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Rhodiola & Bipolar

By Owen Bond

Bipolar disorder is considered a serious, lifelong psychological condition that involves extreme mood swings, from manic euphoria to deep depression. The exact causes of bipolar disorder are debated but involve imbalance of brain chemistry and other hormones. Rhodiola is an herbal remedy that has been used for mild depression and balancing mood for many generations, especially in Russia and surrounding regions. Rhodiola is not meant to replace antidepressant medications. Consult your primary care physician before you embark on an herbal regimen.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder requires managing two very different categories of symptoms; manic symptoms, such as euphoria, impulsive behavior and anxiety, and depressive symptoms, such as depression, apathy and reduced appetite. According to “Professional Guide to Diseases,” most people suffering from bipolar disorder spend the majority of their time depressed rather than manic, which is why rhodiola and other herbal remedies that alleviate depression can be helpful.

Brief History of Rhodiola

Rhodiola rosea is a perennial plant that grows in cold and mountainous regions of the world. Rhodiola was used for hundreds of years in Scandinavia and Russia to treat a wide variety of ailments, particularly stress, fatigue, mild depression and stomach problems, as cited in “The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.” Rhodiola folk remedies go back even further in China, where it is called hóng jing tian and used within traditional Chinese medicine protocols. Research on rhodiola is nearly a century old, although the vast amount of it originated in Soviet academies and universities and was published in Russian. More recent research is being conducted in western Europe.

Scientific Evidence

A Swedish study published in a 2007 edition of the “Nordic Journal of Psychiatry” concluded that Rhodiola rosea extract exhibits an antidepressant effect in individuals who suffer from mild to moderate forms of depression. The first double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of rhodiola rosea extract found that rhodiola was significantly more effective in alleviating symptoms associated with depression than a placebo, although the researchers were careful to point out that it should not be used as a solo therapy and replacement for antidepressants. Previous studies have shown that rhodiola improves physical and mental performance, enhances memory and sleep patterns and reduces fatigue and anxiety, as cited by “Medical Herbalism: The Science Principles and Practices of Herbal Medicine.”

Properties of Rhodiola

Rhodiola is considered an adaptogen, which is a chemical stimulant capable of having a physiological effect. Rhodiola mediates changes in serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain, which are strongly related to mood, according to “Biochemical, Physiological and Molecular Aspects of Human Nutrition.” Rhodiola also stimulates the synthesis of epinephrine, norepinephrine and adrenocorticotropic hormones, all of which are related to energy levels and mood. Further, rhodiola regulates the adrenal glands' production of cortisol, which is released in response to stress, infection and trauma. As such, cortisol is called the “stress hormone,” and imbalances can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. Finally, rhodiola acts as a mild muscle relaxant and helps to regulate blood flow.


Rhodiola is considered to be extremely safe because it exhibits exceptionally low toxicity. Nevertheless, consuming large doses can lead to irritability and insomnia. Recommendations are to consume rhodiola rosea extract on an empty stomach before breakfast or lunch. Some herbalists feel that people with bipolar disorder should avoid rhodiola because large doses can cause mood swings and hallucinations, which compounds the seriousness of the disorder, according to “The Way of Chinese Herbs.”

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