What is the second most popular adaptogen next to panax ginseng? Many readers know it is rhodiola rosea, an herb that helps to ease fatigue, increase endurance and improve mood, in addition to other benefits. A perennial flowering plant, rhodiola rosea grows in the U.S., Europe, Asia and even the Arctic and is also known as golden root or roseroot.
The active compounds in rhodiola — rosavin, rosaridin, rosarin, rosin, salidroside and tyrosol — have been associated with many of its benefits. For example, rosavin is believed to exert antidepressant, anticancer, anti-inflammatory and antioxidative actions.1
Rosavin also created improvements in pulmonary fibrosis in mice, decreasing inflammatory cells infiltration and proinflammatory cytokines expression and downregulating oxidative chemicals.
Salidroside, another rhodiola ingredient, reduced hepatic steatosis in Type 2 diabetic mice, which holds implications for the treatment of high-fat, diet-induced nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.2 Now, another ingredient in rhodiola, an ester called ferulic acid, is being studied and showing new benefits for its positive actions.3
New Ferulic Acid Benefits Are Being Explored
Ferulic acid (FA), a phenolic phytochemical in rhodiola, is also found in rice, wheat, oats, pineapple, artichoke, peanut, nuts and even the seeds of coffee.4 While ferulic acid has been used in skin preparations, many other uses are being explored. It may, for example, have value in treating cancer, diabetes, pulmonary, heart and liver conditions, mental acuity and oxidative stress, according to research in Biotechnology Reports.5
“It has been proved that FA acts as a β-secretase modulator with therapeutic potential against Alzheimer’s disease, and found to improve the structure and function of the heart, blood vessels, liver, and kidneys in hypertensive rats …
Researchers have also proved that at lower concentration, FA reduced the cell death in hippocampal neuronal cells induced by peroxyl radical, while at higher concentration, it diminished the hydroxyl radicals induced by protein oxidation and peroxidation of lipid. FA helped in the reduction of lipid peroxidation in peripheral blood mononuclear cells.”
In an article in the journal Natural Product Research, ferulic acid was found to relieve oxidative stress in rat heart cells. The researchers also explored ferulic acid’s ability to protect against oxygen-glucose deprivation.6
Ferulic Acid Shows Brain Benefits
Some of the most exciting brain and memory actions associated with ferulic acid obtained from rhodiola were published in Science Advances.7 Researchers found that ferulic acid ester dramatically improves recall in fruit flies, bees and mice.8 According to Harvard magazine:9
“[Researchers] made a sucrose solution with the shredded-root tea … The team engaged the bees in a classical conditioning paradigm in which they dribbled a tiny amount of sucrose solution onto a toothpick while blowing a particular odor at the animal.
As a result, the bees came to remember the sucrose reward in association with that particular odor, confirming memory acquisition. The next day, the bees still remembered the odor and expected the sucrose solution, confirming memory consolidation.”
Hanna Zwaka, who participated in the research, summarized the results:10
“Imagine you’re learning for a test — that would be the memory acquisition, and in this case, that’s when the bees paired the odor with that reward. The next day, you have to recall the memory, but this recall can also depend on sleep and concentration levels independent of the memory consolidation, which happens after you learn something …
We gave the bees Rhodiola before the learning phase [in which the bees learned to associate the sucrose solution with a particular odor], and we saw that the learning during the memory acquisition worked better than in a control group. When we gave them Rhodiola after learning, in the time when memory was consolidated, they performed better on the next day.”
More About the Research in Science Advances
There were other surprising and encouraging results in the Science Advances study about the effect of “FAE-20” (short for ferulic acid eicosyl ester) in fruit fly (drosophila) larva and mice. The researchers write:11
“We conclude that supplementing food with FAE-20 can improve memory scores in larval Drosophila. Furthermore, FAE-20 can partially compensate for both memory impairments in aged flies and early-onset memory impairments caused by a genetically induced, premature increase in BRP [Drosophila bruchpilot gene] levels in young flies …
Mouse hippocampal CA1 neurons showed increased excitability, and mice treated with FAE-20 showed improved hippocampus-dependent memory … such tests might be particularly promising because of the reported associations between neuronal excitability, synaptic plasticity, and learning …
Moreover, several compounds that increase the intrinsic excitability of these neurons, such as the cholinesterase inhibitor galantamine and the L-type calcium channel blocker nimodipine, improve the performance of old mice in hippocampus-dependent behavioral tasks …
Together, the available evidence shows that FAE-20 is a potent memory enhancer in different species and paradigms and prompts at least four nonexclusive working hypotheses for a mechanism of its action, namely, modulation of neuronal excitability, of the biogenic amine systems, of BRP/ELKS/CAST/ERC function, and of homeostatic autophagy.”
