How Rhodiola shelters us from Stress and Cortisol

Rhodiola shelters us from stress

Constituents of this Arctic plant act as a Stress Vaccine.

Our stress response system – the HPA axis –  is calibrated for intermittent, severe threats (such as lions).  Not for the incessant, trivial threats of modern life (such as difficult phone calls). We don’t want our hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis to charge up and release cortisol every time we drive in heavy traffic, but it will do so.

If you’re like me, you are trying to ease up on the HPA throttle. I practice yoga. I take magnesium. I switch off my computer in the evening like a good Naturopath. I sternly instruct my HPA axis to power down, but I must say that it does not always listen. If I could only be more Buddha-like, then I would not need to coax my adrenal axis with a herbal medicine like Rhodiola.

Heavy cortisol bombardment

Chronically elevated cortisol looks like this: sleep disturbance, suppressed thyroid function, insulin resistance, progesterone and testosterone deficiency. It shrinks the hippocampus of the brain. It causes osteoporosis and immune dysfunction. If that wasn’t enough, it shortens the telomeres of our DNA, which accelerates aging. When stress is unremitting, cortisol receptors lose sensitivity, forcing the HPA axis to pump cortisol up even higher. You can measure cortisol with a saliva test. You can feel it when you’re still lying awake at 1am. You can see it as weight gain around the middle.

Stress vaccine

Rhodiola is an Arctic plant with a root that smells like roses. It was traditionally used in Russia and Scandinavia as an energy and fertility tonic. Modern studies show that extracts of Rhodiola improve symptoms of depression, and relieve stress-induced fatigue.

Most interesting is its mechanism of action. By modulating a stress-activated protein kinase called JNK, Rhodiola restores the normal sensitivity of cortisol receptors.  This was demonstrated in a 2009 Swedish placebo-controlled study.  At the end of the 4 week study, participants given Rhodiola had measurably lower cortisol levels than placebo, and scored better on scales of burn-out and cognitive function.

Researchers propose that the constituents in Rhodiola and other adaptogen herbs act like mild stress-mimics.  They induce stress protection mechanisms such as heat shock proteins, and modulate the HPA axis. In this way, they inoculate the body against stress, and are a type of hormesis. Hormesis is a biological response whereby a mild stressor (such as exercise or calorie restriction) induces a homeostatic mechanism that protects against other stressors.

Why should our bodies respond to a plant this way?

Our physiology is primed to respond to the phytonutrients in the plants that we eat. When plants change their constituents in response to changes in their environment, then we, in turn, detect those constituents and those changes. Our physiology can prepare for our environment.

Does Rhodiola invite our body to prepare for the stress of  a harsh Arctic climate? Is that helpful for other types of stresses?

I loved the time that I’ve spent in Arctic wilderness. It is an austere, beautiful place (albeit full of biting flies). If an Arctic plant can now instruct my body to cope with the stresses of modern Sydney life, then so much the better. But it is not for such esoteric reasons that I take Rhodiola.  I take it because it makes me feel better, and this year, I hope that it will keep me from burning out in clinic again.

Rhodiola and other adaptogen herbs should be taken for between 2-6 months. Use caution with any licorice-containing formulas, as they can raise blood pressure.

Yours in Health, Lara Briden.


  1. Elizabeth Saunders says

    Hi Lara. Is this suitable for children? Thanks for all your useful and interesting info!

    • Lara Briden says

      Good question. As far as I understand, there have been no studies with children. It is a very safe herb, but it because it modulates hormone feedback mechanisms, I would be cautious with children. Maybe for an older child (10yo and over), and short-term (3 months max) and under professional guidance. I’d welcome a comment from a clinician here.

        • Lara Briden says

          I have never prescribed it for children. Kids respond so well to basic things like diet changes and magnesium and probiotics that I’ve never had reason to prescribe it. My comment above was only that in theory Rhodiola “could be” safe for older children for short term stress issues. It works on hormonal feedback mechanisms so should not be given to a child without medical supervision.

      • Mum says

        What is the most appropriate dosage? It is available in the US in 250mg, 500mg and 700mg – maybe more! Both tablets and capsules are available.

        • Lara Briden says

          The dose depends on the standardization of the extract, and the percentage of the active constituents such as rosavin. For a preparation with 2% rosavin, then dose is 150-300mg per day.

  2. lisa says

    Thank you Dr Lara. I have a question regarding you final comment.I currently drink licorice tea to aid with adrenal fatigue. Also have low blood pressure. May I take Rhodiola & licorice together because I.could benefit from raised blood pressure. Thank you for you continuing wisdom & advice for all women.

    • Lara Briden says

      Hi Lisa, yes, rhodiola and licorice can be dosed together, but just a reminder to anyone reading that licorice raises blood pressure (as Lisa says here), so must be used with caution. Adaptogens should not be used for more than 9 or 10 months continuous without advice.

  3. Fran says

    Dr. Lara — we can’t take Rhodiola for more than 2-6 months?? Can we take a break — and how long should the break be — and then start taking Rhodiola again? It’s being a lifesaver for me! Thanks!

    • Lara Briden says

      My experience is that the effectiveness of adaptogen herbs declines after 6 months continuous use. Yes, they can be stopped for 3-4 weeks and then restarted.

    • Lara Briden says

      There are so many ways. :-) Magnesium, L-theanine, zinc, phosphatidlyserine, Withania, GABA. Walk in nature. Quit a stressful job. Eliminate food sensitivities.

      • Linda says

        Some people have low cortisol levels in salivary testing, can you comment on how your answer would differ with that scenario?

  4. Ilina says

    Hi Lara,
    What if you don’t get stressed regularly but you grew up in a stressful environment. Would it permanently affect your cortisol levels and therefore affect sleep etc.. ?

    • Lara Briden says

      Childhood -especially early childhood – is when we calibrate our HPA axis (cortisol response). A moderate level of childhood stress may make us more resilient. But severe childhood stress is a problem, and may make us more vulnerable to stress later in life. I would say yes. People who experienced a stressful environment growing up may be more likely to need cortisol-balancing techniques like rhodiola, magnesium, meditation, etc when they are adults.

      • Linda says

        Another reason for childhood stress is an undiagnosed illness like celiac disease where the child is not absorbing nutrients like B-vitamins (needed for a healthy nervous system) for decades. Then in adulthood, even though they may not have had a stressful childhood environment, they are more vulnerable to stress later on in life. Can you comment on how this might effect the HPA axis (cortisol response)?

  5. g h says

    hi lara
    i started taking rhodiola ten days ago,i used to have a normal menstruation cycle while this time i got it much earlier than before:i had only 13 days without blood then the cycle is back.does this have any relation with the rhodiola? i am taking 340mg from a standardized extract.

    • Lara Briden says

      I would be surprised if Rhodiola disrupted a menstrual cycle, although it is possible. Anything that changes the HPA axis can influence female hormones. Are there other ingredients in the tablet?

        • chris says

          hi there just asking can you become dependent on taking this so when I come off them will I just feel like what I did before I took them

  6. Steve says

    I’ve just started taking Adrecor which contains Rhodiola rosea root extract, for a few different reasons (one of them is high cortisol). I’m also taking Calm CP which reduces cortisol before bed.


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