Before steroids, the Russians thought this plant would give them an edge

“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,” writes FERN’s Kristina Johnson in our latest piece, with National Geographic.

Johnson, an associate editor at FERN, explains that the Soviets were looking for plants that, unlike modern-day stimulants, wouldn’t leave the body sick with side effects. Many of the botanical experiments in the 1970s were conducted from a sealed research facility in Siberia, where scientists weren’t allowed to reveal their findings except to the Ministry of Defense. And of all the species tested, one plant continues to impress scientists and athletes today: Rhodiola Rosea, 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.”

The Russians claimed Rhodiola gave their Olympians greater stamina, and kept their soldiers alert during sleep-deprivation experiments. Astronauts at the Russian Space Station reported that Rhodiola made them less irritable after weeks of living together.

While the Russian studies don’t always meet the most-rigorous standards, more than 180 studies have been conducted on the plant over the years, many with promising results.

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 his own study of Rhodiola, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, he found that the herb lowered participants’ heart rates and improved their time over a six-mile bike ride.

Even if the Russian Olympic team has since moved on to more extreme drugs, Rhodiola rosea is increasingly popular with endurance athletes in the U.S., in part because it isn’t on any list of banned substances. Farmers in Alaska and Alberta are cashing in on the plant’s popularity, even as experts warn the wild crop is threatened by overharvest and climate change. Hotter temperatures could cause it to produce fewer medicinal compounds, making it less potent.