Before steroids, Russians secretly studied herbs

During the Cold War, Soviet scientists experimented with Rhodiola, a plant that shows some promise in helping athletes with endurance.

Long before the Russians were caught doping their athletes with steroids, the former Soviet Union spent decades secretly searching for energy-enhancing plants that would help their Olympians, as well as their soldiers and astronauts, perform better. The Soviets were looking for what they called “adaptogens”—plant species that would encourage the body to adapt to physical and mental stress without major side effects.

The government took these experiments so seriously that the scientists involved have been banned from speaking of their results or publishing their findings outside the country, according to Patricia Gerbarg, an Assistant Clinical Professor in Psychiatry at New York Medical College and co-author of The Rhodiola Revolution, published in 2004. In the course of writing her book, Gerbarg worked closely with the now-deceased Zakir Ramazanov, a Russian researcher who left the USSR after the Iron Curtain fell, taking confidential documents on the adaptogen tests with him to the United States.

Many of the adaptogen tests were conducted in the 1970s by the Ministry of Defense from a sealed research city in the frigid latitudes of Siberia. The USSR wanted plants that would help soldiers endure nights of frostbite and high elevations in Afghanistan. They started by testing cadets on a formula of Eleuthro (also known as Siberian Ginseng), Schisandra berries and Rose Root or Rhodiola rosea.

It was the Rhodiola—a yellow-flowered, succulent that only grows in snow-bound Arctic climes, with a root that smells almost like a rose when you nick it—that elicited the most promising results. “It stimulates you, without making you crash and burn,” says Gerbarg. The Russians found that it helped soldiers stay alert and energized during sleep-deprivation tests, Gerbarg says, and put cosmonauts at the Russian space station in a better mood after weeks of cramped living.

Dr. Gerbarg's husband and co-author of the Rhodiola Revolution, Dr. Richard P. Brown on a Rhodiola hunt in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia. Photo by Dr. Gerbarg.
Dr. Gerbarg’s husband and co-author of the Rhodiola Revolution, Dr. Richard P. Brown, on a Rhodiola hunt in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia. Courtesy of Dr. Patricia Gerbarg.

As for their athletes, the Russians tested Rhodiola on nearly every type of Olympian, claiming it increased endurance and reduced recovery time. Near the end of their races, when exhaustion would normally have set in, Russian biathletes could shoot their targets without their arms quaking as they raised their guns.

The Russians have since moved on to more over-the-top synthetic substances, a strategy that left more than a hundred of their athleteskicked out of the Olympics this year. Steroids are more forceful than adaptogens, quickly building impressive muscle and ramping up unusual amounts of energy. But doping can also cause severe liver damage, breast tissue development in men, and so much aggression that doctors have coined the term “Roid Rage.”

Because Rhodiola is more moderate and isn’t on any lists of banned substances, it continues to intrigue modern researchers and athletes around the world. Rhodiola-based products are still widely sold in Eastern European and Asian pharmacies as a remedy for depression and fatigue. And in the last ten years, the herb has also gained popularity in the U.S., in part because it shows up as a key ingredient in the popular supplement, Optygen, a favorite for competitive cyclists and runners. “I am now able to rebound fast enough to make every run a strong one,” Karl Meltzer, the “winningest ultra-runner in history,” gushes on the company’s website.

Many of the early Russian experiments, however, don’t hold up to current scientific standards. But since the 1960s, there have been more than 180 other studies on the plant. If you “look at [both the old and new research] there does seem to be something there,” says Eric Noreen, associate professor of Health Sciences at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, whose work focuses on the impact of nutritional supplements on exercise and performance health.

In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Noreen and his colleagues asked 18 participants (none of whom were in particularly good shape) to bike for six miles after taking a dose of Rhodiola Rosea. Compared to a group that was given a placebo, the Rose Root cyclists had lower heart rates during their pre-exercise warm-up and finished the timed trial faster.

RR up close with bee
A bee pollinating a Rhodiola bloom. Photo by Dr. Petra Illeg who started the Alaska Rhodiola Project.

A small Italian study from 2010, published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, had similarly positive results. After taking Rhodiola rosea supplements for four weeks, 14 competitive athletes showed lowered blood lactate levels (a sign of overtraining) and decreased skeletal muscle damage.

But all the studies haven’t been so positive. Other modern researchers have found little to no physical improvement from the herb, a problem that could have reflected the specific formulation they were testing or the way the experiment was designed, or simply the herb’s limitations.

In 2012, American shoppers spent $12.8 billion out-of-pocket on natural healthcare products, including herbal supplements. Some experts doubt many of these offer any positive effect and may pose harm, especially after the New York Attorney General’s office discovered last year that four out of five of the supplements sold by major retailers, including GNC and Walmart, didn’t contain the plant on the label and were sometimes filled with nothing more than powdered garlic and rice.

For Noreen, what was most telling in his research didn’t even show up in the data. “We had no question telling when a participant was on ‘Rhodi,’” as he calls the plant. “Instead of being crushed or wiped out, they were upbeat,” he said, adding that Rhodi seems to make you feel like you aren’t working as hard as you are.

Alexander Panossian, head of research and development at the Swedish Herbal Institute, which makes a Rhodiola extract used in many scientific studies, considers Rose Root to be a kind of “stress-vaccine.” In an articlepublished in Herbal Gram, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Botanical Council, he and co-author Hildebert Wagner suggest that chemicals in the plant, especially rosavins, tyrosal and salidroside, make people less sensitive to stress.

Rhodiola growing in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia. Courtesy of Dr. Patricia Gerbarg.
Rhodiola growing in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia. Courtesy of Dr. Patricia Gerbarg.

With Rhodiola capsules now selling for up to $30 a bottle on Amazon, foragers are trying to cash in—so much so that wild populations of the plant, especially in Russia, have been depleted. In Canada and Alaska, farmers looking for a more sustainable alternative have started cultivating the roots to sell to pharmaceutical companies in Europe and Asia that make supplements. But climate change could also hurt the plant’s medicinal potency, according to Herbal Gram. As the Arctic warms, Rose Root may stop producing as many therapeutic chemicals, since many were used by the species to defend itself against the cold, the article says.

Winning the Olympics is a lot to ask of a plant. But the Russians didn’t pull the idea out of a vodka bottle all by themselves. For centuries, Siberian villagers brewed Rhodiola tea for everything from anemia to libido. The Vikings drank horn cups full of it before a raid. And in Greenland, the Inuit mixed the leaves and buds with seal blubber and dried blood for a Vitamin C-rich nosh that warded off scurvy. It’s a plant with centuries of use as a healer.

“Rhodi is like a lot of herbs,” says Noreen. “There’s just enough there to suggest we should be looking at it more.”

Top photo by Dr. Petra Illeg, who started the Alaska Rhodiola Project. Story was originally produced in partnership with National Geographic. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact [email protected].