatigue and stress hormones, particularly in chronically-fatigued individuals who have experienced burnout (15).
Another study showed that Rhodiola reduced fatigue in burnt-out doctors working night shifts (16).
And even just a single dose of Rhodiola significantly reduced fatigue in young Russian cadets (17).
Lastly, it can also help you quit caffeine if you want. I take a break from coffee every so often, and taking Rhodiola makes it much easier.
3. Rhodiola Lowers Stress and Anxiety
Rhodiola can also support a healthy stress response and help people manage their anxiety.
In one study, stressed participants started supplementing with Rhodiola, and they experienced significant improvements in their “life-stress symptoms” within a few days. They continued to feel better throughout the study, and significant improvements were noted in their social and work lives (11).
Another study found that people diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder had significantly lower levels of anxiety when they took Rhodiola every day (12).
Taking Rhodiola on a regular basis has definitely helped me overcome my generalized anxiety. I’ve also wrote about how supplementing with zinc and reducing your copper intake can also helped with generalized anxiety. Combining zinc and rhodiola would be a powerful one-two punch to combat chronic anxiety.
Research in mice also shows that Rhodiola reduces anxiety without causing drowsiness and brain fog, which are common side effects of conventional anti-anxiety medication. On top of this, the herb appears to reverse "neurophysiological changes" after stressful circumstances. In other words, it not only prevents anxiety, but normalizes body and brain function after dealing with it (13, 14).
4. Rhodiola Improves Mental Performance and Concentration
Rhodiola can also clear brain fog and improve cognitive function.
It does this by improving connections and communication between brain cells (28-32).
In one study, doctors who took Rhodiola every day for two weeks had better memory, concentration, calculation, and responded better to audio and visual cues (10).
In another trial, 120 adults with cognitive deficits took Rhodiola for 12 weeks. Every single participant witnessed improvement in their cognition, and the average time to complete a test significantly decreased at the end of the study (18).
There's also evidence that Rhodiola can improve mental performance in young, healthy individuals who don’t have cognitive deficits. After taking the herb for 20 days, students improved their coordination and work capacity, their learning ability and exam scores increased by 61% and 8.4% respectively (19).
Overall, Rhodiola is definitely a good choice if you’re looking to think more clearly, increase concentration, and get more done.
5. Rhodiola Minimizes Drug Withdrawal Symptoms
I’m not a fan of psychiatric medication such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have gone on them.
They are addictive and a lot of people go through withdrawal when trying to get off them. I remember feeling as if I was experiencing a never-ending feeling of imbalance after getting off of them.
This is because your body has a difficult time returning to its natural state of functioning when you get off them. They actually cause significant neurotransmitter and hormone imbalances - not fix them. Yet doctors and the phamaceutical industry tell you otherwise.
I couldn’t find any research showing that Rhodiola can help people ween off antidepressants.
But I did find one study showing that Rhodiola is able to reduce symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. And it’s well known that smokers experience depression and decreased serotonin levels when they quit. Researchers found that Rhodiola increased serotonin and improved serotonin metabolism in individuals undergoing nicotine withdrawal (20).
Overall, psychiatric drugs can disrupt the natural balance of your body and brain, but Rhodiola can help restore normal brain function after stopping medication.
6. Rhodiola Protects the Brain and Repairs Brain Damage
There is a lot of research demonstrating that Rhodiola is neuroprotective, protecting brain cells from damage. It may also promote neurogenesis, the growth of new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus region of the brain (23, 24, 26).
Studies have shown that it also reduces oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, which has been linked to a number of brain and mental health disorders, suggesting that it may be able to preserve optimal brain health as we age (21, 22).
Researchers have also looked into whether Rhodiola could prevent or reduce brain damage in rats. In one study, scientists caused a lesion in rat brains. Before the lesion, they gave Rhodiola to half of the rats. The researchers found that the administration of Rhodiola prior to the lesion significantly protected these rats from oxidative stress, brain cell death and cognitive impairment (25).
If you suffer from brain fog, fatigue, depression, or anxiety, you may want to try supplementing with Rhodiola and see if you feel better.
There’s lots of research to show it’s effective at supporting cognition and mood.
It appears to improve a number of neurological problems all at once.
It's also found in this all-in-one mental health supplement.
Since it is stimulating, you should take it earlier in the day. Start with 250 mg and then consider going up to 500 mg depending on how you feel.
And eventually, you may not need to take it at all.
Adaptogenic herbs balance your physical body and brain, and help forge new neurological pathways, helping to produce long-lasting, stable mental health.
As mentioned, I used to take it every day to manage my depression, but now that my mood is naturally steady and consistent, I hardly have to take it anymore.
I was also going to write about a number of different adaptogens in this article, but since Rhodiola helps with so many different conditions, I’ve decided to dedicate the entire article to it.
I will explore my two other favourite brain-supporting adaptogens – ashwaghanda and bacopa – in upcoming articles. Feel free to do your own research into these two other herbs for now if you’re looking for other solutions. But Rhodiola is definitely a good starting point.
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About the Author
Jordan Fallis is a health and science journalist and researcher, and the founder of Optimal Living Dynamics, a website that has helped more than 1.5 million people improve their brain and mental health. His work has been featured in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Pharmacists Journal. Jordan has also interviewed, consulted, and worked with more than one hundred medical doctors, health practitioners and leading researchers. He spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and putting the theories to the test on himself.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Fred Hui, MD, CCFP, CAFC