Warming to a Cold War Herb

Soviet secret finds its way west

Zakir Ramazanov first encountered Rhodiola rosea in 1979 as a Soviet soldier in Afghanistan. A comrade often received boxes full of the yellow-flowered mountain herb from his home in Siberia and would prepare and share a sweet-smelling tea from the root. Ramazanov found that the drink seemed to quicken his hiking and speed his recovery after a taxing mission.

HILLSIDE HABITAT. Rhodiola rosea (yellow flowers at left) grows in the Altai Mountains of Siberia. The plant thrives in cold climates at high altitudes. Brown

HEALTHFUL HANDFUL. Psychiatrist Richard Brown holds a bunch of Rhodiola rosea during a 2003 expedition to Siberia. Brown recommends root extracts of the plant for treating depression and other ailments. Brown

After Ramazanov left the army, he forgot about the Siberian herb. Despite having a good job, he felt depressed, and flashbacks from the war interfered with his daily tasks. After trying various drugs and natural remedies to ease his symptoms, he happened upon a lecture about rhodiola. He learned that the Soviets had been studying the herb since the 1940s, feeding it to Olympic athletes and cosmonauts. Government scientists had noted that rhodiola boosted the body’s response to stress.

If it was good enough for weight lifters and space travelers, it was good enough for him, Ramazanov thought. He began taking rhodiola extracts, and after a month his symptoms lifted. He had more energy during the day and could finally sleep at night. The horrific war images faded and his concentration improved.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ramazanov moved to New York State, began translating Russian rhodiola research, and started a small business to import the herb. A few years later, Richard Brown, a psychiatrist at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, heard about rhodiola from two of his patients. They independently mentioned that the herb, sold as a dietary supplement in the United States by a company affiliated with Ramazanov, had eased their depression.

Brown tracked down Ramazanov’s company and wrote to him. The two began a correspondence that gave Brown enough confidence in the safety of rhodiola to try it himself. “Almost immediately, my mind seemed clearer,” he says. “I was more energetic and less stressed. After a few days, I noticed I recovered from exercise more quickly.”

Brown recommended the herb to his wife, Patricia Gerbarg, also a psychiatrist, who was housebound from a debilitating bout with Lyme disease. After 10 days, Gerbarg reported feeling much better. Her memory rebounded, and she had enough energy to again play chess with her son—and beat him, a rare event. “I have my life back,” she declared. Since then, Brown and Gerbarg have recommended the herb to hundreds of patients, often in conjunction with standard antidepressants.

Much of the old Soviet research on the herb remains locked away in Russian language journals. But over the past decade a growing body of new research published in English tentatively supports the results of early Soviet research. Laboratory and animal studies show that the herb may inhibit cancer cells, protect healthy cells from toxins, and correct enzyme imbalances associated with diabetes. In addition, four trials with human volunteers show that rhodiola extracts can boost mental performance, reduce fatigue, and ease depression.

Russian revolution

Growing at high altitudes from Scandinavia to Siberia, rhodiola has for centuries been a part of folk medicine among diverse native groups. Documented medicinal use reaches back at least to A.D. 77, when a physician to Roman legionnaires recommended it for headaches. In the 18th century, Linnaeus gave the herb its scientific name.

Soviet-government scientists Nikolai Lazarev and Israel Brekhman knew of this traditional use when, after World War II, they launched an extensive program to boost Soviet competitiveness in athletics and other demanding fields. The scientists tested nearly 200 herbal folk remedies and found 5, including rhodiola, particularly intriguing. They called the plants adaptogens for their ability to foster increased resistance to stress and to boost physical and mental performance. Unlike amphetamines, which the postwar Soviets also tested, these plants weren’t addictive, and users didn’t “crash” or suffer a rebound period of profound fatigue.

The adaptogens performed well on a pivotal test invented by the Soviets, an endurance swim for rats. When plopped into water, a rat will swim steadily for 10 to 15 minutes. Then it will float, paddling only as needed to keep from drowning. When the Soviet scientists gave rats rhodiola, the animals swam 35 percent to 59 percent longer. A modified version of the test is still used by academic researchers and drug companies to screen for potential new antidepressants.

