with Barbara Graham
For the past quarter-century or so, the airwaves have been abuzz with news of the latest herbal supplement that will improve our health and, possibly, extend our lives. We’ve heard about Gingko biloba, kava kava, ginseng, St. John’s wort, and numerous other popular herbs. Why the tidal wave of interest?
The number-one reason that people turn to alternative treatments like herbs is that conventional treatments have failed to make them well. What’s more, the public is increasingly aware that an ounce of prevention is vastly preferable to the disruptive, costly, and often painful interventions that are necessary to fight disease once it gains a foothold. Add to this the unwanted side effects associated with many prescription drugs, and you can see why the time is right for herbs and other “natural” therapies.
A Brief But Fascinating History
So where does Rhodiola rosea fit into the picture? Although this plucky herb remains relatively unknown in the West, in folk medicine it has a legendary history dating back thousands of years. We know, for example, that the ancient Greeks used Rhodiola rosea. In 77 A.D., the Greek physician Dioscorides documented the medical applications of the plant, which he then called rodia riza, in his classic medical text De Materia Medica.
But how did Rhodiola rosea travel more than 2,000 miles from the remote Caucasus Mountains, where it grows wild, to ancient Greece? Our search for the answer to this question took us back more than 3,000 years, to the 13th century B.C. — the Greek Bronze Age. That’s when trading expeditions crossed the Aegean Sea, the Hellespont (Dardanelles), the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus, and the Black Sea to a land called Colchis, in what is now the Republic of Georgia.
One of the best-known myths of this era celebrates the voyage of Jason and his famous crew, the Argonauts, which included Hercules and Orpheus. Like most myths, the story of Jason, the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece blends fact with fantasy. But it hints at an intriguing theory of how Rhodiola rosea might have made the incredible journey to Greece from its native land.
The Greeks were not the only ancient people who valued Rhodiola rosea. The Vikings depended on the herb to enhance their physical strength and endurance, while Chinese emperors sent expeditions to Siberia to bring back “the golden root” for medicinal preparations. The people of central Asia considered a tea brewed from Rhodiola rosea to be the most effective treatment for cold and flu. Mongolian physicians prescribed it for tuberculosis and cancer.
In Siberia to this day, it is said that people who drink Rhodiola rosea tea will live to be more than 100. The herb still is given to newlyweds to assure fertility and the birth of healthy children. For centuries the details of how and where to harvest the wild root were a closely guarded secret among members of certain Siberian families, who would transport Rhodiola rosea down ancient trails in the Altai and Caucasus mountains and trade it for Georgian wine, fruit, and honey.
In 1725, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus gave the herb its modern name, Rhodiola rosea, and recommended it as a treatment for hernia, hysteria, headache, and vaginal discharge. Fifty years later, it earned a place in the first Swedish pharmacopoeia, a complete listing of all medicinal preparations.
The Plant That Came In From the Cold
Studies of Rhodiola rosea currently are under way in Russia, the Republic of Georgia, Bulgaria, the United States, Sweden, Norway, Japan, and China, among other countries. But much of the existing research was conducted by Soviet scientists during the Cold War, with the findings concealed in classified documents. While some of the early studies were available to the public, they were published in Slavic languages not read by Western scientists.
Research on Rhodiola rosea and other medicinal herbs was part of the Soviet Union’s great push to compete with the West in military development, the arms race, space exploration, Olympic sports, science, medicine, and industry. During World War II, the Soviet government drafted scientists to work on projects for the military, with a focus on physical and mental performance. The Soviets were determined to find substances that would help their soldiers overcome combat fatigue and win on the battlefield.
Studies involving Soviet soldiers found that amphetamines and other chemical stimulants were indeed effective for improving performance — but only in the short term. When taken for prolonged periods, they became harmful and addictive. The search continued for other substances that could increase energy and endurance without the insidious side effects.
Dr. Nikolai Lazarev was a member of the team of researchers assigned to this task. He was especially intrigued by a group of herbs that were considered “elite” or “kingly” in ancient healing disciplines. In traditional Chinese medicine, for example, these herbs were known to increase physical and mental endurance, reduce fatigue, improve resistance to disease, and enhance longevity.
Despite thousands of years of use by inhabitants of China, Korea, Japan, Siberia, Russia, and parts of Europe, these herbs had never been scrutinized in the lab. So in 1948, Dr. Lazarev and his protégé, Dr. Israel Brekhman, set out to study the chemical composition and biological activities of these herbs. Would they live up to the legend surrounding them?
Reprinted from: The Rhodiola Revolution: Transform Your Health with the Herbal Breakthrough of the 21st Century
Richard P. Brown, M.D., is associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and has a private consultation practice in integrative psychopharmacology in New York City. A leading advocate of alternative and complementary treatments for psychiatric disorders, he has been profiled in the Castle Connolly guide How to Find the Best Doctors: New York Metro Area. His wife, Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D., is assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College. They reside in upstate New York.
Barbara Graham has written for numerous publications, including Self, Redbook, Glamour, Vogue, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She divides her time between New York City and Washington, D.C.