Research conducted in Russia suggests that extract of Rhaponticum carthamoides may significantly increase muscle mass while decreasing fat mass in athletes when taken during training. Studies also show it may help boost capacity for work and endurance, and reduce physical and mental fatigue. Rhaponticum carthamoides extract - and in particular its active principles, ecdysterones - appear to have anabolic effects comparable to those of some steroids - without producing any harmful side-effects.
Also known as leuzea or maral root, the plant Rhaponticum carthamoides comes from the Baikal Lake region which stretches along Eastern Siberia. Traditionally consumed by Siberians in the form of a tea mixed with Rhodiola rosea, it is used as a stimulant and to combat fatigue or general weakness following illness, or even as a tonic after the long Siberian winter.
Included in the Soviet pharmacopoeia
In 1961, after more than 25 years of research and clinical studies, Rhaponticum carthamoides was officially included in the Soviet pharmacopoeia as a remedy for increasing capacity for work, athletic performance and recovery following strenuous muscle work. Rhaponticum carthamoides was added to popular Russian beverages such as baikal and sayani. Extracts have long been used by elite Russian and Bulgarian athletes for stimulating muscle growth.
Ecdysterones or ecdysones
Rhaponticum carthamoides contains a number of antioxidant flavonoids and natural sterols, including more than 10 ecdysterones, such as 20-beta-ecdysterone, makisterone and carthamosterone, which are responsible for its anabolic effects. Ecdysterones are polyhydroxylated sterols which control cell proliferation, growth and developmental cycles in insects and crustaceans. They are also called ecdysteroids, or ecdysones. Their properties have been studied by dozens of laboratories across the world. Ecdysteroids produce an anabolic effect in vertebrates by stimulating biosynthesis of proteins in the liver, kidneys and muscles. This characteristic is widely exploited in professional sport to achieve better results.
Powerful, natural anabolic steroids
In the 1970s, Soviet sports teams were caught using various anabolic steroids. In 1976, Soviet scientists discovered two substances with a long history of traditional use. One was the plant Rhaponticum carthamoides, the active ingredients of which are beta-ecdysterones. According to Russian researchers, Rhaponticum carthamoides extract stimulates muscle protein synthesis by increasing the activity of polyribosomes, the cell compartments in which this synthesis takes place.
The Soviets successfully manufactured a synthetic version of this powerful substance for their athletes. Soon after, an American version called Mesobolin emerged and circulated underground for some time. Comparative studies on animals showed that Rhaponticum carthamoides extract was actually better at increasing endurance and muscle cell growth than synthetic steroid hormones 1
Examination of the differences in action between synthetic steroids and beta-ecdysterone suggests that the former go to the cell nucleus to instruct DNA to produce more RNA, which in turn, tells the ribosome to produce more protein. Beta-ecdysterone, on the other hand, goes directly to the ribosome and increases what is called translation, the rate at which new protein is made. 2
. It does not increase transcription, the message sent by DNA, but directly accelerates protein synthesis.
Laboratory studies have shown that the anabolic effects of Rhaponticum extract include the ability to increase bodyweight by improving the lean muscle/fat ratio, boost levels of haemoglobin and erythrocytes, raise total protein levels in the blood and reduce the accumulation of uric acid. This nutrient has been clearly shown to lead to more muscle being built than is broken down, resulting in improvements in fitness, endurance and performance.
During intense physical activity, Rhaponticum extract inhibits problems with energy metabolism, maintains stable levels of glycogen in skeletal muscle, increases blood supply to the muscles and brain and reduces recovery times following prolonged muscle activity.
The intense physical activity of elite athletes causes an increase in blood coagulation, resulting in muscle pain and frequent injuries. A comparative study, in which a blend of vitamins and extracts of Rhaponticum and Eleutherococcus was given to athletes for 20 days, showed a decrease in blood coagulation factors induced by intensive training. Treatment with this combination of adaptogens produced a clear reduction in the athletes’ coagulation potential, accompanied by an increase in their capacity for work and recovery following intensive training sup>3.
Free from the side-effects of anabolic steroids
In a placebo-controlled experiment conducted on 112 athletes, 89% of those taking Rhaponticum found their fatigue passed more rapidly, were less lethargic following physical exertion and performed better in sports such as athletics, swimming, speed skating and alpine skiing. 69% of them adapted faster to weather and social conditions, 86% found their appetite increased and 78% adjusted significantly better to physical workload. The effects of Rhaponticum extract were subsequently found to be comparable to those of various known anabolic steroids - without negatively affecting the adrenal cortex. Neither did it have the androgenic effect of anabolic steroids, nor their associated side-effects4
In addition, the ecdysterones in Rhaponticum extract boost liver and kidney function, in contrast to synthetic steroids which can actually cause damage to these organs.