By 1969, Soviet scientists had amassed enough evidence for the Ministry of Health to recommend rhodiola in its official list of medicines. Use of the herb took off.

“The Soviets were really invested in it,” says Georg Wikman of the Swedish Herbal Institute in Göteborg, who studies the herb. “There must be 300 to 400 reports published in quite good Russian-language journals.”

Much of the Soviet research on the herb remains untranslated or locked away because authorities considered adaptogen research a “top military secret,” Ramazanov maintained before his death last year. Nevertheless, he had translated some key findings by that time. In animals, the herb lowers production of the stress hormone cortisol. It acts as an antioxidant, helping to eliminate from the body the oxygen radicals that damage cells. And in muscles, it increases production of adenosine triphosphate, the molecule that serves as cellular gasoline.

Trials in people, while not up to Western standards, hinted that rhodiola could alleviate depression, erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation, and chronic listlessness.

Other, higher quality trials suggested that the herb could boost athletic performance. A trial run by Victor Baranov at Moscow’s Institute for Space Medicine in the 1990s found that after taking rhodiola, inactive adults performed just as well as trained athletes in aerobic tests. During that experiment, researchers randomly assigned volunteers to take either the herb or a placebo, and participants, as well as their testers, were blind to which was which. Around the same time, another such randomized, double-blind study of 42 male biathletes reported improved target shooting in the group that took the herb. Also, the extract seemed to speed recovery of the athletes’ circulatory systems. Thirty minutes after the skiing part of the biathlon, the hearts of those who took the extract were beating at 105 percent of prerace rates, compared with 129 percent of precompetition rates among athletes who took a placebo.

In the late 1980s, researchers at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, home to much of the adaptogen work, discovered that three compounds found only in the rosea type of Rhodiola—there are at least 200 related species—were responsible for much of the plant’s activity. They dubbed these compounds rosavins, and in 1989 the Soviet government declared that all rhodiola extracts must contain at least 3 percent rosavins. Dietary supplement makers throughout the world still hew to this standard.

Even before the discovery of rosavins, Soviet adaptogen research culminated with ADAPT, a mixture of extracts from R. rosea, a species of ginseng, and a berry called Schizandra chinensis. Hoping for a synergistic effect, the Soviets gave ADAPT to Olympic athletes, according to Ramazanov’s self-published material.

The Soviets then decided to test ADAPT in their space program, a plan that enlisted Wikman and the Swedish Herbal Institute. Wikman and the Soviet scientists gave ADAPT to 60 sleep-deprived cosmonaut trainees. “Those tests went well,” says Wikman. The mixture “had a very clear effect on mental-work capacity, problem solving, and short-term memory when the subjects were really, really tired after staying up for days.” The mixture also helped normalize an elaborate measure of cardiac function in the sleep-deprived trainees. “So the decision was made to take it up, use it in space,” Wikman says.

Cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, a physician, took ADAPT daily while commander of the Mir space station during his 14-month mission in 1994 and 1995, says Wikman. Wikman adds that Polyakov credited ADAPT with helping him endure the record-length spaceflight.

To the west

About the same time Polyakov was taking herbs in space, Ramazanov was setting up shop just outside New York City. Working with a dietary-supplement maker, Ramazanov invested in a small laboratory and began importing rhodiola. He talked up its benefits whenever he got the chance.

The message spread, and in 2003, Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, a non-profit educational group based in Austin, Texas, trumpeted rhodiola as “the next herbal superstar” in an already lucrative market. Despite Blumenthal’s proclamation, rhodiola hasn’t cracked the top 20 herbs in sales at food and drugstores even though it’s widely available.

But Ramazanov’s work has drummed up academic interest. Since the turn of the century, a growing number of reports investigating rhodiola have appeared in English-language journals. Several groups of researchers have found that, in the laboratory, rhodiola inhibits the spread of bacteria, prevents immune system damage caused by anticancer drugs, slows the division of cancer cells, and corrects enzyme irregularities in diabetic mice.

