How Rhodiola Shelters Us From Stress and Cortisol

Rhodiola shelters us from stressOur 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.

Yours in health,


47 thoughts on “How Rhodiola Shelters Us From Stress and Cortisol”

  1. Sadly I am unable to take Rhodiola. I had what a naturopath told me was a paradoxical reaction. My muscles all became very tight (especially neck muscles). But I have this reaction to other things too: Vitamin B6, glutamine are two examples. I am a highly sensitive person and I think that is why.

  2. Hi Lara,

    I have high testosterone and DHEAS and am wondering is Rhodiola and Ashwaganda will lower my DHEAS and testosterone? I have seen lots of studies saying that ashwaganda raises testosterone and I don’t want that!

  3. Hi Lara, I’m trying to get pregnant and my ND has been looking into my thyroid due to a visible enlargement. My TSH is 1.45 but my T3 and T4 are low, antibodies are 12. My ND has suggested rhodiola to help with adrenals support. Do you have any comment on rhodiola and thyroid? Thank you.

  4. Hi Lara,

    I have PCOS which I think is made worse by stress as I’m very anxious. I have just started taking ashwagandha and have found it wonderfully calming and I am able to think clearly for the first time in ages. Can I take rhodiola too or would this be too much?


  5. Hi, 44, have taken DIM for a month and have now a little trouble sleeping enough. Fall asleep quicky, but wake up several times during the night and finally up after like 5 hours of sleep. Wide awake but tired. Dont suffer from depression or anxiety, feel good. Hormons are ok also. Have today stopped taking DIM in case lowering estrogen was the reason or cause. Want to get pregnant and am afraid DIM may have ruined something. Or unbalanced me. Will start taking magnesium in liquid form to see if this helps me. Thanks

  6. Is there any recommendation with using Holy Basil along with Rhodiola? I was advised to use both, but was not informed as to why. Thank you!

  7. Dear Lara. I’m reading your book to regain my period. So far I eliminated PCOS from my diagnosis (after blood tests), but have no period for 7 months (after coming off the pill). I followed your advice from the book on a healty diet (no gluten, cow milk, magnesium, selen etc.). I have been through a long depression and eating disorder (my BMI is normal). I think the underlying issue can be stress / depression related and has to do with mt thyriod function. Can you take Ashwagandha and Rhodiola together? Or which one would you reccomend stress and a unbalanced LH/FSH ratio (Low LH) and a year of long depression / stress? All the best, Betty

  8. Hi lara
    i have been taking rhodiola for like 10 months and i heard that i shouldn’t take it for that long.
    I don’t want to stop it because it is helping me for anxiety and mild depression symptoms,are there any side effects for taking it for that long? what is your advice?

    • Get your gut checked, get vitamin levels checked, etc. Organic acids test is a good start. In my opinion no one should need to be taking Rhodiola or similar herbs.

      • Is there ever a case where licorice or the peony + licorice combination can cause a woman to break out in acne more? Or does it actually help to clear skin? I have low testosterone as it is but still break out in acne even though all my androgens have all finally gone back to normal range. I would still like to take licorice for stress but just concerned about any skin side effects? Thank you!

  9. Dr Lara,
    I have PCOS and elevated cortisol (saliva testing). I took one dose of Rhodiola and was concerned by my reaction. After about 30 minutes I started to feel extremely drowsy and could hardly keep my eyes open. This continued for 1-2 hours. Then I became alert and my body felt like it was racing and wired. This continued for two days during which time I couldn’t sleep at all. Then it gradually diminished. What could this indicate? I seem to be having similar reactions to supplements that I used to be fine with. It has made me scared to try anything. Regards, Sacha.

    • Hi Sacha,
      I’ve never heard of that reaction to Rhodiola before. It’s a pretty gentle herb. Was there anything else in the supplement? It might even have been one of the excipients (binding agents). All that said, you might want to choose a different treatment.

    • Hi Sacha,
      I also have PCOS, and took my first dosage of Rhodiola yesterday, and had a similar reaction but the opposite order. After about an hour I had lots of energy, even trembly hands, and about 4 hours later I hit a brick wall and became very tired… yet I had a hard time staying asleep. Interesting…

  10. How much rhodiola would be beneficial to take daily in an attempt to lower hyperstimulation of DHEA-S by the adrenals? Thank you!

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

    • 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?

  13. 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.. ?

    • 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.

      • 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)?

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

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

  14. 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!

    • 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.

  15. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

        • 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.

    • 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.

        • 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.

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