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’re 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 HPA axis with a herbal medicine like Rhodiola.
The negative effects of cortisol
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 1 am. You can see it as weight gain around the middle.
Rhodiola is a 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.
Our bodies take information from plants
Our physiology is primed to respond to the phytonutrients of 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? Maybe that’s why it helps for other types of stresses.
I cherish the time I spent in the Arctic wilderness. It is an austere, beautiful place. If an Arctic plant can instruct my body to cope with the stresses of modern Sydneyc city 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.