How to boost your immune system with herbs – Rhodiola
Eight Herbs for the Immune System
Common Names: Rhodiola • golden root • roseroot • stonecrop • arctic root. The fresh roots smell a bit like roses, hence the origin of that name. They are golden in color, thus golden root.
Species Used: There is, as usual, confusion among those with advanced degrees in plant science as to just how many species of rhodiola there are: 36, or maybe 60, or probably 90. It’s like stamp collectors (“No, look at that tiny ink spot on the edge”); I just want to scream.
The primary medicinal that most people use is Rhodiola rosea, but many of the related species are used medicinally in the regions in which they grow. Because of the interest in R. rosea, the genus is being intensively studied for activity: I have found medicinal studies of one sort or another on R. crenulata, R. quadrifida, R. heterodonta, R. semenovii, R. sachalinensis, R. sacra, R. fastigiata, R. kirilowii, R. bupleuroides, R. imbricata,R. rhodantha, and R. integrifolia.
Properties of Rhodiola
Hippocampal protectant and tonic
Hypoxia antagonist (potent)
Mitochondrial tonic and protectant
Nervous system tonic
Possibly a synergist, the plant is a strong inhibitor of CYP3A4 and P-glycoprotein. See the piperine monograph for specifics.
Use to Treat
Chronic disease conditions with depression
Chronic fatigue syndrome
Chronic, long-term fatigue
Low immune function
Rhodiola can also be used to accelerate recovery from debilitating conditions and long-term illness and infections.
The leaves of most species can be eaten, chopped finely and added to salads, or cooked as a pot herb. The plants are very high in vitamin C, with 33 mg per gram of fresh plant.
You can buy it pretty much everywhere. If you live in the right climate you can probably find it wild or grow it yourself.
There have been some extravagant claims (easily found on the Internet) that only Russian Rhodiola rosea, harvested near the Arctic Circle (presumably by fasting virgins as the northern lights first emerge over the rim of Earth), contains the necessary active constituents for the herb to be useful. However, all the Rhodiola roseaplants, irrespective of where they grow or in what country, have nearly identical chemistry. They are all perfectly usable as medicine.
But please note: The exact chemical profile of the R. rosea plants themselves differs depending on time of year, time of day, and geographical location (this valley in Russia or that one) irrespective of whether they are harvested at the Arctic Circle in Russia by fasting virgins or not. In other words, you can pick R. rosea from this location in May and again in September and the chemical profile of the plant won’t be the same. The same is true of every species in the genus—and of every medicinal plant on Earth. Part of the art of herbalism is being able to determine medicinal potency of the plants you are harvesting by using the most sophisticated scientific instrument ever discovered—the focused power of human awareness. Machines just aren’t a reliable substitute for the capacity to reason and feel simultaneously. Furthermore … oops! Sorry. Got carried away again.
Studies on 14 other species in the genus have found the same constituents in them as in R. rosea. They can all be used medicinally, they all do pretty much the same things, they all work identically to the usual commercial-variety R. rosea—see Scientific Research for more. Rhodiola integrifolia, by the way, is considered to be a natural hybrid between Rhodiola rhodantha and R. rosea; you can consider it pretty much identical to R. rosea.
Note: The rhodiolas look much like sedums and were once included in that genus, so you will see rosea sometimes listed as Sedum rosea and so on.
Preparation and Dosage
Generally used as capsules or tincture.
Dried root, 1:5, 50 percent alcohol. Some people use a 1:3 formulation. I am not sure it is necessary.
Tonic dose: 30–40 drops, 3x or 4x daily, usually in water.
In acute conditions: ½–1 tsp, 3x daily for 20–30 days, then back to the tonic dose.
The root is most often used in capsule form, 100 mg each. Usual dose is 1 or 2 capsules per day. In acute conditions up to 1,000 mg a day can be taken. The capsules are often standardized to contain 2–3 percent rosavins and 0.8–1 percent salidroside. They are usually taken just before meals.
Side Effects and Contraindications
Some people experience jitteriness from the herb; you should not take it at night until you know if you are one of them.
Habitat and Appearance
Rhodiolas are plants that like high altitude and cold, either will do. They are a circumpolar genus of the subarctic and cool, mountainous regions of the northern hemisphere and are common in eastern Russia, parts of China, Tibet (which has many species), the mountains and northern climes of Europe, Canada, and the mountainous and colder regions of the United States. The United States, Europe, and Tibet appear to have the largest populations, with Tibet having the most species.
