Supplements

Rhodiola Rosea: a Risky Relief for Anxiety?

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10th, 2020

Rhodiola Rosea: a Risky Relief for Anxiety?

Rhodiola rosea is an herb that some believe can be used for anxiety. The supplement rhodiola rosea is generally taken as an antidepressant. However, many antidepressants are also recommended for people who suffer from anxiety. When taking an antidepressant for your anxiety disorder, it is important to ascertain whether either the drug's effects or its side effects have the potential to make anxiety worse.

This article will review the benefits associated with taking rhodiola rosea, as well as the potential problems to watch out for if you are planning on taking this supplement as a treatment for your anxiety.

A Rosea, By Any Other Name

It's extremely popular to look for alternative options for anxiety, but note that very few of them work, and even if they do, you should always be looking for ways to reduce anxiety without any supplement or medicine.

Rhodiola rosea grows in the cold and goes by many other names, including arctic root, golden root, rose root, Aaron's rod, and king's crown. All of these refer to a small plant with yellow flowering stalks.

In Russia, Scandinavia and the mountainous regions of China, the plant has been traditionally collected and consumed to cope with the stresses of life in frigid climates. Specifically, it is meant to treat fatigue, increase sexual potency, and promote happiness.

In the U.S., where studies have been made supporting its use as an antidepressant, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has removed some products containing rhodiola rosea from the market. This is due to growing claims in alternative medicine circles of it’s potential as a treatment for the flu, migraines, bacterial infections, colds and even cancer - all of which have been proven false or not proven at all.

The plant is believed to have combined stimulating and relaxing qualities make it a good one for people suffering from depression, but a more complicated choice from people who experience anxiety on a regular basis. The following section will review the possible positive effects of rhodiola for anxiety sufferers.

Relief Through Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola is believed to have beneficial effects for people suffering from depression that should also be beneficial for people with anxiety. These include:

  • Decreasing Sympathetic Nervous System Activity The sympathetic nervous system is the system that springs into action when the fight or flight response is triggered by the amygdala. It includes your pulse, your breathing rate, and your adrenal glands. Increased activity of these is either directly or indirectly responsible for all the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, shaking, dizziness, and nausea.
  • Increasing Parasympathetic Nervous System Activity The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system in that it is associated with the slowing of the body's processes rather than speeding them up, as happens when you are feeling anxious.
  • Increasing Serotonin Serotonin is the chemical in the body associated with happiness and relaxation. Serotonin deficiency is seen primarily in people with depression and anxiety conditions.
  • Increasing Memory and Focus Feeling scattered and unfocused due to anxiety can have the effect of causing more anxiety, particularly if you find yourself becoming anxious in the middle of an important meeting, or during a test. Studies suggest that rhodiola improves both memory and focus. In a study of rhodiola as a supplement for memory and focus in which subjects had to take a proofreading test, the subjects who took rhodiola rosea made 88% fewer mistakes when using rhodiola, while the control group who did not use it made 84% more.
  • Shortens Recovery Time After Exercise When you experience anxiety, your heart rate tends to rise, and your breathing becomes more labored as it does when you exercise for an extended period. Rhodiola may be effective for shortening the amount of time it takes your heart rate and breathing to return to normal. In a study of people who took rhodiola rosea before running for 12 miles, the participants were tested 30 minutes in. Those who had not taken rhodiola had pulses 129% higher than a resting heart rate on average, while the pulses of those who had taken the supplement were only 105% higher than a resting rate.

Though such tests look promising, it is still unclear what components of rhodiola rosea cause it to work the way it does, and causes some people to question whether the effect could be primarily placebo. There are few if any controlled studies, and it's possible the mechanism may be something harmful. In any case, along with the potential benefits to taking rhodiola rosea, there are also a few potential risks that you may want to bear in mind.

Risks of Using Rhodiola Rosea

While the antifatigue or stimulant effects of rhodiola rosea may be partly explained by its reported ability to promote clear thinking and improve memory, they may also be due to energizing components that in anxiety sufferers may also promote anxiety. The effects of rhodiola that leads some to suspect a risk of negative interactions with anxiety are as follows:

  • Stimulating Beta Waves In some people, high doses of rhodiola rosea causes higher levels of beta waves in the brain. Unlike alpha waves, which are promoted by anti anxiety supplements such as L-theanine and occur in the brain when the body is in a state of waking relaxation, beta waves signal normal waking consciousness, while multiple beta waves or waves with varying frequencies signal anxiety. Therefore, taking too much rhodiola rosea runs the risk of causing anxiety rather than treating it.
  • Metabolic Stimulant Rhodiola contains compounds known as rosavin including rosarin, rosin, and salidroside. These compounds help the body to process fatty acids, promoting weight loss. However, this metabolic stimulation also gives the body an energy boost which in some people helps to improve mood, but in those already stimulated by anxiety may run the risk of further stimulation and resultant anxiety attacks. However, this type of stimulation may be somewhat offset by the simultaneous stimulation of serotonin in the brain.

There may also be long-term risks as well. Because rhodiola has never truly been studied, it is very difficult to know what it may cause, if anything.

Should You Use Rhodiola Rosea?

As with most herbs and supplements, there isn't enough information to know whether or not it's worth using this herb for anxiety. Preliminary research has generally been carried out on mice, with few human studies. One study published in 2008 showed that Rhodiola Rosea in the form of the drug Rhodax showed significant improvement in GAD symptoms over the course of ten weeks when taking 340mg of the extract.

Still, though not much is known about the functionality of rhodiola rosea, it is a relatively low risk supplement for people with anxiety if taken in the recommended dosage amounts. As with any non prescription supplement, it is advisable to consult your doctor before using it on a regular basis.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

Ask Doctor a Question

Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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