A sedative, digestive bitter, and appetite stimulant, valerian is a tall, perennial plant that grows widely in North America, Europe, and Asia.
There are over 200 species of Valeriana growing around the world, but the one most commonly referred to is the species Valeriana officinalis. Valerian seems to be quite safe, and can be used as a tea, or in capsules as a regular sleep-aid. Valerian extracts are sometimes standardized and very often mixed with other botanicals such as hops or passion flower to enhance the effects of the valerian root extract. Valerian products have a very distinctive, unpleasant odor.
Valerian root has long been used for medicinal purposes. The Greek physician Galen recommended valerian for insomnia in the second century A.D., and after falling out of common use for some time it became popular again from the sixteenth century on as a sedative, with wide usage in Europe and the United States. Until 1950, the U.S. National Formulary listed valerian as a sleep aid and antianxiety treatment. However, it fell out of favor once more, as U.S. medical doctors abandoned herbs as a form of treatment.
Although valerian lost its place in American medicine after World War II, it continued to be used in Europe. Scientific studies on valerian in humans began in the 1980s, leading to its approval by Germany's Commission E in 1985. Germany's Commission E monograph lists valerian as useful for "restlessness and nervous disturbance of sleep." Today, valerian is available over the counter and is widely used as a remedy for insomnia in Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Italy.
Many extracts are now standardized for valerenic acid, which may interact with receptors for GABA, the calming brain chemical. Valerian is supplied in tinctures and extracts; it is frequently combined with other calming herbs (like kava) in natural insomnia remedies.
Valerian root has an unpleasant smell, reminiscent of a pair of rotten socks and cats love the smell, so many people prefer the (odor-free) capsules to liquid remedies. An average dose is 100 to 200mg of valerian extract standardized to contain 0.8 to 1.0% valerenic acid, a compound that occurs in the root.
Valerian contains many chemical constituents, including valepotriates, valerianic acid, valeric acid, and isovaleric acid. At one time, it was thought that the important chemical components of valerian were the valepotriates. Now we're not sure exactly which ingredients in valerian are most important. Currently, valerianic acid is being studied, but its role is still unclear.
Valerian roots contain a whole host of compounds; a few include valepotriate compounds, valerosidatum, valerenic acid, volatile oils and others. Several valerian compounds, as well as the whole extract, have been shown to have CNS-depressant activities. Likewise, valerian has been shown to be sedative and antispasmodic.
It is most often used to decrease the time of sleep onset. Valerian is considered generally somewhat more effective in treating insomnia than the herbs passionflower and hops but less effective than pharmaceutical sleeping pills such as the benzodiazepines.
It is very effective in promoting sleep. Valerian helps to relax mind and body and provide temporary relief from anxiety and calms nervous stomach. It can also help relieve headaches, menstrual cramps and constipation or indigestion from nervous tension.
Valerian is typically taken in tincture, capsule, or tea form, 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. To be an effective sedative, the tincture form should be taken in dosages of 1/2 to 2 teaspoons, depending on the concentration. The tea is made by pouring a cup of boiling water over 1 to 3gm of dried root and then leaving to steep for 10 to 15 minutes. Tablets, capsules, and dry extracts are usually taken at a dose of 150 to 600mg, depending on the formulation. When in doubt, follow the label instructions. As with any herb, a good guideline is to start with the smallest dosage first and increase only if needed.
Valerian is much safer than prescription sedatives. However, as with any relaxant, one should not take it before doing tasks that require full alertness, nor should one use it regularly for an extended period of time (more than a few weeks).
Valerian works almost immediately. For unknown reasons, a small minority may find valerian stimulating instead of calming.
Aside from its strong odor – some find that valerian root smells unpleasantly like dirty socks – valerian is well tolerated, with only occasional mild gastrointestinal distress. With constant use, side-effects can include headaches, excitability, digestive upsets, or sleep and heart disturbances.
No drug interactions have been reported, but the possibility still exists that valerian might enhance other central nervous system depressants, such as sedatives, sleeping pills, and alcohol. Erring on the side of caution is recommended, by not combining valerian with any of these substances.
Approved for use as a food, valerian is listed on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's GRAS (generally regarded as safe) list. Although valerian does not appear to impair driving ability, it can diminish vigilance for a few hours after it's taken. Thus driving a car or operating hazardous machinery within a few hours of taking valerian is not recommended.
Warning: If you are on any prescription benzodiazepines, do not stop taking them without your physician's advice, as there can be severe consequences.
Historically, the herb valerian was commonly used for the treatment of insomnia. Although we have some studies that appear to indicate that it is effective, more research is needed to tell us how to use valerian appropriately.
Valerian is once again becoming popular in the United States; its reputation is as a gentle sleep aid without side-effects. As one user commented, "Valerian is one of the most gentle and harmless herbal sleeping remedies I've found. It seems to enhance my body's natural process of slipping into sleep and makes the stresses of my day recede. I awaken relaxed and refreshed with no morning hangover."
A 28-day study of 121 people with a history of sleep disturbances compared the effect of 600mg of a valerian extract taken 1 hour before bedtime against placebo. The study concluded that valerian is useful for the long-term treatment of insomnia. Subjects were evaluated by a physician and by self-report at the beginning of the study and at days 14 and 28. At 14 days, only a few significant differences were found between the two groups' outcomes, but by the end of the fourth week, the group taking valerian showed comparative improvements in quality of sleep, mood, and overall evaluation of results. However, it should be pointed out that the results, although mathematically significant, were not dramatic. Valerian is a very mild treatment.
A placebo-controlled study of 19 patients who complained of poor sleep, marked by reports of frequent waking, despite chronic benzodiazepine use, was conducted. Subjects were off benzodiazepine for 2 weeks prior to beginning Valerian or placebo. The fifteen days of treatment with Valerian improved subjective sleep quality, without affecting sleep onset. This study was of relatively short duration, 15 days. [Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry 2002;26(3): pp.539-545]