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Rhodiola rosea believed to make everything rosy

A herb written about by the ancient Greeks, rhodiola rosea is credited by complementary medicine practitioners with having curative and preventative powers for everything from headaches to heart attacks, writes Roisin Armstrong

Rhodiola rosea has been used historically for everything from fighting depression to improving sexual function

IN THE world of herbal medicine, rhodiola rosea is highly regarded. A herb with a wide range and long history of uses, it is believed to play roles in fighting depression, enhancing immunity and memory, aiding weight reduction, improving sexual function and improve energy levels.

It is the plant's roots that are generally used for their believed therapeutic properties and these are pretty extensive. The roots contain antioxidants, tannins, flavonoids, and rosavins, the active compound believed to produce antidepressant and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects.

Rhodiola has been used all around the world in traditional medicines since Roman times – they used it as a headache remedy – but it has been recommended for everything from fatigue and infections to impotence.

It was extensively researched by Soviet scientists in the 1940s as an aid to the health of their cosmonauts; this research has only recently become available since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While controversy persists over some of the claims made about rhodiola's efficacy, its benefits have become more widely accepted – study of the plant's effects is ongoing.

Rhodiola is non-toxic when used within recommended dosages, non-addictive, and antioxidant-rich. Like ginseng and ginger, herbalists consider it to be an adaptogen, meaning that it helps the mind and body adapt to stress and help us to cope with other hurdles.

It has been found to alleviate both physical and mental stressors, from a wide range of triggers, including extremes of temperature, trauma, and exposure to toxins, fatigue, sleep deprivation, infection, or psychological stress. It is thought to work by making serotonin's precursors, tryptophan and 5-HTP, more available to the brain and by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain.

A 2011 review of clinical trials found that people who supplemented with rhodiola rosea often experienced physical and mental rejuvenation. The review also reported encouraging results with regard to its effect on overall mental health.

Other research has shown that rhodiola may minimise the harmful effects of stress and fatigue by toning down the responses of the nervous system. It also seems to be able to target and stop the enzymes responsible for decreasing the brain's levels of the neurotransmitters; serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

There has also been some limited research suggesting that it may also inhibit the growth of cancer cells, but so far this has only been demonstrated in animal studies.

One of rhodiola's most adaptogenic aspects is that it appears to be able to help many issues relating to sexual health of both men and women. In one study of 40 women who weren't having periods, after treatment with100 to 150mg per day of Rhodiola for several months, 25 resumed their periods and 11 became pregnant.

Rhodiola rosea may help to protect against heart attacks, in a number of different ways. Stress causes adrenaline release which over time can adversely affect the heart. This herb appears to decrease the amount of adrenaline and cortisol released during stress and it has been found to lower serum fats and cholesterol while increasing the resistance of blood vessels to cholesterol plaques.

The herb is also thought to have an ability to activate adipose lipase, a key enzyme required to burn body fat, and so is credited having the potential to aid weight loss.

However, much of the research that has been carried out on rhodiola has been within small groups and there is a caution with this powerful herb. While herbalists consider moderate use safe, side effects such as irritability, insomnia, fatigue, and allergies may occur at higher doses or when consumed over a long period. Always check with a health practitioner.

As always, approach any herb with caution: they are strong medicine. And consult your pharmacist if you are taking any other medication. Rhodiola is available in all health shops and selected pharmacies.

:: Roisin Armstrong is a kinsiologist and acupuncturist with clinics in Portglenone (for an appointment call 028 2582 133), Belfast and Holywood (0777 0862 637).

r.armstrong@irishnews.com

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