The rhodiolas are typical succulents with fleshy, moisture-filled, grayish-green leaves. The plants grow to about 12 inches and they will have, depending on the species, a cluster of yellow, pink, red, or orange flowers at the top of the stalk. R. rosea’s flowers are yellow.
The root system is fairly large if the plants grow in a nutrient-rich environment. The farther north they grow, and the poorer the soils, the smaller the root.
There are three species of rhodiola in North America: Rhodiola rosea grows in the mountains of North Carolina, and in Pennsylvania through New England, into Canada, and all the way to the Arctic Circle. R. rhodantha grows in the Rocky Mountain states from New Mexico and Arizona up to the Canadian border. R. integrifolia has the widest distribution in North America. It ranges from the Rocky Mountain spine (New Mexico, et cetera, westward) up into Canada and into the Arctic. There are populations as well in Minnesota and New York State. Most of the eastern rhodiolas are considered to be endangered.
If you are in the western United States and wanting to wild-harvest your own roots, look for R. integrifolia; it is just as useful as R. rosea medicinally and it is not endangered as many of the eastern United States R. roseapopulations are.
Cultivation and Collection
Due to the popularizing of the plant as an antiaging and chronic fatigue medicinal, wild populations of R. roseaare becoming endangered; the Russians have put them on their red list of threatened plants. The largest populations of the plant were formerly in the Altai region of southern Siberia. However, over 45 companies have been harvesting the plant for export (“Real Russian rhodiola”) and those plant populations have been severely reduced.
If you live in a region in which rhodiola grows, you can harvest your own roots; you won’t need to harvest much for yourself and your family. Commercial harvesting, except for very limited amounts in abundant areas, is highly discouraged.
If you find the plant in your area, harvest the roots in the fall after seeding or in the spring just as it is coming up. The roots will be bigger and, in my opinion, more potent in the spring. Slice the bigger roots; the interior of the root will change from white to a brown or reddish color as it begins to dry.
Due to the heavy worldwide demand for the plant, there are increasing efforts to make the plant an agricultural staple in regions where it will grow; Bulgaria, Canada, and Finland are early innovators in growing the crop. The yields are low, only about 3 tons per hectare, and they are labor intensive. Since the roots are taken, and only after 5 years, agricultural growing of the plant demands a minimum of five fields, planted in rotation so they can be harvested in successive years in order to keep up continual production.
The seeds are tiny; a thousand of them weigh only 0.2 gram. The germination rates are low, 2 percent to 36 percent; they are happier with a little stratification. Thirty days at –5°C (23°F) will increase germination rates to 50 percent to 75 percent. Soak the seeds in water overnight, mix into moist soil, store for 1 month at a temperature of 2° to 4°C (36° to 39°F). You will then get about a 75 percent germination rate.
In Finland they get 95 percent to 100 percent germination if they sow the seeds on the surface of a sand/peat mix and keep the trays outside all winter under the snow. In April/May the boxes are brought into a greenhouse at a temperature of 18° to 22°C (64° to 72°F). Germination begins in 3 days to a week.
If you keep the seedlings inside for a year before transplanting, yields are significantly higher. They like sandy, loamy soil, neutral or slightly acidic. NPK: 50/50/70. They don’t need additional fertilizer after the first year. The easiest method, however, is to divide the roots of an established plant and plant the root cuttings, much like potatoes.
The plant takes a minimum of 3 years to mature, but the roots should not be harvested for 5 years. Dig in the fall, slice, let dry out of the sun. Store in plastic bags, inside plastic containers, in the dark.
Most people think that salidroside (a.k.a. rhodioloside) is the most important compound in the root, others insist it is the rosavin. Others say, yeah, those and … rosin, rosarin, and tyrosol. Studies have found, as usual, that saldroside is much more effective when combined with rosavin, rosin, and rosarin. So I’m guessing, just a wild shot here, that it’s the whole root that is most active.
There are, of course, a great many other compounds in the root, at least 85 essential oils and another 50 water-soluble nonvolatiles. Many of the usual plant compounds are present.
Traditional Uses of Rhodiola
Rhodiola, as far as I can tell, and in spite of assertions that it is a longstanding medicinal in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), was a contribution to the medicinal plant world by the Russians due to their interest in adaptogens. This is pretty much a Russian-introduced category of medicinal herb—a plant that enhances general overall functioning, somewhat like a tonic but one that increases the ability of the organism to respond to outside stressors of whatever sort, diseases included. It enhances an organism’s general resistance to multiple adverse influences or conditions. Rhodiola, like the stronger preparations of Eleutherococcus, is considered to be not just adaptogenic but an adaptogenic stimulant—part of the reason it can cause jitteriness and wakefulness in some.
