Rhodiola: A New Adaptogen in Chinese Medicine

by Bob Flaws, Lic. Ac., FNAAOM (USA), FRCHM (UK)

Readers of the previous Blue Poppy Herbs newsletter have read about our new formulas, HyperQuell ® and Immortal Qi ®. These formulas are both indicated for the treatment of qi and yin dual vacuity. HyperQuell is for the treatment of hypertension complicated by depressive heat, possible liver wind, and blood stasis. Immortal Qi is for the prevention of aging, the improvement of memory, energy level, mood, and sports performance, boosting immunity, and the prevention and treatment of altitude sickness. However, you may not be familiar with one of the main ingredients in these two formulas, Hong Jing Tian (Herba Rhodiolae Roseae). This medicinal is not one of the 300-400 standard materia medica of Chinese medicine we all memorize as entry-level students. Nevertheless, this medicinal is quickly gaining fame in Asia and the West. Also known as Arctic Root, Golden Root, and Plateau (i.e., Tibetan) Ginseng, this member of the Crassulaceae family grows in arctic regions of eastern Siberia and Tibet at elevations of 11,000-18,000 feet. In Chinese, this medicinal's name means Red Capital Heaven. In Tibetan it is called Tshan Kar, Potent White. It grows approximately 2 1/2 feet high and has yellow flowers which smell similar to roses, therefore its Latin botanical name. While Chinese emperors are reputed to have sent expeditions to Siberia to gather this medicinal as an elixir of longevity, it has more recently been popularized by the Russians as an adaptogen. This interest on the part of the Russians has stimulated renewed interest in this medicinal in China and Tibet where there are now a number of companies specializing in its pharmaceutical production.

In Siberia, it is said, "Those who drink Rhodiola tea regularly will live more than 100 years." It was especially drunk during the cold, wet winters to prevent and treat lung diseases. In Mongolia, it was used for the treatment of tuberculosis and cancer. At the moment, its Chinese medical descriptions are that it is cold, sweet, and astringent and that it quickens the blood and stops bleeding, clears the lungs and stops coughing. However, as more and more research establish this medicinal's other clinical uses, it is likely that this initial description will and be expanded. My guess is that this medicinal will eventually be described as a qi and yin supplement entering the heart and lung channels at least and possibly the liver and kidneys. Other qi and yin supplements within Chinese medicine include Radix Dioscoreae Oppositae (Shan Yao), Radix Pseustellariae Heterophyllae (Tai Zi Shen), Radix Glehniae Littoralis (Bei Sha Shen), and Radix Panacis Quinquefolii (Xi Yang Shen), and Fructus Schisdandrae Chinesis (Wu Wei Zi). This is why we have paired this medicinal with Tai Zi Shen and made it one of the ruling ingredients in both HyperQuell and Immortal Qi.

Rhodiola has two main pharmacodynamic actions. First, it enhances the transport of the serotonin precursors, tryptophan and 5-hydroxytryptophan, into the brain. This promotes the secretion of beta-endorphins by the brain and thus promotes a feeling of mental ease and contentment. Therefore, this medicinal helps regulate the autonomic nervous system and helps prevent adverse reactions to stress. Seventy years of Russian research have shown that Rhodiola can increase the levels of serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters by 30% and decrease the activity of the enzyme which breaks down serotonin and dopamine by 60%. Rhodiola is used in Russia for the treatment of depression and anxiety with and without the simultaneous use of Western medical antidepressants.

Secondly, Rhodiola has been shown to be effective for cardiac problems caused or aggravated by stress. It decreases the amount of catecholamines and corticosteroids released by the adrenal glands as a reaction to stress. These "stress hormones" raise the blood pressure and cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease. "Adrenalin burn" refers to the development of contraction bands in the heart muscle due to habitually over-contracted heart muscle fibers in reaction to adrenalin. Such contraction bands, a sign of heart muscle damage, are found in 80% of heart attack victims. Rhodiola also decreases the amount of cyclic-AMP (c-AMP) released into cardiac cells. C-AMP assists the uptake of intracellular calcium into the heart, thus promoting a greater potential for heart muscle contraction. Thus, by decreasing calcium uptake, Rhodiola regulates the heart beat and treats heart dysrhythmias, and it is a well known clinical fact that many patients with hypertension also suffer from dysrhythmia. In Chinese medicine, the subjective sensation of dysrhythmia is referred to as heart palpitations (xin ji) and fearful throbbing (zheng chong). Some of Rhodiola's other beneficial effects are that it increases blood oxygenation, reduces serum cholesterol, improves physical endurance, and increases mental clarity, attention span, memory, and mental performance.

Other medicinals, such a Radix Eleuthrococci Senticosi (Ci Wu Jia, a.k.a. Siberian Ginseng), Fructificatio Ganodermae Lucidi (Ling Zhi), and even Radix Polygoni Multiflori (He Shou Wu) have only relatively recently evolved from locally used singles to standard ingredients in professionally prescribed polypharmacy formulas. I believe it will not be long before Hong Jing Tian or Rhodiola also becomes part of the standard materia medica of Chinese medicine. Already, a number of Chinese ready-made medicines include Hong Jing Tian as their main ingredient. Therefore, Blue Poppy Herbs is pleased to make this medicinal available to you and your patients as one of the ruling ingredients in HyperQuell and Immortal Qi.

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