Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola Rosea

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Rhodiola rosea: A Phytomedicinal Overview

Rhodiola rosea L., also known as "golden root" or "roseroot" belongs to the plant family Crassulaceae.[ 1] R. rosea grows primarily in dry sandy ground at high altitudes in the arctic areas of Europe and Asia.[ 2] The plant reaches a height of 12 to 30 inches (70cm) and produces yellow blossoms. It is a perennial with a thick rhizome, fragrant when cut. The Greek physician, Dioscorides, first recorded medicinal applications of rodia riza in 77 C.E. in De Materia Medica.[ 3] Linnaeus renamed it Rhodiola rosea, referring to the rose-like attar (fragrance) of the fresh cut rootstock.[ 4]
For centuries, R. rosea has been used in the traditional medicine of Russia, Scandinavia, and other countries. Between 1725 and 1960, various medicinal applications of R. rosea appeared in the scientific literature of Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, and Iceland.[ 2][ 4-12] Since 1960, more than 180 pharmacological, phytochemical, and clinical studies have been published. Although R. rosea has been extensively studied as an adaptogen with various health-promoting effects, its properties remain largely unknown in the West. In part this may be due to the fact that the bulk of research has been published in Slavic and Scandinavian languages. This review provides an introduction to some of the traditional uses of R. rosea, its phytochemistry, scientific studies exploring its diverse physiological effects, and its current and future medical applications.

Rhodiola rosea in Traditional Medicine

Traditional folk medicine used R. rosea to increase physical endurance, work productivity, longevity, resistance to high altitude sickness, and to treat fatigue, depression, anemia, impotence, gastrointestinal ailments, infections, and nervous system disorders. In mountain villages of Siberia, a bouquet of roots is still given to couples prior to marriage to enhance fertility and assure the birth of healthy children.[ 2] In Middle Asia, R. rosea tea was the most effective treatment for cold and flu during severe Asian winters. Mongolian doctors prescribed it for tuberculosis and cancer.[ 13] For centuries, only family members knew where to harvest the wild "golden roots" and the methods of extraction.[ 2] Siberians secretly transported the herb down ancient trails to the Caucasian Mountains where it was traded for Georgian wines, fruits, garlic, and honey. Chinese emperors sent expeditions to Siberia to bring back the "golden root" for medicinal preparations.

Linnaeus wrote of R. rosea as an astringent and for the treatment of hernia, leucorrhoea (vaginal discharge), hysteria, and headache.[ 4][ 7] In 1755 R. rosea was included in the first Swedish Pharmacopoeia. Vikings used the herb to enhance their physical strength and endurance.[ 14] German researchers described the benefits of R. rosea for pain, headache, scurvy, hemorrhoids, as a stimulant, and as an anti-inflammatory.[ 15][ 16]

In 1961, G.V. Krylov, a Russian botanist and taxonomist in the Department of Botany at the Novosibirsk Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, led an expedition to the cedar taiga in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia where he located and identified the "golden root" as Rhodiola rosea.[ 17] Extracts of the R. rosea root were found to contain powerful adaptogens. Research revealed that it protected animals and humans from mental and physical stress, toxins, and cold.[ 2][ 17] The quest for new medicines to treat diseases such as cancer and radiation sickness, and to enhance physical and mental performance, led to the discovery of a group of phenylpropanoids that are specific to R. rosea. (See Phytochemistry section below.)

Geographical Distribution and Taxonomy of Rhodiola rosea

While Rhodiola as a genus may have originated in the mountainous regions of Southwest China and the Himalayas,[ 18] botanists have established that various species of the genus Rhodiola naturally display a circumpolar distribution in mountainous regions in the higher latitudes and elevations of the Northern Hemisphere. In Central and Northern Asia, the genus is distributed from the Altai Mountains across Mongolia into many parts of Siberia.[ 19] According to Hegi, its distribution in Europe extends from Iceland and the British Isles across Scandinavia as far south as the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Carpathian Mountains and other mountainous Balkan regions. Several varieties of Rhodiola species have also been identified across Alaska, Canada, and the northern mountains of the continental United States.[ 20] In fact, the world database of botanical literature shows many citations identifying a broad range of species of the genus Rhodiola, in some cases including R. rosea, in many diverse locations in northern latitudes (see Table 1).

The current taxonomical status of the genus Rhodiola has become quite complex. Before World War II, some taxonomists separated different species of Rhodiola into an independent genus, belonging to the subfamily Sedoidae.[ 20] Then Rhodiola was reclassified as a subgenus of the larger genus Sedum, which contained about 10 species. In 1963 Hegi identified more than 50 species of Rhodiola and re-established them as a separate genus.[ 20] Due to their morphological similarities, they form a distinct Rhodiola group.[ 21] There are still differing opinions among specialists about which new species should or should not be included in the genus Rhodiola. The rationale and defining criteria for the boundaries of the genus remain somewhat controversial. This is not, in itself, necessarily counterproductive, since the acquisition of botanical knowledge inevitably stimulates new understanding and insight, creating the need for revised systems of classification. In the case of R. rosea, however, this taxonomic ambiguity may have unexpected and potentially negative consequences.

Popularizing a phytomedicinal plant like R. rosea can create confusion when the public is offered a variety of "Rhodiola" products using the general plant family name instead of the full botanical name of the particular species. For example, products called "Rhodiola spp., Tibetan Rhodiola or Indian Rhodiola" may incorrectly imply equivalence with R. rosea extract. Because of significant species-dependent variation in phytochemistry and pharmacology, the use of "Rhodiola" as a general term is inaccurate and misleading. The correct identification of all Rhodiola species according to precise and generally accepted botanical, phytochemical, and genetic taxonomic criteria is not merely an abstract intellectual exercise. It is critical for both scientific and phytopharmacological accuracy, as well as for product labeling for the public.
Consumers may need professional guidance to avoid purchasing ineffective brands, particularly those that do not provide full information, including the complete botanical name of the plant species. Companies may change their suppliers over time. Therefore, consumers should periodically check independent sources of product evaluation, as well as requesting information about quality control and content from manufacturers.

The pharmacological and medicinal properties of Rhodiola are species-dependent phenomena.[ 22] Of all the Rhodiola species, R. rosea has been the predominant subject of phytochemical, animal, and human studies.[ 2][ 18][ 23][ 24] Table 2 compares the research record of R. rosea with all other species of the genus Rhodiola. Approximately 51 percent of all animal studies and 94 percent of all human studies conducted on plants in the genus Rhodiola are on the species R. rosea. Only R. rosea has passed extensive toxicological studies and has been certified safe for both animals and humans.[ 25]