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Will doctors ever opt for an herb over a drug for depressed patients? It may sound unlikely but researchers from the University of Pennsylvania think they should consider it
In a randomized placebo-controlled trial doctors tested the herb rhodiola rosea against the conventional antidepressant therapy sertraline (Zoloft) in patients with major depressive disorder (MDD).[i]
A diagnosis of MDD means a patient exhibited two or more major depressive episodes, depressed mood and/or loss of interest or pleasure in life activities for at least 2 weeks. In addition, they show signs of significant unintentional weight loss or gain, insomnia or sleeping too much, fatigue, diminished ability to think or concentrate, and recurrent thoughts of death.
The study looked at 57 adults diagnosed with major depressive disorder. The patients received treatments of either rhodiola rosea extract, sertraline, or placebo.
After 12 weeks there was no statistically significant difference between the rhodiola and the Zoloft. Compared to the placebo, rhodiola patients had 1.4 times the odds of improvement while the Zoloft patients had 1.9 times the odds of improvement.
Other evidence is mounting that Zoloft and other SSRIs are no more effective than placebo for depression symptoms.
In the Penn study the researchers concluded that rhodiola may possess a more favorable risk to benefit ratio for individuals with mild to moderate MDD because it produced only half the side effects of Zoloft. In fact, a whopping 63% of patients on Zoloft reported side effects - most commonly nausea and sexual dysfunction. That compared to only 30% of patients on rhodiola.
The authors suggested that "herbal therapy may have the potential to help patients with depression who cannot tolerate conventional antidepressants due to side effects."
An earlier placebo controlled study found rhodiola effective for patients with mild to moderate depression.
Rhodiola rosea is a hardy yellow flower native to the arctic mountains of Eastern Siberia. It's sometimes called the "Root of the Arctic" or Tibetan ginseng.
Ancient healers used rhodiola to treat infections, anemia, stomach upset, and depression. In the old Soviet Union scientists used rhodiola to help soldiers improve mood, brain function and physical performance.
Human studies show that just one 200 mg dose of rhodiola helped volunteers improve their exercise endurance.[ii]
It's also been shown to relieve mental fatigue. In one study of doctors on night call just 170 mg of rhodiola per day for two weeks helped the doctors think and remember better, concentrate, calculate, and respond to audio and visual cues.[iii]
And taking 100 mg of rhodiola every day for 20 days helped students improve their capacity to work, their coordination, and their general sense of wellbeing. Their learning ability increased 61% and their fatigue levels dropped by 30%.[iv]
Another study showed rhodiola may be helpful in smoking cessation.
For more information visit GreenMedInfo's page on rhodiola/Tibetan ginseng. For an extensive list of natural anti-depressive agents take a look at GreenMedInfo.com's depression page. Or, read a summary article titled, 23 Natural Alternatives for Depression.
Originally published: 2015-06-08
Article updated: 2019-10-30
[i] Jay D. Amsterdam et al. "Rhodiola rosea versus sertraline for major depressive disorder: A randomized placebo-controlled trial." Phytomedicine, 2015 Mar 15;22(3):394-9. doi: 10.1016/j.phymed.2015.01.010. Epub 2015 Feb 23.
[ii] De Bock K, Eijnde BO, Ramaekers M, Hespel P. "Acute Rhodiola rosea intake can improve endurance exercise performance." Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2004 Jun;14(3):298-307.
[iii] Darbinyan V, Kteyan A, Panossian A, et al. "Rhodiola rosea in stress induced fatigue—a double blind cross-over study of a standardized extract SHR-5 with a repeated low-dose regimen on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty." Phytomedicine. 2000 Oct;7(5):365-71.
[iv] Spasov AA et al. "A double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of the stimulating and adaptogenic effect of Rhodiola rosea SHR-5 extract on the fatigue of students caused by stress during an examination period with a repeated low-dose regimen." Phytomedicine. 2000 Apr;7(2):85-9.