I’ve taken up the subject of adaptogens over the last several weeks, and today I’m wrapping it up with two of my favorites: Rhodiola rosea and Bacopa monnieri.
Primal aficionados from way back will know that I’m a big fan of Rhodiola rosea. It’s an integral component of one of the original Primal Blueprint supplements, Primal Calm. It’s a formula I put together for my own needs and eventually decided to offer in the supplement line. (That seems to be how I come up with things, I suppose….) I’ve written in the past about stress being one of the issues I’m still working on in my Primal life, and adaptogens have been a useful tool I’ve employed. Living with an ancestral template doesn’t preclude being scientifically resourceful.
But let’s dig into these final two players….
The Details on This Duo
Throughout my adaptogenic posts, I’ve made a point of dwelling briefly on the key elements and life cycle of each herb. Personally, I’m always hesitant using (or, indeed, recommending an herb or supplement that I’m not intimately familiar with. Knowing the ins and outs of the herb itself helps you know how to source the good stuff and how to minimize the footprint of that supplement wherever possible.
No doubt reflecting its rich history of therapeutic use, Rhodiola rosea (rhodiola) goes by many names, including golden root and Arctic root. A perennial plant with red, pink or yellow flowers, rhodiola likes the barren tundra of northern latitudes and high altitudes best. It’s these kind of extreme growing conditions that seem to make a lot of adaptogens just so darn potent.
While Rhodiola Rosea is now grown in many of the colder parts of the world, including Canada, Alaska and Greenland, not all Rhodiola is created equal. This hardy herb is native to Siberia, and it appears that this is where it may traditionally have attained the highest concentration of therapeutic active ingredients. These healing ingredients are numerous and include an estimated 140 compounds isolated from both the roots and rhizome of the plant.
As with many of the adaptogens I’ve already covered, Bacopa monnieri (bacopa) has been in therapeutic circulation in Ayurvedic circles for centuries. More recently, Western soothsayers have caught on to bacopa’s abilities as a powerful nootropic and analgesic.
Bacopa’s favorite haunts are a far cry from the windswept barrens of the north, instead preferring to grow in the wetlands of subtropical locales across the world. It’s a perennial, creeping herb that grows vigorously in a range of aquatic biomes, making it a popular aquarium plant.
Because bacopa is now native to much of the world’s wetlands, sourcing high quality extracts and supplements of the stuff isn’t going to be overly difficult. Bacopa is loaded with bacosides, the active chemical compounds that enable its adaptogenic impacts. I also find it a nice coincidence that spell check tries to turn it into “bacon” each time, but that’s a Primal mind for you.
The Science on Rhodiola Rosea and Bacopa Monnieri
While there’s no shortage of research surrounding these two adaptogens, it’s worthwhile approaching any findings with a grain of salt. As with many emerging (in Western spheres, at least) subjects of interest in the literature, it often takes some time before a sufficiently broad spectrum of data is available to make any lasting assumptions about their efficacy. That being said, a lot of the preliminary research is very promising indeed.
Arguably, rhodiola’s greatest claim to fame is its ability to alleviate stress (unsurprising, given its status as an adaptogen) and elevate mood via complex pathways that act on central biogenic amines and beta-endorphins. This, along with rhodiola’s neuroprotective, nootropic and antidepressive effects, is precisely why it’s an integral component in my Primal Calm formula.
But the rhodiola research is something of a minefield, riddled with studies confounded by small sample sizes, lack of placebo controls, and sometimes insignificant differences between treatment and control groups. That being said, most of the research is overwhelmingly in favor of rhodiola as a powerful therapeutic herb. This is one I have the most experience with, and I can say firsthand how the vast majority of these benefits have played out for me and others. That said, I’m all for more research on the matter.
Here’s the quick and dirty on what’s been unearthed so far.
Mental Health and Mood
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Phytotherapy Research sought to determine the impact of rhodiola on self-reported anxiety, stress, cognition, and a host of other mental parameters. Eighty subjects were divided into either a twice-daily commercial formula (containing 200 mg rhodiola) group or a control group. Compared to the controls, the rhodiola group showed notable improvements in mood and significant reductions in anxiety, stress, anger, confusion and depression after 14 days.
While the study presents a nice foray into the potential of rhodiola for treating any number of mental maladies, it’s important to note that supplements like the one used in the study are often loaded with nasty fillers. Why they feel the need to put titanium dioxide and several other strange ingredients is beyond me. Also worth noting is the short duration of the study and the fact that it wasn’t placebo controlled, but the study proponents seemed to think the results were still significant.