Meanwhile, Wikman and the Swedish Herbal Institute, which makes a rhodiola extract called SHR-5, have continued laboratory and human tests. In 2000, they reported that SHR-5 protects snail embryos from heat, copper, and oxidative stress. When given the herb extract, fewer of the embryos died after exposure to these stressors than did embryos not given the extract.

Also in 2000, Wikman and his colleagues in Russia published results from a randomized, double-blind trial of university students who took SHR-5 at the end of a semester. Students taking the herb for 20 days fared better on measures of fatigue and mental performance than did students who took a placebo. Another study published in 2000 found an antifatigue effect of the herb among 56 physicians working night shifts.

In 2003, the Swedish-Russian group published a study of 100 male military cadets who took a single dose of SHR-5. After working all night, 40 cadets received a low dose of the extract, 40 a high dose, and 20 a placebo. The cadets taking either dose of the extract scored higher on a battery of concentration and mental-performance tests than did cadets taking the placebo.

Most recently, in the September-October Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, Wikman and coworkers in Armenia report a randomized, double-blind trial in people with mild-to-moderate depression. For 6 weeks, two groups of 30 patients took either of two doses of SHR-5 while a third group took a placebo. People taking either dose of the extract reported fewer symptoms on standard depression questionnaires at the end of the study than did those who took the placebo.

“I’ve been using it as an antidepressant for years now,” says Columbia University’s Brown. “But it’s nice to have that validated in a clinical trial.”

Incomplete picture

Despite the increased academic interest in rhodiola, Wikman’s team, which has a vested interest in its SHR-5 product, remains the only group sponsoring clinical trials. And getting a handle on exactly what rhodiola does inside the body is daunting. “Scientists have yet to advance a single theory that accounts for the diverse benefits of adaptogens,” says Brown.

Whereas prescription drugs typically contain a single compound that works in a specific way, herbs contain many active compounds that act on the body via different, often subtle, mechanisms. Scientists have identified at least a dozen active components in rhodiola, including the rosavins and known antioxidants. Many more may remain unidentified, says Brown.

Dietary supplement companies in the United States have little incentive to invest in research, as the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require clinical trials for dietary supplements. Standards for marketing herbal products in Canada and Europe are more stringent. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., hasn’t funded any rhodiola research.

“I think it’s a valuable medicine, and I’d love to see more research,” says Brown, who recommends various brands to his patients and who doesn’t have a financial interest in any rhodiola product. “But I don’t see much clinical research ever happening in the United States. Drug companies just aren’t interested, and the [supplement] companies can’t afford it.”

Canada’s Long-Term Commitment

Market potential lures investment

Across the plains of Alberta, plots of rhodiola await harvesting. In 2004, the Canadian provincial government launched a program to commercialize the plant. Fifty growers received seedlings, and some 50 acres are now being grown.

It takes 3 to 5 years for the roots to develop sufficient concentrations of active ingredients for harvesting, making the project a long-term commitment, says Shirzad Chunara, marketing manager at Alberta Agriculture and Food in Edmonton. The province has pledged $750,000 for the project through 2010. “We chose it because … the market for it looks promising,” says Chunara.

The plant is ideally adapted to Alberta’s harsh winters. The province earlier tried to commercialize Echinacea, but more than half the plants succumbed to the cold. More than 90 percent of rhodiola plants survived their first three winters, a testament to the species’ near-Arctic origins.

After processing the roots, University of Alberta scientists will conduct a small trial in human volunteers, says Chunara. The Canadian government’s herbal medicine agency requires such tests before it will certify any products containing the herb.

Bertalam Galambosi, a Finnish-government agronomist who’s spent 15 years working small test plots of rhodiola, says that projects such as Alberta’s are crucial to the long-term viability of the plant. Some 20 to 30 tons of dry root are exported from Russia each year, he says, and the country recently restricted harvesting. Galambosi is trying to improve growing, harvesting, and processing techniques.

“It’s very young as a domesticated plant, and there are lots of open questions, such as how to shorten this 5-year cycle and how to mechanize harvesting. But over the long term, with demand continuing to climb, cultivation will be the only source.”

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