Life Extension Magazine September 2011
Reducing the Risks of High Cortisol
By Jan Whiticomb
Scientists have found that rhodiola possesses the power to restore malfunctioning biological systems, a key factor in reducing the detrimental effects of aging. In testing multiple organisms, rhodiola was found to enhance healthy responses to negative environmental stressors that include oxidative stress, acute and chronic heat shocks, and toxic chemical exposure.15
In the laboratory, rhodiola was found to protect human cells from premature aging when they were exposed to oxidative stress. Again, scientists used the compound derived from rhodiola called salidroside.16 Salidroside further preserves aging skin cells’ ability to reproduce, thereby creating healthier, more vital skin. One group of scientists found that the salidroside in rhodiola dramatically diminishes pathologic symptoms of aging in laboratory mice by preventing accumulation of inflammatory advanced glycation end products (AGEs).17
Further bolstering rhodiola’s anti-aging credentials is a recent study showing that rhodiola extract helps slow the aging process while extending life span.18 During this study, scientists administered rhodiola extract in the diet to a group of fruit flies. A control group did not receive the dietary rhodiola. The rhodiola-supplemented fruit flies demonstrated a 10% longer life span, compared with control subjects. When examined more closely, it was clear that the rhodiola-supplemented animals displayed decelerated aging, compared with subjects that did not receive the herb.19
Of important note, rhodiola’s anti-aging and longevity-promoting effects appeared to be independent of any special diet.19 This is of vital importance because it suggests that rhodiola provides longevity benefits through a mechanism separate from caloric restriction, which, as Life Extension readers know, is the best-documented method to increase life span to date.20
The possibility that rhodiola could act through a novel mechanism to forestall aging and lengthen life span is remarkable news for the anti-aging community.
Bolstering Heart Health
Heart disease remains the number one killer, and doctors report that many cardiac events are stress induced.21,22
Stress, whether physical or emotional, puts extra strain on the heart and other muscles. Numerous studies suggest that rhodiola exerts several protective benefits for the heart.23
A probable link between the administration of Rhodiola rosea extract and prevention of arrhythmia (potentially dangerous abnormal heart rhythms) was discovered in a recent study.24 The study involved test animals receiving Rhodiola rosea each day for 8 straight days. They were then subjected to an agent known to disrupt heart rhythm. Pre-treatment with rhodiola protected the animals against experimentally induced arrhythmia and electrical instability of the heart. The animals who received rhodiola were less vulnerable to heart damage caused by experimentally induced myocardial infarction (heart attack).
Another animal study highlights further potential cardioprotective benefits of rhodiola. In an animal model of coronary artery disease, rhodiola helped decrease the heart muscle’s oxygen consumption while increasing oxygen supply to the myocardium, helping to ensure that the heart muscle has enough oxygen required for optimal function.25
This evidence, combined with earlier animal studies suggesting rhodiola’s ability to reduce cardiac stress-related damage,23 supports the need for further in-depth studies of rhodiola’s cardiovascular benefits in humans.
Vital Organ Function and Enhanced Immunity
As the major detoxifier for the body, the liver processes countless amounts of toxins and removes them from our body. Rhodiola species support natural antioxidant systems in the liver and protect liver cells from damage by toxins and oxidative stress.26-29 As adaptogens, rhodiola species also carefully modulate the immune system, increasing its response to real threats of infection or malignancy, while preventing excessive inflammation.30-32 A species of rhodiola was found to modulate the immune system to promote a healthy response to certain vaccinations.33 Rhodiola potently inhibits tissue inflammatory responses to irritating drugs, preventing skin redness, swelling, and pain following exposure to the antifungal drug nystatin.30
Rhodiola species possess direct antiviral and antibacterial activities, which may reduce the risk of serious infections.34-38 For example, Rhodiola rosea inhibits the enzymes that flu viruses use to attach to and invade the cells of the respiratory tract, reducing your chances of catching the flu following an exposure.35
Combating Brain Aging
The neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases occurs as a result of inflammation in the nervous system coupled with the accumulation of harmful, pro-oxidant proteins that trigger even more inflammation and ultimately brain cell destruction. Constituents from rhodiola species such as salidroside display powerful antioxidant properties that prevent oxidative, pro-inflammatory effects as well as the formation of these proteins and the subsequent inflammatory cascade.39-43 Fewer brain cells die from oxidative stress.40,44
Nerve cells in the memory centers of the brain resist age-related damage and produce more beneficial neurotransmitters after treatment with rhodiola.45,46
Both short- and long-term memory enhancements have been demonstrated with rhodiola.47-49 Mental performance and acuity under experimentally induced adverse conditions, such as test-taking or sleep deprivation, are also significantly improved.7-9,11
Rhodiola species help aging humans fall asleep faster, longer, and with improved quality of rest.50,51 In one study of men with sleep disturbances, rhodiola increased the amount of time spent in healthful REM sleep, reduced total wakeful time during the night, and markedly increased the “efficiency” of sleep sessions.51 Greater blood oxygenation during sleep was also observed—a key longevity factor.
Physical activity and moderate exercise have multiple health benefits, but they also induce injury from oxidative stress, muscle cell damage, and inflammation. There is an important role, therefore, for adaptogens such as rhodiola in mitigating exercise-induced stress. Russian athletes have been known to use adaptogens to promote endurance and improve performance.
Rhodiola increased antioxidant blood levels and minimized oxidative stress-induced muscle damage in trained athletes for up to 24 hours after strenuous activity.52,53 One study showed an increase in the time to exhaustion during exercise, with significant increases in oxygen delivery to muscle tissues during the workout as well.54
Rhodiola species have been used for centuries by villagers living high in the Himalayas to enhance their resistance to the effects of oxygen deprivation and to boost their endurance for strenuous tasks.55 Those effects prove equally beneficial at more moderate altitudes. During exercise, rhodiola helps people work out longer, increasing their oxygen uptake and decreasing muscle damage.53,54 Long-term supplementation boosts energy storage capacity and blood oxygen level prior to exercise, further enhancing exercise capacity and endurance.55
Rhodiola species protect internal organs from the low oxygen levels found at higher altitudes and that also occur during heart attacks and strokes.56,57 A 2011 study revealed something of even greater significance: rhodiola prevents a phenomenon known as vascular remodeling in lung tissue at high altitudes.58
Vascular remodeling describes the thickening of pulmonary blood vessels that contributes to increased blood pressure in the lungs, a condition known as pulmonary hypertension.59 Chronic exposure to high altitude is just one cause of this condition, which leads rapidly to congestive heart failure.60,61 More common causes of pulmonary hypertension include cardiovascular disease, obesity, and obstructive sleep apnea.59,62 Rhodiola’s ability to prevent vascular remodeling, then, may represent an important and sorely needed new approach to managing a major cause of death and disability in older adults.63
Rhodiola is a cortisol suppressing herb that is becoming an increasingly popular dietary intervention in the United States.
It is one of a handful of known adaptogens—plant-based compounds known to support long, healthy life span in part by exerting system-wide protective and restorative effects.
Rhodiola has been shown to favorably modulate the stress response, restore vital organ function, and boost immunity. It is a low-cost nutrient that combats cognitive dysfunction, minimizing depression and anxiety, while enhancing muscle performance, endurance, and circulatory health.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Health Advisor at
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