Rhodiola: An Herbal Solution for Depression?

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For the millions of Americans with depression, an herb named rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) may offer some relief. While there's currently a lack of large-scale clinical trials testing rhodiola's effects on mental health, some research shows that the herb may help treat certain disorders, including major depression (a condition in which depression symptoms interfere with daily life for weeks or longer).

Why Is Rhodiola Sometimes Used for Depression?

In herbal medicine, rhodiola has long been used for health problems resulting from stress. In fact, rhodiola is frequently classified by practitioners of herbal medicine as an adaptogen (a type of herb said to strengthen your resistance to the negative effects of chronic stress). Since chronic stress may raise your risk of depression, it's thought that rhodiola may help protect against depression in part by influencing your stress response.

Preliminary research indicates that rhodiola may fight stress-related depression by affecting levels of brain chemicals involved in regulating mood. In an animal-based study published in Phytomedicine in 2009, for instance, tests on rats with stress-induced depression demonstrated that treatment with rhodiola helped increase the subject animals' levels of serotonin (a chemical found to play a key role in mood regulation).

 

Research on Rhodiola for Depression

Although there's not a great deal of scientific support for rhodiola's potential benefits as an alternative treatment for depression, several small studies suggest that the herb may help enhance mood in people with this condition. 

Research on the possibly antidepressant effects of rhodiola includes a small clinical trial published in the journal Phytomedicine in 2015.

For the study, 57 adults with major depression were assigned to 12 weeks of treatment with rhodiola, sertraline (an antidepressant medication commonly sold under the brand name Zoloft®), or a placebo.

At the end of the study, participants taking rhodiola were 1.4 times more likely to report improvements in depression-related symptoms (compared to patients given the placebo). Meanwhile, study members given sertraline were 1.9 times more likely to report such improvements, in comparison to those who took the placebo. However, patients treated with sertraline were also twice more likely to experience side effects such as nausea and sexual dysfunction than those who received rhodiola.

Given these findings, the study's authors concluded that rhodiola "may possess a more favorable risk-to-benefit ratio" for people with depression.

In research published in the Nordic Journal of Psychiatry in 2007, a six-week-long clinical trial involving 89 people with mild to moderate depression found that patients treated with rhodiola experienced greater improvements in depression (compared to those given a placebo for the same time period).

Study members who received rhodiola also had greater improvements in factors like insomnia and emotional instability.

Alternatives to Rhodiola for Depression

Rhodiola is one of many natural remedies that may have some beneficial effects for people dealing with depression. For instance, studies suggest that herbs such as St. John's wort and dietary supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids and SAM-e may help alleviate depression-associated symptoms.

A host of alternative therapies may also boost mood in those with depression. These therapies include acupuncture and massage therapy

Because depression and stress are so closely linked, stress-reducing techniques like meditation may help manage depression as well.

You can learn more about mind-body therapies for depression here.

Caveats

Rhodiola may trigger a number of side effects, including dizziness, dry mouth, and headaches.

It's also important to note that depression may worsen and greatly impair your ability to function when left untreated. Therefore, it's crucial to consult a mental-health professional as soon as possible if you're experiencing symptoms such as persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, loss of interest in everyday activities, sleep disturbance, and/or difficulty concentrating.

A mental-health professional can also guide you in incorporating rhodiola (or any other type of alternative medicine) into your depression management plan.

Sources

Chen QG1, Zeng YS, Qu ZQ, Tang JY, Qin YJ, Chung P, Wong R, Hägg U. "The effects of Rhodiola rosea extract on 5-HT level, cell proliferation and quantity of neurons at cerebral hippocampus of depressive rats." Phytomedicine. 2009 Sep;16(9):830-8.

Darbinyan V1, Aslanyan G, Amroyan E, Gabrielyan E, Malmström C, Panossian A. "Clinical trial of Rhodiola rosea L. extract SHR-5 in the treatment of mild to moderate depression." Nord J Psychiatry. 2007;61(5):343-8.

Dwyer AV1, Whitten DL, Hawrelak JA. "Herbal medicines, other than St. John's Wort, in the treatment of depression: a systematic review." Altern Med Rev. 2011 Mar;16(1):40-9.

Mao JJ1, Xie SX2, Zee J2, Soeller I3, Li QS3, Rockwell K4, Amsterdam JD5. "Rhodiola rosea versus sertraline for major depressive disorder: A randomized placebo-controlled trial." Phytomedicine. 2015 Mar 15;22(3):394-9.

Panossian A1, Wikman G, Sarris J. "Rosenroot (Rhodiola rosea): traditional use, chemical composition, pharmacology and clinical efficacy." Phytomedicine. 2010 Jun;17(7):481-93.

Qin YJ1, Zeng YS, Zhou CC, Li Y, Zhong ZQ. "Effects of Rhodiola rosea on level of 5-hydroxytryptamine, cell proliferation and differentiation, and number of neuron in cerebral hippocampus of rats with depression induced by chronic mild stress." Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi. 2008 Dec;33(23):2842-6.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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