AYURVEDA AND TCM
Rhodiolas have been used in TCM, Tibetan medicine, and Ayurveda for a very long time—according to many reports. But my library, extensive, doesn’t list the genus in any of my sources for those systems of healing.
However, a few other, obscure sources reveal that the plants were used in traditional Russian folk medicine to increase physical endurance, work productivity, longevity, resistance to altitude sickness and for fatigue, depression, anemia, impotence, GI tract ailments, infections, and nervous afflictions.
In central Asia the tea has been used for a long time as the most effective local treatment for colds and flu. Mongolian physicians use it for TB and cancer. The plant is a part of traditional Tibetan medicine for promoting blood circulation and relieving cough.
WESTERN BOTANIC PRACTICE
The plant never was a huge medicinal even though there are traces of its use as far back as the seventeenth century in the Scandinavian countries. Rhodiola rosea and R. integrifolia were used by the indigenous tribes of Alaska as a food, the root eaten for sores in the mouth, for TB, stomachache, GI tract troubles. A couple of the sedums were recognized by the Eclectics but none of the rhodiolas before their name change.
There is a lot of research on this plant right now, and more studies are occurring daily. There have been, unlike the case for many other newish medicinal plants, a lot of human clinical trials with this herb. I am primarily going to look at the neuroprotective/neuroregenerative, immune, and antistress/antifatigue actions of the plant—they are strongly interrelated. The potent antioxidant actions of the plant are deeply interrelated with those as well. A comprehensive bibliography for the plant is in the reference section.
A number of the rhodiolas have been found to have antiviral and antibacterial actions. Rhodiola kirilowii is active against the hepatitis C virus and Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Rhodiola rosea is active against H1N1 and H9N2 viral influenza strains as well as Coxsackie virus B3.
Numerous rhodiola species have been found to be highly neuroprotective.
In vitro: Compounds in both Rhodiola sacra and R. sachalinensis protect neurons against beta-amyloid-induced, stauroporine-induced, and H2O2-induced death. Salidroside, a common compound in many rhodiolas, protects cultured neurons from injury from hypoxia and hypoglycemia; protects neuronal PC12 cells and SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cells against cytotoxicity from beta-amyloid and against hypoglycemia and serum limitation; and protects neurons against H2O2-induced death. It does so by inducing the antioxidant enzymes thioredoxin, heme oxygenase-1, and peroxiredoxin-1, down-regulating the pro-apoptotic gene Bax, and up-regulating the anti-apoptotic genes Bcl-2 and Bcl-X(L). It also restores mitochondrial membrane potential negatively affected by H2O2 and restores intracellular calcium levels.
In vivo: Rhodiola rosea enhances the level of 5-hydroxytryptamine in the hippocampus, promotes the proliferation and differentiation of neural stem cells in the hippocampus, and protects hippocampal neurons from injury. R. rosea protects against cognitive deficits, neuronal injury, and oxidative stress induced by intracerebroventricular injection of streptozotocin. Salidroside protects rat hippocampal neurons against H2O2-induced apoptosis. A combination of rhodiola/astragalus protects rats against simulated plateau hypoxia (8,000 m/26,000 feet). It inhibits the accumulation of lactic acid in brain tissue and serum.
Human clinical trial: A double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study with 40 women, ages 20 to 68, who were highly stressed, found that a Rhodiola rosea extract increased attention, speed, and accuracy during stressful cognitive tasks. Rhodiola rosea was used with 120 adults with both physical and cognitive deficiencies: exhaustion, decreased motivation, daytime sleepiness, decreased libido, sleep disturbances, concentration deficiencies, forgetfulness, decreased memory, susceptibility to stress, irritability; after 12 weeks, 80 percent of patients showed improvements. A combination formula (Xinnaoxin capsule) of Rhodiola rosea, Lycium chinenseberry, and fresh Hippophae rhomnoides fruit juice was given to 30 patients with chronic cerebral circulatory insufficiency; after 4 weeks the condition was significantly improved. A double-blind, crossover 3-week study on stress-induced fatigue on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty found that Rhodiola rosea extract decreased mental fatigue and increased cognitive functions such as associative thinking, short-term memory, calculation and concentration, and speed of audio-visual perception.
In vitro: Salidroside stimulates glucose uptake by rat muscle cells; Rhodiola rosea extract stimulates the synthesis or resynthesis of ATP and stimulates reparative processes in mitochondria.
