October 23, 2017
You won’t find many plants growing in the rough, high-reaching mountains of Russia.
The weather is cold enough to freeze limbs off explorers bold enough to travel there in the winter, and hot enough to dehydrate a cactus in the summer. Very few plants can survive the extreme conditions found on these mountains.
There is one plant, however, that has peaked the interest of botanists for over a century that appears to thrive in these stressful environments. We call this plant rhodiola.
Rhodiola may not look like much to the untrained eye. It's a small, modest succulent that forms clumps in some very unexpected places, some will even grow out the sides of rocks. These plants are known to endure extreme weather conditions, blazing winds, burning heat, and freezing subarctic temperatures, yet the plant appears unphased by it all.
Living within these mountainous regions of Russia, are small communities of people with incredibly long lifespans despite the harsh conditions. In the 1800s, a group of Soviet explorers were investigating what allowed these people to survive in such extreme environments. It was then that they took notice of the way that they used the root of the famously tenacious rhodiola plant. For the next 150 years, rhodiola began to appear in the scientific literature in countries including Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, and Iceland.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that research on the plant really began to develop, especially within the Soviet Union by a man named Dr. Nicolai Lazarev, the man who coined the word “adaptogen”. The term refers to any substance that improves the body's ability to respond to, and resist stress. In essence it includes anything that makes us more adaptable to the world around us, buffering our bodies from the harmful effects of cold, heat, wind, psychological stress, and mental or physical exhaustion.
The work of Dr. Nicolai Lazarev on rhodiola throughout the mid to late 90s grabbed the attention of the Russian government. They spent millions of dollars researching the plant, but banned their researchers from publishing their findings. The Russian government began using rhodiola with their Olympic teams, soldiers, and cosmonauts. They wanted to keep the edge rhodiola delivered for their own benefit.
This information was finally released to the public after a Russian scientist named Zakir Ramazanov fled the USSR, taking confidential research documents with him to the US.
Buzz about a new herb that could stimulate the mind, improve physical performance, make you more resistant to extreme cold or intense heat, and delivered no crash. Word spread quickly. Researchers from all over North America and Europe began to investigate the plant in more detail.
Since this time, there has been considerable amounts of well-conducted studies on the plant, and we now understand many of the mechanisms that allow this plant to produce such potent results on increasing both mental and physical exertion.
The Russians were big proponents of the use of rhodiola for improving physical exertion, which is what lead its incorporation with their Olympic teams, soldiers, and cosmonauts. This was a major focus of their research throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Since the release of this research, there has been explosive interest on the mechanisms behind rhodiola’s ability to improve physical exertion in both immediate and long term activity.
Rhodiola achieves this in part by regulating an enzyme known as AMPK which increases the number of mitochondria in our cells. These are effectively the “powerhouse” of our cells, producing the vast majority of energy we use. .
A clinical trial done in India on the effects of Rhodiola rosea on students during examination periods (periods of high stress) found significant improvement in both cognitive ability (memory and concentration tests), as well as physical endurance compared to the placebo control group.
Rhodiola has been shown in numerous animal models to improve learning speed, and increase decision making in both healthy and stressed animals .
Human studies have also backed this evidence, such as a recent double blind study investigating the capacity for rhodiola to ameliorate mental exhaustion in a group of 56 physicians working long hours, including night shifts. The physicians were either given a placebo control or a rhodiola extract, and were tested after each shift on cognitive performance designed to identify mental exhaustion. All physicians treated with rhodiola were noted to show a marked improvement on test scores compared to the placebo control group. Additionally, there were no adverse reactions or side effects noted throughout the study. .
A lot of the traditional uses of rhodiola involve its use as a stimulant. Scientific research on the plant has since proven these traditional claims, attributing the mental stimulating effects of the plant to its ability to potentiate the stimulating neurotransmitters within the brain.
Rhodiola is different from other stimulants because rather than directly stimulating these neurotransmitters, and subsequently causing us to crash once the effects have worn off, rhodiola works indirectly by preventing these neurotransmitters from breaking down as fast. The results are a profound, but long lasting energising effect without the crash.
Rhodiola is by far one of the most adaptable plants in the world. It can survive extreme weather in both directions, lives at incredibly high altitudes, and thrives in places where nothing else can survive. Thanks to some early research by the Russian government, we now understand how this plant can deliver similar adaptogenic benefit to the human body. Rhodiola prolongs our mental and physical endurance, boosts our physical outputs, and energises the body without causing us to crash later.
- Article written by Justin Cooke
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