VALERIAN ROOT (Valeriana officinalis)

Latin: Valeriana officinalis

WHAT IT DOES: Valerian root is bitter, slightly sweet and pungent in taste.  It is warming in action with a strong odor.  It calms the nerves and muscles and helps induce restful sleep.

RATING: yellow, due to limitation is use.

SAFETY ISSUES: Use cautiously when driving.  May potentiate the effects of benzodiazepine drugs.

• 1:5 tincture: 15-30 drops two to three times per day, and up to 60-120 drops one hour before bedtime.
• Concentrated 4:1 powder: 250-750 mg one to three times per day

Valerian root is an excellent non-narcotic nervine for treating certain forms of anxiety and tension.  It is best known as a gentle, safe sleep aid, and is most often used to treat insomnia, stress and anxiety.  It has an additional antispasmodic action that makes it useful for easing muscle tension and menstrual cramping.  Valerian root is easily identified by its strong, unpleasant odor.  Every herbalist knows that there are patients for whom it works really well, and others for whom it does not work at all.

Valerian occasionally has an excitatory effect, making insomnia worse.  There are three possible reasons for this.  First, as valerian root ages, the odor worsens due to the degradation of chemicals called valepotriates.  As this degradation occurs it becomes less effective at inducing sleep.  Therefore, I only use tinctures made from fresh plants (as opposed to dried).  Second, the Eclectic doctors classified valerian as a warming cerebral stimulant, more effective “when brain circulation is feeble” (Felter, 1922).  If your system is irritated and hot, the warming and stimulating qualities of valerian may exacerbate the problem.  Finally, pharmacological studies show that valerian has a dual action depending on dosage.  It’s still worth trying, as you will know after three or four nights of use whether or not it has value for you.  If it does work, it induces a calm, restful sleep, and you awaken the next morning with no sense of a “drug hangover.”

Research Highlights

• Valerian root interacts with GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and benzodiazepine sites.  At low concentrations valerian extracts enhance activity at specific sites, but at higher concentrations they inhibit the same sites (Ortiz et al., 1999).

• Based on reports from animal experiments demonstrating the ability of valerian root to cause vasodilation and relieve smooth muscle spasms (Hazelhoff et al., 1982), researchers performed a controlled clinical trial on 82 chronic heart disease patients with angina pectoris.  The total effective rate in reducing symptoms was greater than 87%.  Valerian was significantly superior to salvia root in short-term symptom reduction (Yang and Wang, 1994).

• In a randomized controlled clinical trial on 128 subjects, an aqueous extract of valerian root caused a significant improvement in sleep quality, most notably for people who were poor or irregular sleepers, smokers, and those who reported difficulty in falling asleep quickly (Leathwood et al., 1982).  A follow-up study showed that valerian root is as effective at improving the ability to fall asleep quickly as barbituates and benzodiazepine (Leathwood and Chauffard, 1985).

• In a controlled clinical trial, valerian root did not cause the side effects of morning-after sleepiness seen commonly with pharmacological sleep agents (Lindahl O, Lindwall, 1989).

• In a controlled double-blind clinical trial, valerian root in combination with St.  John’s wort was reported to be more effective than valium (diazepam) (Newall et al., 1996).