In vivo: Rhodiola rosea extracts increased the life span of Drosophila melanogaster, lowered mitochondrial superoxide levels, and increased protection against the superoxide generator paraquat. Four weeks’ supplementation with R. rosea extract significantly increased swimming time in exhausted mice—it significantly increased liver glycogen levels; SREBP-1, FAS, and heat shock protein 70 expression; Bcl-2/Bax ratios; and oxygen content in blood. Salidroside protected the hypothalamic/pituitary/gonad axis of male rats under intense stress—testosterone levels remained normal rather than dropping, secretary granules of the pituitary gland increased, and mitochondrial cells were strongly protected. R. rosea extract completely reversed the effects of chronic mild stress in female rats—that is, decreased sucrose intake, decreased movement, weight loss, and dysregulation of menstrual cycle. Rhodiola suppressed increased enzyme activity in rats subjected to noise stress—glutamic pyruvic transaminase, alkaline phosphatase, and creatine kinase levels all returned to normal, and glycogen, lactic acid, and cholesterol levels in the liver also returned to normal. R. rosea reduced stress and CRF-induced anorexia in rats. And so on.
Human clinical trial: Twenty-four men who had lived at high altitude for a year were tested to see the effects of rhodiola on blood oxygen saturation and sleep disorders. Rhodiola increased blood oxygen saturation significantly and increased both sleeping time and quality. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the effects of R. rosea on fatigue in students caused by stress, physical fitness, mental fatigue, and neuro-motoric indices all increased (other studies found similar outcomes). R. rosea intake in a group of healthy volunteers reduced inflammatory C-reactive protein and creatinine kinase levels in the blood and protected muscle tissue during exercise. Rhodiola rosea in a placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized study was found to increase physical capacity, muscle strength, speed of limb movement, reaction time, and attention—in other words it improved exercise endurance performance. A similarly structured study found that 1 week of rhodiola supplementation decreased fatigue and stress levels but more interestingly decreased photon emissions on the dorsal side of the hand. In another study Rhodiola rosea increased the efficiency of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and prevented fatigue during an hour of continuous physical exercise. A phase three clinical trial found that rhodiola exerts an antifatigue effect that increases mental performance and concentration and decreases cortisol response in burnout patients with fatigue syndrome; other studies have found similar outcomes, including the amelioration of depression and anxiety.
In vitro: Rhodiola imbricata protects macrophages against tert-butyl hydroperoxide injury and up-regulates the immune response. Additionally it potently stimulates the innate immune pathway and initiates strong immunostimulatory actions, increasing Toll-like receptor 4, granzyme B, and Th1 cytokines. Rhodiola sachalinensis extract enhances the expression of inducible nitric oxide synthase in macrophages. Rhodiola quadrifida stimulates granulocyte activity and increases lymphocyte response to mitogens. Rhodiola algidastimulates human peripheral blood lymphocytes and up-regulates IL-2 in Th1 cells and IL-4, 6, and 10 in Th2 cells.
In vivo: Rhodiola kirolowii enhances cellular immunity—stimulating the activity of lymphocytes, increasing phagocytosis in response to microbial organisms. Rhodiola imbricata enhances specific immunoglobulin levels in response to tetanus toxoid and ovalbumin in rats—the plant has adjuvant/immunopotentiating activity in both humoral and cell-mediated immune response.
Human clinical use: Rhodiola rosea (in combination with schizandra, eleuthero, and leuzea) significantly increased both cell-mediated and humoral immune response in ovarian cancer patients. Rhodiola significantly reduced problems and infection after the treatment of acute lung injury caused by massive trauma/infection and thoracic-cardio operations. A combination formula of rhodiola, eleuthero, and schizandra significantly enhanced positive outcomes in the treatment of acute nonspecific pneumonia. Rhodiola rosea increased the parameters of leukocyte integrins and T-cell immunity in bladder cancer patients.
Rhodiola, various species, has been found effective in the treatment of breast cancer. It inhibits the tumorigenic properties of invasive mammary epithelial cells, inhibits superficial bladder cancer, suppresses T241 fibrosarcoma tumor cell proliferation, and reduces angiogenesis in various tumor lines. Rhodiola imbricata is highly protective in mice against whole-body lethal radiation.
The plant has also been found highly antioxidant in numerous studies, to be liver protective, and to be highly protective of the cardiovascular system.
The plant is adaptogenic; that is, it increases the function of the organism to meet whatever adverse influences are affecting it, whether stress or illness. Most of the attention has been paid to its ability to increase endurance and mental acuity, but its effects on the immune system, though less studied than eleuthero’s, are similar.