What Is It?
For centuries, the tall perennial herb with pinkish flowers known as valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has been enlisted to help restless insomniacs get a sound night’s sleep. Today this mild, nonaddictive sedative is quite popular both as a sleep aid and as an anxiety fighter, particularly in Germany, France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. And in recent years its popularity has grown enormously in the United States as well.
This graceful plant grows wild in North America, Europe, and Asia. Its underground stems and roots are harvested and dried to make healing preparations.
Although there has long been controversy over what makes valerian so effective as a relaxant, it is increasingly accepted that this herb does, in fact, work as the ancients once claimed it did. In addition to promoting sound sleep, valerian has a reputation for easing anxiety and relaxing tense muscles. It may also have a role to play in relieving digestive conditions, such as diverticulosis and irritable bowel syndrome.
Valerian added to bath water in the form of a very strong herbal tea or as an essential oil is said to have a calming effect, although specific scientific evidence is sparse.
Specifically, valerian may help to:
Improve sleep. In the brain, valerian is thought to bind to receptors for a nerve chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). By blocking some nerve impulses from reaching the brain, the herb seems to shorten the amount of time it takes to fall asleep as well as improve the quality of sleep that results. And, unlike some of the more commonly prescribed sleep medications, valerian is not addictive. Nor does it cause morning grogginess (when taken at recommended doses), as some prescription drugs do.
Numerous studies of insomniacs have shown that those who take valerian fall asleep faster than participants given a placebo. The quality of sleep improves as well, according to several recent studies. In one placebo-controlled trial of 27 people with insomnia, Swedish researchers found that 89% of those who were given a valerian preparation reported improved sleep, with 44% rating their sleep as “perfect.”
Even more impressive results emerged from a well-designed 1996 trial involving 121 insomnia sufferers. Among the benefits of valerian root extract taken one hour before bedtime (2 tablets of 300 mg each): significantly improved sleep quality, dream recall, and sense of psychological well-being.
Valerian may also be useful for people without insomnia per se. In a 1983 trial that involved 128 healthy people, those assigned to take a valerian root preparation were far more likely to fall asleep faster than those given a placebo. The valerian group also tended to stay asleep longer. Overall sleep quality improved significantly, particularly in those who rated themselves as poor sleepers to start with.
Reduce nervous tension, anxiety, and restlessness. German health authorities endorse the use of valerian for restlessness and sleeping disorders that are caused specifically by nervous conditions. In fact, anyone who suffers from stress, panic attacks, or other nervous conditions may want to give valerian a try.
Valerian is thought to lessen anxiety because in blocking brain receptors for the neurotransmitter GABA, it also inhibits nerve impulses and stress-related messages from reaching the brain. More research is needed, however.
Lessen stomach cramps and improve digestive system disorders. Animal testing and clinical research indicates that valerian has antispasmodic properties. This may explain why it’s valuable for countering spasms of the muscle tissue in the digestive tract and easing the intestinal pain that frequently accompanies irritable bowel syndrome. The herb’s calming effect may also contribute to healing; after all, many digestive disorders are provoked by stress.
Note: Valerian has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Valerian.
A freeze-dried extract may be the most effective form of the herb. Many herbalists believe that when an herb is freshly picked, it contains the highest quality and quantity of healing properties. Companies that freeze dry their products do so immediately after harvesting to ensure maximum freshness.
Valerian is available as a single supplement or in combination with other herbs and nutritional supplements.
For insomnia: As a first-time user, take 1 teaspoon of liquid extract diluted in water or a 400-450 mg capsule of a standardized extract or a freeze-dried whole herb, 30 to 45 minutes before bedtime. The dose can safely be increased to 2 teaspoons of liquid extract or up to 1,350 mg of standardized extract/freeze-dried herb, depending on how much valerian you find that you need. Most people, however, discover that higher doses do not confer any extra benefit.
For anxiety: Take 400-450 mg or 1 teaspoon liquid extract, twice a day, as needed; take 800-1,350 mg at bedtime for sleep.
For muscle aches and pains: Start with 400-450 mg or 1/2 teaspoon liquid extract and increase to 800-1,350 mg or 1-2 teaspoons liquid extract, if needed, before going to bed.
Digestive problems due to anxiety: Start with 400-450 mg or 1/2 teaspoon of liquid extract two or three times a day and increase to 800-1,350 mg or 1-2 teaspoons of liquid extract, if needed, before going to bed.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Valerian, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
An unpleasant smell develops as valerian dries; take the herb in capsule form if the odor bothers you. If you’re using a liquid extract diluted in water, try making it more palatable by adding some honey or sugar.
If you choose a standardized product, make sure it contains 0.8% valeric (or valerenic) acid. Although often hard to confirm, it’s best to use products made with roots that were recently harvested and dried at a low temperature.
Valerian works best when you rotate its use with other sleep-inducing herbs, such as chamomile, hops, passionflower, or melissa (also called lemon balm). It’s safe to take valerian with St. John’s wort, an herb that can ease the depression associated with insomnia in many cases, and with kava, an herb that may help relieve associated anxiety.
