“Arctic root,” “golden root,” and “king’s crown” are just a few of the synonyms for Rhodiola rosea, a small but mighty adaptogenic botanical. While you may not know what makes this beautiful, yellow-flowered plant so tough, its strong, majestic nicknames give a few hints.
Rhodiola’s Long History in Scandinavian Folklore and Tradition
Grown in dry mountainous soils across the Arctic region, Rhodiola rosea has been harvested and traded for centuries across Scandinavia and northern Asia. Its rose–scented, bright yellow flowers — located at the end of long, thick rhizomes — were first recorded by the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides in 77 A.D. Yet it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that rhodiola began to be extensively studied for its purported benefits (1).
While it’s a topic of current scientific interest, rhodiola does not lack in historical anecdotes and uses. According to Scandinavian folklore, Viking warriors used rhodiola to improve their physical strength while on the battlefield (2). It’s also said that Chinese emperors sent large expeditions to Siberia in search of rhodiola and its medicinal formulations (1).
Whether or not these old tales are true, rhodiola has a deep-rooted history of traditional use throughout Russian and Scandinavian cultures for its ability to strengthen the body’s resistance to stress and improve energy levels (3).
The Science Behind Rhodiola’s Tradition
A wide range of bioactive compounds are thought to give rhodiola its beneficial properties. These compounds include antioxidants, polyphenols, and glycosides. Of the 140 different phytochemical constituents that have been isolated in rhodiola, 12 are thought to be unique, with salidroside and p-tyrosol being key to Rhodiola rosea’s benefits as an adaptogen (4).
Scientific evidence suggests that the phytochemicals in this adaptogen work as key mediators in helping the body maintain homeostasis during stress by affecting cortisol and nitric oxide levels (2, 4–6). Through this mechanism, rhodiola is thought to provide support for a healthy immune system and support cognitive function under stressful conditions.
The Future of Rhodiola
Though much of the research into rhodiola’s function as an adaptogen was conducted decades ago by Soviet Russia, the past decade has shown a spike in Western interest. Scientists continue to evaluate and publish results in support of rhodiola’s beneficial role in energy, mental performance, cognitive function, stress management, and overall quality of life (2, 7, 8).
Whether it’s the growing body of science supporting its benefits or the desire to live life with the strength of a Viking, rhodiola’s global popularity continues to rise.
- American Botanical Council , Inc: HerbMed Database, Rhodiola rosea record, https://www.realdose.com/common/info/research/Rhodiola-Phytomedicinal-Overview-Brown-Gerbarg.pdf
- Panossian A, Wikman G, Sarris J. Rosenroot (Rhodiola rosea): traditional use, chemical composition, pharmacology and clinical efficacy. Phytomedicine. 2010 Jun;17(7):481-93.
- Darbinyan V, Kteyan A, Panossian A, et al. 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. 2000;7:365-71.
- Kelly GS. Rhodiola rosea: a possible plant adaptogen. Altern Med Rev. 2001 Jun;6(3):293-302. PMID: 11410073.
- Grech-Baran M, Sykłowska-Baranek K, Pietrosiuk A. Approaches of Rhodiola kirilowii and Rhodiola rosea field cultivation in Poland and their potential health benefits. Ann Agric Environ Med. 2015;22(2):281-5.
- Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress-protective activity. Pharmaceuticals 2010; 3: 188-224.
- Anghelescu IG, Edwards D, Seifritz E, Kasper S. Stress management and the role of Rhodiola rosea: a review. Int J Psychiatry Clin Pract. 2018 Nov;22(4):242-252.
- Zhong Z, Han J, Zhang J, Xiao Q, Hu J, Chen L. Pharmacological activities, mechanisms of action, and safety of salidroside in the central nervous system. Drug Des Devel Ther. 2018 May 24;12:1479-1489.