The Vikings used the aromatic roots of Rhodiola rosea to fight infections, stimulate sexual appetite and enhance fertility. Alaska natives, such as the Inupiat Eskimo, used rhodiola as a medicine and a food: The flowers make a fragrant tea, and the leaves and stems can be turned into salad or sauerkraut. Like ginseng, R. rosea (also known as Arctic root or golden root) is considered an adaptogen -- an herb that helps the body cope with stressors, such as anxiety, lack of sleep, extreme temperatures or environmental toxins.
Uses: Supplement makers' claims for the root are broad. It's reputedly an anticancer, cardioprotective energy booster and antidepressant that can improve exercise performance and kidney health and treat chronic fatigue syndrome.
Dose: Recommended doses range from 50 to 250 milligrams one to three times a day, between meals. Look for products containing at least 2% to 3% rosavin (one of Rhodiola rosea's more important active ingredients, along with salidroside). Experts suggest starting with a low dose and gradually increasing the dose over several days.
Precautions: High doses (1,500 milligrams a day or more) may cause restlessness and insomnia. Centuries of folk medicine use have produced no other warnings of side effects or contraindications, but some doctors caution that little is known about rhodiola's safety in children or pregnant or breast-feeding women.
Research: Preliminary lab research suggests rhodiola might improve mental and physical performance by altering levels of certain chemicals in the central nervous system. Several controlled trials have shown that the root can improve cognitive function in people deprived of sleep. But studies on exercise performance have produced mixed results. Few strong human studies have proved rhodiola's effectiveness in treating depression or preventing heart disease or cancer, though a few animal and test tube experiments have provided some promising preliminary results.
Dietary supplement makers are not required by the U.S. government to demonstrate that their products are safe or effective. Ask your healthcare provider for advice on selecting a brand.
-- Elena Conis