Getting down to specifics, there’s a fair amount of debate on whether rhodiola can provide a decent treatment for depression. Studies in mice indicate that injection of salidroside, one of rhodiola’s more notable active ingredients, can exert a strong antidepressant effect along with alleviating anxiety and enhancing fear memory. A small 12-week trial examining the effect of rhodiola on humans, on the other hand, suggested that the adaptogen was less effective than sertraline (the generic version of Zoloft) in treating major depressive disorder. Perhaps if the participants had been given a stronger dose or an extract higher in salidroside, however, the results would have been more favorable. (For those of you who have applied Primal Calm toward depression therapy, I’d be interested in hearing your experience on this.)
Physical and Mental Fatigue
Rumor has it that rhodiola may be a useful adaptogen to have on hand for times of both physical and mental fatigue. And what better people to test this hypothesis on than nursing students doing shift work? A 2014 study examined the effect of 364 mg rhodiola at the beginning of the student’s shift and again within the following four hours of shift work over a 42 day period. Somewhat surprisingly, the proponents found that rhodiola, compared with the placebo, actually worsened fatigue, mysteriously noting that the results should be interpreted with caution. Perhaps by alleviating the stress those students were under the rhodiola allowed them to relax and gain a heightened awareness of their levels of fatigue? One can only speculate. I’ve never made a point of using it for this kind of purpose, so I can’t speak to the point personally. Again, perhaps others of you can.
However, another study performed a meta-analysis of over 206 articles relating to rhodiola, with 11 of those specific to physical and mental fatigue. Two of six trials examining physical fatigue in healthy subjects found rhodiola to be effective, as did three out of five studies investigating its impact on mental fatigue. Not overwhelming odds, but there’s enough to suggest a connection and stimulate further research.
Exercise Performance and Recovery
While the research on rhodiola and physical fatigue is a trifle disappointing, findings relating to the effect of rhodiola on endurance and exercise performance are anything but.
A 2003 study examined the effects of oral rhodiola supplementation on exhaustive swimming in rats. Impressively, 50 mg/kg rhodiola extract was able to prolong the duration of exhaustive swimming by a substantive 25%, both in comparison with Rhodiola crenulata extract and controls. The R. rosea extract also activated synthesis of ATP in skeletal muscle mitochondria and encouraged faster recovery after intensive exercise.
Two small studies on humans have produced similarly promising results. A 4-week trial on 14 trained male athletes showed that rhodiola supplementation reduced lactate concentrations along with lowering certain markers of skeletal muscle damage during exhaustive exercise.
A slightly larger study compared rhodiola supplementation (200 mg rhodiola plus 500 mg starch) to a placebo of straight starch. Over the course of several different trials involving limb movement speed, aural and visual reaction time, knee extensions and endurance exercise, researchers found that rhodiola intake significantly increased time to exhaustion and elevated pulmonary ventilation during exercise. The take-away? “Acute Rhodiola rosea intake can improve endurance exercise capacity in young healthy volunteers.” This purpose, along with mitigating mental stress, has been closer to my personal use of the adaptogen.
Memory and Cognition
Bacopa earned its hallowed status in the Ayurvedic world largely on its purported ability to improve memory and elevate cognitive function. If three centuries of anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, bacopa (aka brahmi) is a nootropic force to be reckoned with. But what does science say about the matter?
As usual, the jury is still out on this one. A 2002 study tested the effects of bacopa on various memory functions in 76 participants ages 40 and 65. Aside from a reported improvement in new information retention, other memory variables were unaffected by long-term bacopa supplementation.
At the other end of the spectrum, a similar study with a larger group of older Australians found that bacopa supplementation over the course of three months significantly improved verbal learning, memory acquisition, and delayed recalls. Given that this was a larger, more recent study, I’m more inclined to give credence to the results of this study, but clearly there’s a need for more research on the topic.
In the cognition arena, things are a little less contested. A 2014 meta-analysis that included 437 subjects across 9 studies indicated that bacopa can improve cognition and decrease choice reaction time. That could be all the edge you need to win your favorite gameshow.
Finally, another meta-analysis published in 2016, found that across five studies bacopa demonstrated significant improvements in language behavior and a number of memory sub-domains.
Beyond clarity of mind, bacopa shows a decent amount of potential in the analgesic arena. A 2013 literature review noted that “Bacopa monnieri, a renowned ayurvedic medicine has a strong antidepressant effect and significant antinociceptive effect, which is comparable to the effect of morphine via adenosinergic, opioidergic, and adrenergic mechanisms. BM has been also reported to be effective in neuropathic pains.”
