Roseroot (Rhodiola rosea), also called golden root, has a long history in traditional folk medicine of boosting energy and treating depression. Now a high-quality study of people with mild-to-moderate depression has found that roseroot has many fewer side effects than the popular antidepressant sertraline (Zoloft). That’s key because many people quit taking antidepressants due to side effects such as nausea, headache, weight gain and loss of sex drive. And it could be great news for people with depression who would like to escape dependence on pharmaceuticals. But the question is—how well does roseroot actually work?
MILDER BENEFITS, FEWER SIDE EFFECTS
The research team recruited 57 adults with mild-to-moderate depression and randomly assigned them to take either roseroot, sertraline or placebo for 12 weeks. Before the study and at intervals during it, the participants took a diagnostic psychological test called the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D) and kept a log of medication side effects. The study was randomized and placebo-controlled—the subjects didn’t know what they were taking, and neither did the researchers.
The results: At the end of the study, depression scores had dropped for all the participants—including those taking the placebo. They had dropped the most with the drug sertraline, while roseroot worked only slightly better than placebo.
So does that mean roseroot was a bust? It does not. One reason is the design of the study. Researchers gave subjects a very small dose of roseroot/sertraline/placebo to start, then gradually increased doses after two weeks, then again after four weeks and yet again after six weeks—assuming the participants didn’t have problems with side effects. The small sample size, and the fact that it took subjects six weeks to reach the target dose, limited the study—only really dramatic improvement would have shown up.
But when the researchers went back and calculated what the emotional benefit would have been if subjects had taken higher doses throughout the 12 weeks (in which case, results of those higher doses would have been reflected in the depression measurements), both sertraline and roseroot looked better. Sertraline still had an edge—the odds that there would have been significant mood improvement were 90%. But the odds with roseroot for significant improvement were an impressive 40%.
Why would anyone choose a 40% chance of significant improvement over a 90% chance? Because sertraline’s benefits came with much higher incidence of side effects. While no one had truly serious adverse effects, nearly two-thirds (63%) of those taking sertraline reported adverse side effects. For roseroot, it was 30%…and for placebo, 17%. What’s more, the sertraline side effects, which included nausea, sexual dysfunction, appetite change, insomnia, palpitations and gastrointestional disturbances, were serious enough that two of the subjects stopped taking the drug. For roseroot, the only side effects were nervousness and dizziness, and no one felt the need to stop taking it.
IF YOU WANT TO CONSIDER ROSEROOT
This small study doesn’t definitively answer whether roseroot is a safe and effective addition to botanical depression treatments. Like many studies, it opens up a path for the next bit of research. The next step is a larger study that can more conclusively answer the question of relative effectiveness—including whether a higher dose of roseroot might work better and still have few side effects. (Even the highest doses in this study were on the lower end of doses in other recent studies.)
If you are interested in trying roseroot to relieve depressive symptoms, consult a naturopath or other qualified health-care provider who can evaluate whether you are a good candidate for roseroot and can recommend the best dosage and brand for you based on your symptoms. A mental health specialist can help you find the right kind of therapy, including talk therapy, for your depression. And never reduce or quit an antidepressant drug on your own without consulting your physician—that can have dire consequences.
For more strategies on beating depression check out the Bottom Line Guide to Depression and How to Get Drug-Free Relief.