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Dr. Tori Hudson, Portland, Oregon, Blog Healthline Blog

happinessRhodiola rosea was recently studied for its safety and efficacy compared to a prescription anti-depressant, sertraline for mild to moderate depressive disorder. Sertraline (aka Zoloft) is an antidepressant in a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and premenstrual dysphoric disorder.

This phase II randomized placebo controlled clinical trial involved 57 individuals who were randomized to 12 weeks of a standardized extract of Rhodiola rosea, sertraline or placebo. The Rhodiola rosea was a 340 mg powdered extract standardized to 3.07% rosavin. Study evaluation tools used were the Hamilton Depression Rating (HAM-D), the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and the Clinical Global Impression Change (CGI/C). Changes in scores over time were used for each group and compared.

Results: While the results were considered statistically non-significant, there were modest reductions for HAM-D, BDI and CGI/C scores for all the depression conditions. The decline in HAM-D scores were greater for those taking sertraline (-8.2 with a range of -12.7 to-3.6) versus Rhodiola rosea (-5.1, with a range of -8.8 to -1.3), and placebo (-4.6, with a range of -8.6 to -0.6). The odds of improving were greater for sertraline than Rhodiola (1.9 vs. 1.39), however, there were more individuals who reported adverse events on the sertraline (63.2%) than the Rhodiola (30.3%) or placebo (16.7%).

Commentary: While Rhodiola was less effective as an antidepressant than the sertraline, there were also significantly less adverse events and it was much better tolerated. For this reason, for many patients, Rhodiola may have a more favorable risk to benefit ratio for those with mild to moderate depression.

A small trial was published in 2008 in those with a diagnosis of general anxiety disorder. Participants received 340 mg daily of Rhodiola rosea extract for 10 weeks. Significant decreases in the mean Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale were seen.

Rhodiola rosea, or “golden root”, is an herb that has been used in Russia, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Asia for generations. It has much more recently been introduced in the West. Traditionally, Rhodiola rosea was used in folk medicine with a reputation to increase physical endurance, productivity, longevity, resistance to high altitude sickness, fatigue, depression, anemia, impotence, gastrointestinal ailments, infections and disorders of the nervous system. The roots were used as bouquets to enhance fertility in young Siberian couples prior to their marriage. The tea was used for colds and flus during the hard winters in Asia. Rhodiola was highly coveted as a trade item by outsiders, and in exchange, they gave up their fine wines, fruits and honey.

The Vikings of Scandinavia used the herb to enhance their physical strength and endurance – something they came to be famous for. All of this folklore first led to investigations of its phytochemistry in the early 1960s that identified adaptogenic compounds in the roots of the plant. These adaptogens, as well as the later discovered antioxidant and neuromodulating compounds in Rhodiola rosea, are responsible for its medicinal properties.


Reference: Mao J, Xie S, Zee J, et al. Rhodiola rosea versus sertraline for major depressive disorder: A randomized placebo-controlled trial. Phytomedicine 2015;22(3): 394-399.

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