Valerian has been used to ease insomnia, anxiety, and nervous restlessness since the second century A.D., and grew especially popular in Europe in the 17th century. It is also used to treat stomach cramps and as a diuretic. Now research has begun to confirm the scientific validity of these historic uses. Germany's Commission E approved valerian as an effective mild sedative and the United States Food and Drug Administration listed valerian as "Generally Recognized As Safe" (GRAS). Scientists aren't sure how valerian works, but they believe it increases the amount of a chemical called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA helps regulate nerve cells and has a calming effect on anxiety. A class of drugs called benzodiazepines, which includes alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium), also work by increasing the amount of GABA in the brain. Researchers think valerian may have a similar, but weaker effect.
Valerian is a popular alternative to commonly prescribed medications for sleep problems because it is considered to be both safe and gentle. Some studies bear this out, although not all have found valerian to be effective. One of the best designed studies found that valerian was no more effective than placebo for the first 28 days, but after that valerian greatly improved sleep for those who were taking it. That has led researchers to speculate that you may need to take valerian for a few weeks before it begins to work. Other studies show that valerian reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and improves the quality of sleep itself. Plus, unlike many prescription sleep aids, valerian may have fewer side effects such as morning drowsiness.
Valerian is a perennial plant that is native to Europe and grows up to 2 feet tall. It is cultivated to decorate gardens but also grows wild in damp grasslands. Straight, hollow stems are topped by umbrella-like heads. Its dark green leaves are pointed at the tip and hairy underneath. Small, sweet-smelling white, light purple or pink flowers bloom in June. The root is light grayish brown and has little odor when fresh.
What's It Made Of?
The root of the plant is used medicinally and is pressed into fresh juice or freeze-dried to form powder.
Valerian fluid extracts and tinctures are sold in alcohol or alcohol-free (glycerite) bases. Powdered valerian is available in capsule or tablet form, and also as a tea.
Valerian root has a sharp odor. It iis often combined with other calming herbs, including passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), hops (Humulus lupulus), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), and kava (Piper methysticum) to mask the scent. Kava, however, has been associated with liver damage, so it is best to avoid it.
How to Take It
Valerian is often standardized to contain 0.3 - 0.8% valerenic or valeric acid, although researchers aren't sure that those are the active ingredients.
Although one pilot study found no side effects using valerian in children, you should talk to your doctor before giving valerian to a child.
For insomnia, valerian may be taken 1 - 2 hours before bedtime, or up to 3 times in the course of the day, with the last dose near bedtime. It may take a few weeks before the effects are felt.
- Tea: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1 teaspoonful (2 - 3 g) of dried root, steep 5 - 10 minutes.
- Tincture (1:5): 1 - 1 1/2 tsp (4 - 6 mL)
- Fluid extract (1:1): 1/2 - 1 tsp (1 - 2 mL)
- Dry powdered extract (4:1): 250 - 600 mg
- For anxiety, 200 mg 3 - 4 times per day
Once sleep improves, valerian should be continued for 2 - 6 weeks.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care provider.
Valerian is generally regarded as safe.
Even though most studies show no adverse effects on fertility or fetal development, more research is needed in humans. Experts advise pregnant and nursing women to avoid taking valerian.
Some people may have a "paradoxical reaction" to valerian, feeling anxious and restless after taking the herb instead of calm and sleepy.
Valerian does not appear to cause dependency or result in withdrawal symptoms for most people when they stop taking it. But there are a few reports of withdrawal symptoms when valerian has been used over very long periods of time. If you want to stop taking valerian, taper your dose gradually rather than stopping all at once.
Valerian should not be used while driving, operating heavy machinery, or during other activities that require you to be alert. It is best not to use valerian for longer than 1 month without your health care provider's approval.