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Valerian Root

[Benefits of Valerian Root | Primary Uses of Valerian]
[Valerian Root Safety | Valerian Dosage]
[History of Valerian Root's Use | Scientific Support | References]

Scientific evidence indicates that valerian root can offer many sleepless Americans a safer, non-addictive alternative for a refreshing night's sleep. Valerian gets its name from the Latin word for "well-being" and valerian root is often used in combination with other calming herbs such as hops (Humulus lupulus), passion flower (Passiflora incarnata), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), or skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora). If you are currently taking sedative drugs and want to switch to valerian root, consult an herbally aware physician for advice on making a smooth transition to valerian root. Many practitioners are actually prescribing valerian root to ease withdrawal symptoms from sedative drugs. Keep in mind that valerian root seems to be most effective taken daily, rather than just taken as needed.

Valerian root's popularity as a sedative herb seems to be increasing along with the stresses of modern life. For at least 500 years, Valerian root has been among the most popular remedies in the United States and Europe. In Europe, valerian root is now approved by Germany's Commission E for restlessness and sleeping disorders. Today, according to the National Institutes of Health, as many as one-third of American adults have trouble getting a good night's sleep. The majority of adults get less sleep than they actually need, and more than 60 percent of the American population functions with a chronic sleep deficit. Most people who suffer from sleep disturbances report being under some kind of emotional stress, and an estimated nine million Americans turn to potentially addictive pharmaceutical sleep aids rather than valerian root each year in an effort to cope.

What's wrong with conventional sleeping pills? Our most common sleep aids are sedative drugs called benzodiazepines, which include Valium, Xanax, and Dalmane. Research shows that this type of drug is addictive and actually worsens abnormal sleep patterns over time by interfering with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Side effects often include dizziness, impaired coordination, headaches, blurred vision, nausea, and even more serious negative effects on memory, behavior, and mood. People who are withdrawing from these drugs after long-term use often experience nightmares as REM sleep reverts to normal.

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Benefits of Valerian Root

  • Valerian root decreases sleep latency (the length of time it takes to get to sleep) and the number of nighttime awakenings
  • Valerian root improves overall sleep quality
  • Valerian root may improve well-being by decreasing nervousness and anxiety
  • Valerian root does not cause side effects that are common with sedative drugs, including addiction and morning "hangovers"

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Primary Uses of Valerian:

  • Valerian root reduces insomnia
  • Valerian root reduces mild anxiety or restlessness
  • Valerian root reduces muscle spasms and cramping (traditional)
  • Valerian root reduces menstrual cramps (traditional)
  • Valerian root reduces intestinal cramping/colic (traditional)

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Valerian Root Safety
Valerian root is considered safe for consumption when used appropriately.7
Side effects: A few people experience mild stomach upset with valerian root use. A very small percentage of people are actually stimulated by valerian root. This may be due to differences in the method of valerian root preparation or dosage, or whether valerian root was prepared from fresh or dried valerian root material. It is most likely a matter of individual (idiosyncratic) reactions to valerian root, the same factor that makes synthetic sleep aids and other drugs ineffective for some people. Valerian root extracts made from fresh valerian root are generally considered to be the highest quality.8 Traditional Chinese medicine holds that valerian root's warming energy is inappropriate for extroverted, "yang" people who become further heated by valerian root and therefore energized.9
Contraindications: Do not take valerian root before driving or operating machinery.
Drug interactions: Valerian root may potentiate the effects of alcohol and other sedative drugs.

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Valerian Dosage
Valerian root can be used as a tea, tablet, capsule, or tincture. If you are using valerian root for sleep, take the following dose 1 hour before bed. The valerian root dose can be divided in half for daytime anxiety, and valerian root can be used in combination with other calming herbs such as skullcap, lemon balm, or chamomile. Valerian root may take 2 to 4 weeks to improve mood and sleep patterns in some individuals.

Note: When making valerian root tea, be sure to keep the pot covered to prevent the therapeutic volatile valerian root oils from escaping. If you are a bath lover, you can brew a very strong pot of valerian root tea and add it to the warm bath water. (Just be careful not to fall asleep in the tub!)

Standardized extract: 30 to 400 mg of valerian root daily
Tincture: ˝ to 1 teaspoon of valerian root daily
Capsules / tablets: 300 to 500 mg of valerian root daily
Tea: 1 to 2 cups of valerian root tea daily

Valeriana officinalis

Part used: Rhizome/root

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History of Valerian Root's Use
The ancient Greeks and Romans used valerian root for digestive disorders, menstrual cramps, flatulence, nausea, urinary tract problems, and epilepsy. Ironically, there is only one early mention of valerian root's sleep-inducing properties, by the physician Galen in 2 AD. By the late sixteenth century, growing numbers of Europeans were reaching for valerian root tinctures to help ease anxiety, insomnia, and nervous digestive disturbances. As late as the nineteenth century, valerian root was also the chosen treatment for hysteria and vapors, two "female nervous conditions."