If using valerian during the day, start at a low dose(400 mg once a day), and assess how drowsy the herb makes you feel. Then gradually increase your intake to the recommended dose of 400-450 mg two or three times a day once you feel comfortable with the herb’s effect on your system.
Store valerian in a cool, dark place.
To avoid excessive drowsiness or possibly other complications, don’t take valerian with any muscle relaxants (carisoprodol, cyclobenzaprine), narcotic pain relievers (codeine, hydrocodone), prescription sleep medications, tranquilizers, or other drugs that can make you sleepy (including certain antihistamines).
Note: For information on interactions with specific generic drugs, see our WholeHealth Chicago Drug/Nutrient Interactions Chart.
Possible Side Effects
Generally, valerian causes no side effects when taken at recommended doses. Some people do experience drowsiness or a certain lack of alertness if they take the herb during the day, however.
Extremely large doses may cause dizziness, restlessness, blurry vision, nausea, excitability, and/or grogginess upon awakening. A case of valerian overdose was reported in 1995; taking approximately 20 times the recommended therapeutic dose of valerian root (18 to 24 grams) produced mild symptoms. Luckily, these symptoms resolved within 24 hours.
Don’t take valerian on a nightly basis for more than two consecutive weeks. Even though the herb is not addictive, it’s generally not a good idea to depend on any sleep aid long term.
After taking valerian, wait at least three hours before driving, operating heavy machinery, or undertaking any other potentially hazardous task that requires you to be alert.
Make sure to avoid alcohol while taking valerian.
Don’t take valeri
an if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.
Alcoholism 400-450 mg capsule 3 times a day as needed for anxiety related to alcohol withdrawal; 1-3 capsules at bedtime for sleep. Just one caution: As both alcohol and valerian cause drowsiness, they should not be used at the same time.
Anxiety and Panic 400-450 mg or 1 tsp. liquid extract, twice a day, as needed; take 800-1,350 mg at bedtime for sleep
Flu 400-450 mg standardized extract or freeze-dried whole herb or 1 tsp. liquid extract at bedtime to improve sleep
Insomnia 1 tsp. liquid extract or 400-450 mg standardized extract or freeze-dried whole herb, 30 to 45 minutes before bedtime. Dose can be safely increased to 2 tsp. liquid extract or up to 1,350 mg, if necessary.
Muscle Aches and Pains Start with 400-450 mg or 1/2 tsp. liquid extract and increase to 800-1,350 mg or 1-2 tsp. liquid extract, if needed, before going to bed.
David Edelberg, M.D.
The root of the valerian plant has been in continuous use as a sleep aid for more than 2,000 years. It was recorded as a prescription for insomnia by none other than Hippocrates himself around 400 B.C. Valerian root is currently recognized in the national pharmacopoeias (government-approved medication lists) of virtually every country around the globe except the United States. In fact, this herb is considered so safe in Europe that it’s approved for use in children.
HOW IT HELPS INSOMNIA
It’s interesting that after two millenia scientists are still not quite certain how valerian actually works, although they all agree that time has proved it to be completely safe. Numerous clinical studies have shown that valerian both shortens the time it takes to fall asleep and improves the quality of sleep. In fact, valerian probably works best in people who consider themselves poor sleepers, especially those who tend to have trouble falling asleep or reaching a deep sleep. When compared with such prescription drugs as benzodiazepines or barbiturates, valerian appears to be just as effective as small doses of these substances–but without the morning drowsiness they tend to cause. And even more important, valerian is totally nonaddictive.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Be warned: The valerian root is so noxious smelling that the ancient Greeks called it phu. And I defy you to refrain from exclaiming just that when you open a bottle of the liquid extract.
In studies, people who reported sleep improvements were taking between 400 and 900 mg of the standardized extract. So, although tea and liquid extracts made from the crude, dried root are available, look for one of the following forms to treat a sleep problem. Capsules or tablets containing the powdered standardized extract. Liquid extracts or tinctures containing the standardized extract (2% of the essential oil). You may want to add a bit of honey or sugar to make it more palatable.
A lot of people like combination products, and you’ll often find valerian teamed with other sleepy-time herbs, such as skullcap, hops, passionflower, and chamomile, or even with melatonin. My own preference is for single products used on a rotational basis. Although not a lot has been written about what’s termed “drug tolerance” to these herbs, physicians know that most sleep agents lose their effectiveness with repeated use. So if you’re using valerian and notice it’s not working as well as it once did, try switching to something else, maybe melatonin or passionflower, for a while.
Look for a product made from a standardized extract that contains 0.8% valeric (or valerenic) acid. This tells you exactly how much valerian you’ll be taking in each dose. Shopping tip: Don’t think that just because the product has a disagreeable smell that it’s gone bad. With valerian, this is completely normal.
Here are a couple of pointers on using valerian: Your best bet is probably the 400 mg standardized extract in capsule form. Be prepared, the capsule form will only marginally protect you from the “phu” effect described earlier. Take one or two capsules roughly 45 minutes or so before you go to bed. However, this time frame is certainly not written in stone, and you can take your valerian up to two hours before bedtime as well.
Valerian can cause drowsiness if taken during the day, and it should never be used if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.
David Edelberg, MD