Studies conducted across seven clinics in Moscow, Kiev and St. Petersburg, showed that Rhaponticum extract significantly improved patients’ physical and mental condition. It increased their capacity for work and bodyweight during periods of malnutrition caused by impaired protein synthesis. Its anabolic properties help normalise bodyweight with no harmful effect on the adrenal cortex or endocrine glands 5
Improves humoral immunity
Researchers studied the effects of 20 days’ administration of Rhaponticum carthamoides on the humoral immunity of track and field runners over distances of 5,000 and 10,000 metres 6
. Intensive cyclic physical activity induces a significant decrease in athletes’ blood serum levels of IgG and IgA, as well as in the complement C3 component on the 10th and 20th days. Supplementation helped restore these decreased IgG, IgA, and C3 concentrations. The work capacity of the athletes also increased by 10-15%.
Increases performance and endurance
Another research team found that ten days’ supplementation with Rhaponticum carthamoides extract combined with L-carnitine and acetyl-L-carnitine increased maximum running speed and endurance, whereas L-carnitine alone produced no such effect 7
Rhaponticum carthamoides extract significantly increases the work capacity of tired skeletal muscles and increases their glycogen, ATP and creatine phosphate content 8
. The most popular sports-oriented formulations usually include extracts of leuzea and Rhodiola rosea9
. A number of preparations based on this plant extract are registered and protected by around a dozen patents. They are very popular with professional athletes, including world and Olympic champions, as well as with ordinary Russians. A Rhaponticum carthamoides/Rhodiola rosea-based product is widely used by professional athletes as well as by normal, healthy individuals as an everyday tonic for increasing mental and physical ability. It can be used to reduce fatigue and improve learning and memorising capacity, with no damaging effects on the body.
Its effects at countering physical and mental fatigue have been demonstrated in a number of animal and human studies.
According to Russian scientist Dr V S Novokov, one of the first signs of mental stress is an inability to sleep well. During a long sea voyage,
researchers observed sleep disorders which manifested as confusion while falling asleep as well as shallow breathing during sleep with frequent awakening and dreams, among navy operators whose work involved handling sophisticated computer equipment. Such sleep disorders impaired their ability to carry out their work effectively. The scientists eliminated the sailors’ sleep disorders by giving them a Rhaponticum carthamoides extract10
Another study was conducted on members of an ice-breaking team during a long Arctic voyage. After four months of navigation, the sailors were divided into two groups and they underwent medical tests. The first group of 22 sailors began taking Rhaponticum extract (2ml twice a day for three weeks), with the second group of 25 sailors given the same amount of tea with five drops of alcohol. The first signs of a beneficial effect from the Rhaponticum extract appeared 8-10 days into the supplementation: the sailors’ health improved, their sleep normalised, their appetite increased, their mood was better and, above all, their productivity increased. At the end of the study, the general physical and mental condition of the sailors in this group had improved. In the control group, however, fatigue increased and there was a decline in performance and productivity11
Extract of Rhaponticum carthamoides has pronounced adaptogenic effects. It increases dynamic work capacity, improves stress response and adaptability to physical and mental challenges, and increases capacity for physical and mental work under stressful conditions. When animals were given Rhaponticum extract and then subjected experimentally to extreme stressors (a wide variety of physical, chemical or biological stress factors) which were used to assess adaptogenic plants, their resistance to the harmful effects of various chemical stressors increased. The extract normalises adrenal health (weight) and other endocrine glands during and after prolonged periods of stress. Its administration improved the adaptability to cold temperatures of men working in a Nordic climate 12
Effect on mental health
Ecdysterones modulate the GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptor, inducing GABAergic inhibition in cortical neurons. The net effect is mood-stabilising and antiepileptic. In clinical practice, Rhaponticum extract has a beneficial effect on neurotic and psychiatric patients with asthenia, astheno-depressive and astheno-hypochondriac syndrome.
Researchers found that Rhaponticum extract, administered orally to rats at a dose of 0.25-0.5g/kg of bodyweight before a training session, clearly improved their learning and memorising abilities14
Stimulates sexuality and development of sex organs
According to Russian scientists, in addition to boosting endurance and overall condition, Rhaponticum extract stimulates sexual function. Observing the sexual behaviour of laboratory animals given Rhaponticum extract for 10 days, they found it stimulated sexual function in all the male animals. They also found it encouraged weight gain and development of sex organs (testes), particularly in the weakest animals15
Similar results were obtained when the extract was given to men with sexual dysfunction. Administration of ecdysterones to males with diagnosed fertility problems (impaired spermatogenesis as a complication of a urological disease) increased copulative function and improved sperm quality. Administration of a Rhaponticum extract standardised to 5% ecdysterones to patients recovering from heart attack also led to improvements in sexual ability and sperm quality16