1. Stress Support
One of the reasons the Russian military was so interested in Rhodiola was for its effects on ameliorating the stress response.
The human body is well conditioned for managing various forms of stress. Whenever something poses a risk to our health or livelihoods the stress response becomes active. This system is designed to give us a temporary boost to get through the stress unscathed.
The stress response starts with the hypothalamus — a small region in the centre of the brain tasked with controlling how we respond to stress triggers. The hypothalamus sends messages to the pituitary gland, which then sends new messages to the adrenal glands — the source of the stress hormone known as cortisol.
Cortisol is responsible for what we generally experience as “stress”:
• High blood pressure.
• Mental stimulaton.
• Faster breathing.
• Rapid heartbeat.
If we experience stress to often this system can become dysfunctional — causing severe overreactions to even the smallest triggers of stress.
We’re often exposed to stress triggers such as financial debts, tight deadlines, relationship troubles, excessive exercise, or high expectations from others. Over time our threshold for resisting stress becomes very low — leading to overreactions to small triggers, and side-effects of chronically high cortisol levels (like insomnia, anxiety, brain fog, or fatigue).
Rhodiola is able to override this system by targeting the hypothalamus directly. It works by increasing the sensitivity of the hypothalamus to cortisol. If the hypothalamus senses that we already have enough cortisol in the bloodstream, even in the face of stress triggers it resists telling the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol - ultimately allowing us to resist stress more effectively.
2. Athletic Enhancement
Rhodiola is a popular athletic supplement for its ability to help us resist stress (see point above) - but it doesn’t end here.
This versatile herb has also been shown to regulate AMPK - an enzyme found within our cells that controls energy homeostasis throughout the body.
As we exercise our cells use up all the available energy. AMPK then steps in to increase the uptake and oxidation of fatty acids and glucose to release their stored energy. AMPK also slows down unnecessary cellular processes like protein synthesis to conserve energy further.
The result is a greater ability to resist fatigue while exercising — especially during endurance exercise.
3. Memory & Cognitive Health
A lot of the memory and cognitive enhancement effects attributed to Rhodiola are a side-effect of its adaptogenic properties. The idea is that if we can resist stress for long periods of time, we can work harder, and longer before becoming fatigued.
There are other ways this herb can improve our cognitive performance though — including its ability to inhibit an enzyme in the brain known as monoamine oxidase.
Monoamine oxidase is an important enzyme that breaks down the monoamine class of neurotransmitters in the brain — which include important players like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
By preventing the activity of monoamine oxidase, these neurotransmitters can build up to higher levels in the brain. This is a common mechanism a lot of other nootropics use to increase focus (through dopamine), motivation (serotonin and dopamine), and mental energy levels (dopamine and norepinephrine).