Valerian (Valeriana officinalis or Valerianae radix) has been used as a medicinal anti-anxiety herb and sleep aid since the days of the Romans. The dried roots of the plant are used in teas, tinctures and in capsule/tablet forms. The fresh root has no distinctive odor, however, over time hydrolysis of compounds present in the volatile oil produce isovaleric acid, which has an offensive odor (akin to sweaty socks). Traditionally valerian was used to treat migraine headache, anxiety, fatigue, and seizures and many traditional Chinese remedies include valerian for treatment of numbness due to rheumatic conditions, colds, menstrual difficulties, bruises and wound healing. Currently, valerian may be used orally for the treatment of insomnia, restlessness, sleeping disorders with anxiety, mood disorders, muscle and joint pain, menstrual cramps and menopausal symptoms. It is unclear which of the numerous compounds is the true “active” – but the combination of compounds appears to work together in the brain to produce an overall effect similar to the action of prescription tranquilizers such as Valium and Halcion.
As a mild tranquilizer and sleep aid, valerian may be an effective herb for dealing with temporary feelings of anxiety, nervousness or insomnia. The effects of valerian are generally quite mild when compared to prescription products and synthetic OTC products and generally do not result in “morning after hangover” effects experienced with certain sleep aids.
Valerian taken before bedtime appears to reduce the amount of time that it takes to fall asleep (sleep latency). It is unknown, however, whether the quality of the sleep is affected by valerian consumption. Valerian is generally regarded as a mild tranquilizer and has been deemed safe by the German Commission E for treating “restlessness and sleeping disorders brought on by nervous conditions” (Donath et al. 2000). The medicinal portion of the valerian plant is the root and most of the pharmacological effects of valerian root have been attributed to valepotriate and volatile oil constituents, specifically monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes. However, it is hypothesized that multiple constituents are responsible for its therapeutic effects rather than to a single active compound. Valepotriate constituents are believed to have sedative-hypnotic and spasmolytic effects, while the sesquiterpenes, valerenic acid and kessyl glycol have been shown to cause sedation in animals (Houghton 1999). Another mechanism of action is likely to involve valerenic acid’s ability to inhibit the enzyme system responsible for the central catabolism of GABA, increasing GABA concentrations and decreasing CNS activity (Houghton 1999).
Several studies have examined the effects of valerian on sleep. In one placebo-controlled crossover study with 128 participants, 400mg of valerian extract (plus hops) reduced sleep latency and improved sleep quality compared with placebo (Leathwood et al. 1982). Analysis of the results suggested that valerian had an increased effect with participants that described themselves as “poor” or “irregular” sleepers. Another trial evaluated the effectiveness of 450-900mg of valerian on healthy volunteers between the ages of 21 and 44 (Kuhlmann et al. 1999). Sleep quality was measured using a questionnaire, night-time motor activity recordings, and spectral analysis of the sleep EEG. Both doses elicited mild hypnotic effects and improved sleep quality. Other studies of valerian supplementation have shown improvements in slow-wave (deeper stage) sleep, compared with placebo and equivalence of 600mg valerian with 10mg oxazepam for indices of overall sleep quality (Vonderheid-Guth et al. 2000). In terms of anxiolytic effects, several studies have shown 100-300mg of valerian root extract to be more effective than placebo and as effective as 20mg propranolol on measures of social stress, somatic arousal, anxiety, and emotional tension (Kuhnen & Oswald 1988).
Occasional reports of headaches and mild nausea are documented, but habituation or dependency is unlikely when used as directed. Valerian should be avoided by pregnant and lactating women and should not be consumed by children. Individuals currently taking sedative drugs or antidepressant medications should be advised by their personal physician before taking valerian. Do not take valerian in conjunction with alcohol or other tranquilizers and do not consume for more than two weeks.
Because the activity and strength of valerian preparations can vary significantly from one product to the next, it is recommended to select a standardized product (0.5-1.0% valerenic acids) whenever possible and to follow the directions on the particular product. As a general guideline, approximately 200-900mg of a standardized extract can be taken 30-60 minutes before bed (as a sleep aid) or as needed as a mild tranquilizer.
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This monograph can be found in The Health Professional's Guide to Dietary Supplements (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins) by Shawn M. Talbott, PhD and Kerry Hughes, MS.