A new study has shown the herb Rhodiola rosea, also known as golden root or roseroot, may be an effective treatment for people experiencing depression. The herb has been used in countries like Russia and China for centuries to help increase endurance, and as a preventive measure against altitude sickness, fatigue and depression.

Now, a study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, published in the medical journal Phytomedicine, shows that Rhodiola rosea can help treat mild to moderate depression.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, one in five people experience depression during their lifetime, lasting from a few days to months. Symptoms include persistent sadness or low mood, fatigue, lost of interest in life, and loss of appetite or sex drive.

In the first ever double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled comparison study of its kind, 57 participants experiencing depression were given a 12-week course of either Rhodiola rosea, sertraline or a placebo. While participants taking sertraline had slightly higher odds of improvement (1.9 times the odds of those taking the placebo) compared to those taking Rhodiola rosea (1.4 times), those taking the anti-depression drug experienced twice the negative side effects – most often nausea and sexual dysfunction – than reported by those using the herb.

The study’s leader, Jun J. Mao, MD, MSCE, said of the findings:

“These results are a bit preliminary but suggest that herbal therapy may have the potential to help patients with depression who cannot tolerate conventional antidepressants due to side effects.”