Ferulic Acid Skin Benefits
Ferulic acid is often added to skin products because of its ability to fight free radicals, which are thought to contribute to age spots and wrinkles.12 But some research indicates it may also be photoprotective, helping to prevent harm from excessive sun exposure, which is also associated with age spots and wrinkles.
This effect occurs whether ferulic acid is used alone or with topical vitamins C and E. Research in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology says:13
“Ferulic acid not only provides increased stability to a solution of vitamins C+E, but also adds a substantial synergistic photoprotection, essentially doubling its efficacy. Moreover it provides additional protection against thymine dimer formation that should prove useful for prevention of skin cancer.
These studies support the hypotheses that UV radiation produces apoptosis by triggering the caspase cascade in both epidermis and dermis, and topical vitamins C, E, and ferulic acid can protect against caspase activation.”
The effectiveness of ferulic acid in photoprotection is good news, say the Journal of Investigative Dermatology researchers, because:
“Recent studies substantiating the shortcomings of sunscreen protection support the need for a different approach to photoprotection … SPF is a measurement of UVB only and reveals nothing about UVA photoprotection, protection necessary to protect against oxidative stress.
Indeed a recent study of three high SPF broad- screen sunscreens revealed that at 2 mg per cm2 application, UVA-induced free radical formation was reduced only 55% with even worse protection when application levels were decreased.
Sunscreens are designed to be shields for the skin, protecting the skin by absorbing harmful UV radiation. Since they work at the surface of the skin, they are easily removed by washing or rubbing. Antioxidants, in contrast, are designed to work not only at the skin’s surface but also inside skin.”14
Topical application of ferulic acid not only offered photoprotection, it had other benefits, write the researchers.15
“Ferulic acid scavenged hydroxyl radical, nitric oxide, peroxynitrite, and superoxide radical. It was antimutagenic, protected against menadione-induced oxidative DNA damage and demonstrated anticarcinogenic effects in animal models of pulmonary and colon carcinoma …
Topical application … decreased TPA-induced skin tumor formation … [and] inhibited UVB-induced erythema. In a mouse model of multiple sclerosis, oral ferulic acid had a striking effect on syncytin-mediated inflammation and death of oligodendrocytes induced by redox reactants.”
Other Ferulic Acid Benefits
Other studies have confirmed the health benefits of ferulic acid. Research in International Immunopharmacology finds value in ferulic acid in treating depression:16
“Ferulic acid is a hydroxycinnamic acid that widely presents in plant cell wall components. It has been demonstrated that ferulic acid can attenuate depressive-like behaviors in both forced swimming test and tail suspension test.
Considering that depression is an inflammatory related mental disease, our present study was aimed to investigate the role of ferulic acid in the regulation of microglia activation, pro-inflammatory cytokines, nuclear factor kappa B (NF-κB) and nucleotide binding and oligomerization domain-like receptor family pyrin domain-containing 3 (NLRP3) inflammasome in mice exposed to chronic unpredictable mild stress (CUMS) …
[A]ctivated inflammatory response induced by CUMS were reversed by ferulic acid and fluoxetine as well, suggesting that anti-inflammatory related mechanism was involved in the antidepressant-like effects of ferulic acid in stressed mice.”
Research in the journal Medical Science Monitor suggests ferulic acid has anti-cancer properties:17
“This study aimed to investigate the effects of ferulic acid on HeLa and Caski human cervical carcinoma cells and the molecular mechanisms involved … Ferulic acid significantly reduced HeLa and Caski cell viability … Ferulic acid treatment promoted DNA condensation and significantly increased apoptosis in Caski cells …
The effects of ferulic acid were dose-dependent and resulted in cell cytotoxicity and apoptosis of HeLa and Caski cells, and the PI3K/Akt signaling pathway was down-regulated in Caski cells.”
The rhodiola rosea plant has a long history of use in traditional medicine in Russia and Scandinavian countries and is becoming more popular in the U.S. The new benefits associated with ferulic acid, contained in the rhodiola plant, will likely increase its usage.