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Nature’s Apothecary: Valerian for Calm and Better Sleep

Posted 12/05/2007

Using the herb valerian medicinally goes back to ancient Greece. By the 19th century, valerian was regularly found in pharmacies as a medication for both anxiety and insomnia, essentially the Valium of those days.

The real advantage of valerian over Valium is that valerian is much gentler, not at all addictive or even habit forming. I’ve always liked the ancient Greek name for valerian, reflecting the odor you’ll encounter when you open a fresh bottle: pfui (no kidding, that was its name).

You can use valerian just as it has been used for hundreds of years: during the daytime hours to quell mild-to-moderate anxiety (including panic attacks) and at bedtime as a sleep aid. In fact, throughout Europe today valerian has the blessing of conventional physicians and is prescribed regularly.

For reasons that aren’t clear, valerian seems to work better the longer you use it. One study showed that only a minimal sleep-inducing effect was noticed after a single dose, but overall sleep structure improved considerably after 2 to 4 weeks of nighttime use.

How valerian works
Among the various neurotransmitters in your brain, like serotonin and dopamine, is GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), a chemical that acts like the tranquilizers Valium or Xanax, but without the daytime drowsiness.

You can increase your GABA in one of two ways:
• You can purchase synthetic GABA as a capsule without a prescription in some health food stores (you can also order it from our apothecary by clicking here).
• You can take valerian, which acts by preventing the breakdown of the GABA already in your brain.

What you’ll discover is that a small amount of valerian taken during daytime hours will calm you, and will do so without the sleepiness caused by many prescription drugs. An additional benefit of valerian is that by increasing your dose at bedtime it acts as a mild sleeping pill that generally works as effectively as a prescription sleeping pill, while also improving the quality of your sleep.

What to buy
Valerian is available in both liquid and capsule form. As I personally dislike both the taste and the smell of valerian, I suggest you choose capsules. I’ve been using a product called Sedaplex in my practice for years. In addition to valerian, Sedaplex contains several anti-anxiety and sleep-inducing herbs (skullcap, hops, and passion flower) along with the mildly sedating amino acid L-Theanine. You can take three Sedaplex at bedtime for sleep, or one capsule two or three times a day for anxiety. If you’d like to try it, we’ve made it available here.

Other encapsulated products contain a range of 300 to 450 mg of valerian. The usual dose for anxiety is one capsule as needed, limiting yourself to no more than three capsules a day. If you find this a bit too sedating, you can either open the capsule and empty out half the powder or simply try to locate 200-mg capsules. For insomnia, various medical studies as well as reports from my patients show you need 800 to 900 mg, taken about one hour before bedtime with a small amount of food. If you prefer to try pure valerian, as opposed to the Sedaplex herb combo, we offer it here.

Side effects?
The most obvious, of course, when taken in high doses, is drowsiness. Try a test dose first at home and see how you respond. If you’re one of the rare people who experience drowsiness with a small dose then understand that any kind of drowsiness will translate into poor performance, so avoid operating a punch press, skydiving, or signing any life-altering contracts. I’m certain you’re smart enough not to take an extremely large dose of valerian, but were you do to so, you’d get groggy, headachy, nauseated, and tremulous.

Reasons not to take
The sedative effect of valerian will add to other sedating substances, including alcohol, prescription tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and other sedating herbs such as kava kava and passion flower.

Using valerian during pregnancy or breastfeeding has not been studied, so avoid it during those times.

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