In 1620, the English colonists brought valerian root to North America, along with their most precious belongings. Valerian root eventually became part of the Eclectic physicians' repertoire for nervous system conditions and muscle or bronchial spasms. Valerian root was an official remedy in the US Pharmacopoeia from 1820 until 1936, and valerian root was featured in the National Formulary from 1888 to 1946. During the First World War, valerian root was an important treatment for "shell shock" in soldiers and civilians. Until the rise of synthetic sedative drugs in the 1940's, valerian root was included in standard medical text books in England and the United States. Today valerian root is an approved over-the-counter medicine in Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Italy. Valerian root is also recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a mild hypotensive (blood pressure lowering) herb.

Once known as the herbe aux chats (herb of cats), valerian root has a long history of appeal for felines. Many cats find valerian root's signature "dirty sock" smell euphoric and have been known to scratch at the labels on apothecary jars of valerian root. In the eighteenth century, a prominent physician suggested that cats be employed to judge valerian root quality! (So far, not a single herb company has followed his advice.) Legend also has it that it was valerian root, not a magical flute, that the Pied Piper used to lure the rats out of Hamlin. It is interesting to note that fresh valerian root does not have the objectionable valerian scent. As the valerian root dries, it changes chemically - producing isovaleric acid, the valerian compound responsible for the distinctive smell.

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Scientific Support for Valerian Root
Clinical research shows that valerian root improves overall sleep quality, shortening the length of time it takes to fall asleep and helping people sleep more soundly. Overall, valerian root seems to help poor sleepers the most. Valerian root has little effect in people who already enjoy a peaceful slumber.1 In one double blind study on sleep disorders, 44 percent of the test group reported "perfect" sleep and 89 percent noted significant improvement after taking valerian root, in comparison with placebo.2 A large multicenter study has also demonstrated valerian root's effectiveness in children with sleeping problems related to nervousness.3

Several clinical studies suggest that valerian root may be a useful alternative to antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs in the treatment of mild depression, nervousness, and anxiety. Researchers compared a valerian root and St. John's Wort combination with the standard anti-depressant drug amitriptylin in two randomized double-blind trials with neurotic, mildly depressed individuals. One study found the valerian root/St. John's Wort product comparable in efficacy to the antidepressant, while the other found the valerian root combo superior to standard treatment. The valerian root therapy was associated with fewer side effects.4,5

In another study of 182 people, those who took an herbal combination product containing valerian root experienced more significant relief from anxiety symptoms than the placebo group. The valerian root blend tested was a popular French product containing valerian root and passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), in addition to smaller amounts of hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), black horehound (Ballota spp.), guarana (Paullinia cupana), and kola nut (Cola Nitidia). All of the participants in the valerian root study had been diagnosed with adjustment disorder with anxious mood, a condition that is normally treated with benzodiazepine drugs.6 These three valerian root studies fit nicely into current trends in the field of psychology, which are aimed at reducing the side effects and dependence potential of standard treatments for mood disorders.

Unlike many other well-known herbs, there have been only a few placebo-controlled studies conducted with valerian root alone. However, the positive results of five valerian root placebo-controlled trials and those of several large multicenter valerian studies in more than 11,000 people offer convincing scientific evidence of valerian root's value.

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  1. Leathwood PD, Chauffard F, Heck E, et al. Aqueous extract of valerian root (Valeriana officinalis L.) improves sleep quality in man. Pharmacology, Biochemistry & Behavior 1982; 17: 65-71.
  2. Lindahl O, Lindwall L. Double blind study of a valerian preparation. Pharmacology, Biochemistry & Behavior 1989; 32: 1065-1066.
  3. Seifert T. Therapeutic effects of valerian in nervous disorders: a field study. Therapeutikon 1988; 2: 94-98.
  4. Kniebel R, Burchard JM. The treatment of depressive moods in medical practice [in German]. Zeitschrift Allgemeiner Medizin 1988; 64: 689-696.
  5. Steiger W. A randomized, double-blind study to compare the effectiveness of a plant-based combination of metabolic substances to a synthetic antidepressant in depressive states [in German]. Zeitschrift Allgemeiner Medizin 1985; 61: 914-918.
  6. Bourin M, Bougerol T, Guitton G, et al. A combination of plant extracts in the treatment of outpatients with adjustment disorder with anxious mood: controlled study versus placebo. Fundamental Clinical Pharmacology 1997; 11: 127-132.
  7. McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, Goldberg A, eds. American Herbal Products Association Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton and New York: CRC Press LLC, 1997.
  8. Foster S, Tyler V. Tyler's Honest Herbal, 4th ed. New York and London: Haworth Herbal Press, 1999: 377-379.
  9. Tierra M. Planetary Herbology. Santa Fe, NM: Lotus Press 1988: 353.

By Krista Morien in Herb Research News. Herb Research Foundation, Volume 3, No. 2; 4-5. Article is reproduced with exclusive permission from the Herb Research Foundation.

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