Mixed review for Rhodiola rosea and sports performance

By Asia Sherman

- Last updated on GMT

© AscentXmedia / Getty Images
© AscentXmedia / Getty Images

Related tags Rhodiola rosea sports performance Muscle damage Sports nutrition

Does Rhodiola rosea reduce fatigue and increase endurance during times of emotional and physical stress? The Cold War Russians thought so, administering extracts from the hardy Siberia-grown perennial to its high-performing astronauts, soldiers and Olympic athletes, but a recent review published in the journal Phytotherapy Research reported mixed results.

Focusing on the effects of Rhodiola rosea​ supplementation on muscle damage and physical performance, a team of Spanish and U.S. researchers conducted a systematic search of the PubMed, Web of Science and Cochrane Library databases for randomized controlled trials published through March 2023. They generated 13 studies that met the inclusion criteria.

“The results were heterogenous, having 11 studies with some positive effects, while two studies show no effect in variables such as rating of perceived exertion, heart rate, antioxidant capacity, blood lactate, creatine kinase, or C-reactive protein,” they reported. “It is very hard to arrive at any firm conclusions based on the available datasets used in this review.”

Despite inconclusive results, the researchers identified several trends that could bolster the energy-enhancing and recovery promise of Rhodiola rosea ​for sports performance. 

Dramatic differences and risk of bias

The review highlighted dramatic differences in supplementation and exercise protocols, as well as the high risk of potential bias shown in the limited number of qualifying studies, as factors undermining the confidence in results. 

Two studies followed acute supplementation, five chronic and six combined both. The level of physical activity also varied among test subjects, ranging from highly trained athletes to the physically untrained. Of the 263 total participants (198 men and 65 women), most were between 18 and 30 years old, except for one study that included individuals between 38 and 45 years old.

Commenting on the study findings, PLT Health Solutions – the exclusive U.S. distributor of Rhodiolife, an extract from Rhodiola rosea​ grown in the Altai Mountains of Siberia and manufactured by Spanish nutraceutical company Nektium in the Canary Islands – pointed to the heterogeneity of products studied as a major limitation of the research. 

“There is a wide array of commercially available Rhodiola rosea​ products, with different specifications, significant quality and sustainability issues, and adulteration that often goes overlooked,” Jeremy Appleton, ND, director of medical and scientific affairs at PLT Health Solutions, told NutraIngredients-USA. “Not all Rhodiola rosea ​extracts are created equal, and this could also contribute to inconsistent outcomes across the breadth of the sports literature.” 

In 2019, the company introduced its “sports grade” Rhodiolife, certified by the Banned Substance Control Group (BSCG), as a U.S. market first.

Potential in the sports scenario 

According to a 2002 phytomedicinal overview published by the American Botanical Council​, Rhodiola rosea​ has been used in traditional medicine to increase physical endurance, work productivity, longevity, resistance to high altitude sickness, and to treat fatigue, depression, anemia, impotence, gastrointestinal ailments, infections, and nervous system disorders. 

“Given Rhodiola rosea​'s long history in helping bolster stamina and recovery, it makes sense to expect benefits in various sports scenarios, such as power, performance, and recovery outcomes; attenuation of muscle damage; etc.,” Appleton said. He added that PLT’s own research aligns with the review’s suggestion that the extract holds significant potential for applications in sports.

In analyzing the impact on various biomarkers and variables across studies, the researchers reported that acute Rhodiola rosea​ supplementation “appears to have a positive effect on endurance exercise performance and rating of perceived exertion”, while “chronic supplementation has a positive effect on anaerobic exercise performance but not endurance exercise performance”. 

They also suggested that supplementation may positively impact muscle damage during exercise and noted the important implications for athletes if future studies (using more standardized controls and measurement outcomes) support these effects.

“As the authors of the review point out, vigorous physical exercise induces an inflammatory reaction demonstrated by an increase in the blood of acute phase proteins such as C-reactive protein (CRP), and in one of the larger studies they reviewed​, CRP was significantly lower both five hours post-exercise and five days post-exercise in the volunteers who took Rhodiolife, compared to controls and those taking placebo,” Appleton added. 

Rhodiola retail sales

Market research firm SPINS reported a 12.1% year-on-year increase in rhodiola retail sales for the 52 weeks ending Aug. 18, with applications largely across reproductive, mood and cognitive health categories.

Although the herb made small dollar-sale strides as ingredient in energy and sports drinks during the same period (up 134% to $70,359), the data shows that it has yet to gain its footing in the performance nutrition category.

Source: Phytotherapy Research
“Rhodiola rosea supplementation on sports performance: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials”
doi: doi.org/ 10.1002/ptr.7950
Authors: Patricia M. Sanz-Barrio et al.

Related topics Research Botanicals Sports nutrition

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