This could make bacopa an effective augmentation to conventional morphine pain relief for certain applications (a pain specialist would be able to speak to specific conditions more than I can here), with the added benefit that it appears to alleviate some of the side effects associated with chronic opiate use. For those who live with chronic pain and depend on conventional pain meds (especially opiates) even after healthy lifestyle adjustments, it might be worth a talk with your doctor.
Drilling down into the specific studies, the findings appear no less promising. A paper that examined the effect of bacopa extract on neuropathic pain found that it increased pain thresholds and reduced hyper-sensitivity. Other tests on animals echo these findings, with bacopa providing an opioid-type pain relief without the withdrawal symptoms associated with the likes or morphine.
Given bacopa’s role as a nootropic, it’s not overly surprising to discover that it may also be an effective natural treatment for neurodegenerative diseases. A 2013 study that compared the neuroprotective abilities of bacopa to donepezil, a common prescription treatment for Alzheimer’s, found that bacopa was at least as capable as the pharmaceutical in many respects, making it a potentially powerful drug in the treatment of certain neurodegenerative diseases.
Another study published this year showed that bacopa administration “was seen to protect the cholinergic neurons and reduce anticholinesterase activity comparable to donepezil, rivastigmine, and galantamine.” Researchers found that bacopa promoted free radical scavenging and helped to protect cells in the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and other areas of the brain.
What Are the Contraindications?
Over the course of these adaptogenic articles, I’ve had a hard time tracking down anything overly damning in terms of side effects or contraindications. There’s a reason for that: adaptogens are generalists by nature, alleviating stress throughout the body—but in so doing bypassing many of the side effects associated with condition-specific drugs and treatments.
With that said, there are times when you should use these herbs carefully or not at all. And, the usual disclaimer—consult your physician before beginning any new supplement regimen (but you know this already). Here’s a quick look at dosage effects and complications associated with rhodiola and bacopa.
Lab tests indicate that reaching toxicity levels from rhodiola supplementation would be very difficult indeed, with a 70kg man needing around 235,000 mg rhodiola to knock himself flat. Given typical doses range between 200 and 600 mg per day, it’s fair to say that you needn’t worry overmuch.
As far as side effects go, it’s a slippery slope. Keep in mind that individual reactions vary. Based on anecdotal hearsay, small doses of rhodiola can produce energizing effects while large doses may send you in the other direction, making one relaxed or drowsy. The reason behind this may be due to the opioid-type effect rhodiola exerts on the brain, elevating mood and concentration and even increasing caffeine metabolism.
This in turn can make people who are anxious or high-strung feel jittery or overstimulated, particularly if they’ve made the mistake of also knocking back a cup of coffee that morning. The drowsy effects may come about due to the depletion of those same neurotransmitters, caused by overdosing on rhodiola and hence overloading the receptors.
As such, those who consume a lot of caffeine or suffer from bipolar disorder should probably steer clear of rhodiola.
I also make a point of saying pregnant or nursing women should avoid adaptogens.
Bacopa side effects are slightly more straightforward: mild nausea, upset stomach and diarrhea are uncommon but possible—probably if you’re taking too high a dose or too frequently. Studies in rats have indicated that bacopa supplementation at high doses can result in lowered fertility, but whether this applies to humans or not is anyone’s guess.
It’s important to note that bacopa is contraindicated if you’re taking thyroid medications, antidepressants, or sedatives. And, again, avoid if you’re pregnant or nursing.
What to Look for in a Supplement
As always, choosing quality over quantity is always a wise move when you’re in the market for adaptogens. Find out where the adaptogen in question grows best, what active ingredients it should contain in sufficient concentrations, and how it’s been processed and packaged.
For rhodiola supplements, seek out products that contain 2 to 3% rosavin and at least 0.8% salidrosides. (This generally reflects the formula used in scientific trials.) A lower dosage of well-sourced, potent rhodiola can work for most people (100 mgs does it for me), but if you have particular needs that suggest a higher dosage might be better, increase slowly with a maximum of 400 mg/day if it sits well with you. As always,
Similar advice applies to bacopa, however the origin doesn’t matter quite as much. Try to source organic bacopa supplements where possible, and only buy those that are packaged in light-resistant containers. It seems 300 mg/day appears to be the “sweet spot” for bacopa supplementation, but once again play it safe and start with a low dosage and work your way up. Everyone’s tolerance is different. Less can be more.
This wraps up my foray into adaptogens for a while. Thanks for stopping by today. Let me know if you have follow-up questions or other adaptogens you’d like to see covered down the road. Take care.
About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.
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