Why is Valerian Interesting Beyond Being a Sedative?

Why is Valerian Interesting Beyond Being a Sedative?

As part of our continuing series on remarkable botanicals, we spotlight Valeriana Officinalis, a perennial flowering plant that has a long history of use as a soporific, amongst others. As far back as Hippocrates it has been described as a highly useful plant for many problems, and in addition to being named for the latin word meaning to be strong in health, it was given the name 'All-heal' by European physicians.

During both world wars, it was used to help reduce anxiety from the constant threats of gassing and bombing. Its main call to fame was as a remedy for insomnia, but it was used for headaches, pain, and even as a ward against bad influences (probably stemming from the root's highly pungent smell.) In the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the piper filled his pockets with valerian to attract the plague-ridden rats to follow him out of the city.

It really is a fascinating plant, if for no other reason than that the flowering top of the plant is so pretty and very sweet to smell, whereas the bottom root smells seriously repugnant and rank. 

Valerian is well and widely accepted for its benefits. In Europe, the Commission E (which is sort of like the US FDA) acknowledges its safety and efficacy for relieving anxiety, restlessness, and mild insomnia, and it is in the BIG 10 of most valuable medicinal herbs. A 2006 study in The American Journal of Medicine supported the sedative effects. Another study from the UK showed that the combination of 150mg of valerian root extract and 80mg of lemon balm extract brought on sleep as well as a standard dose of valium.

There are in fact well over 100 sleep aid products on the market that use valerian. Although certainly not scientific, it is highly unlikely that a product would become so prevalent for such a long time if it did not work. You must give a level of credence to thousands of years of positive anecdotal evidence.

Valerian's traditional uses include as a remedy for:

Mild tremors,
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),
Muscle and joint pain,
Headache and migraine,
Stomach upset,
Menstrual pains,
Mild depression.

It is believed that the action of the compounds on the GABA receptors in the brain are the core of the sedative and mood effects. Results from an in vitro study suggest that a valerian extract may cause GABA to be released from brain nerve endings and then block GABA from being taken back into nerve cells. In addition, valerenic acid inhibits an enzyme that destroys GABA, and acts as a central nervous system depressant.

So why else is valerian interesting?

Valerian has actually created quite a stir in the scientific community, as evidenced by the numerous clinical trials involving the plant. Without going deep into the chemistry, there is a chemical sesquiterpene in valerian that has an enigmatic isobutenyl side chain, an extreme rarity in nature. At the center of the valerian effect is a mystery and that's part of why we love it. Like its dichotomous odors, it has a similar polar variation in effect. Even though it is a relaxant, soporific and even possibly an anti-spasmodic, in large doses it can actually cause mental excitement, mild visual hallucinations, giddiness, restlessness, agitation, and even spasmodic movements. In small doses it does one thing, and in large doses the opposite.


Scientists for years had determined that the compounds chatarine, valepotriate (short-chain fatty acid esters), and bornyl esters were responsible for the sedative effect, but a recent Italian study showed that the numerous other compounds like valeranone and kessyl esters were playing a part as well. The study concluded that the group of compounds in valerian all played a synergistic role together, creating a harmony of ingredients that worked as a collaborative cocktail, if you will. This is another part of what makes valerian a fascinating botanical. Like so many plants, there is a wonderful evolutionary intelligence to the specific combination of compounds and how they affect the world around. Without this unique combination, the effects would not result.

When animals ingest it, they get drowsy and relaxed.

So it's worth trying if I need help relaxing and sleeping then?

Everyone is different physiologically, but if you need help relaxing or sleeping, it is definitely worth trying to see how it works for you. Especially if you are like us and don't like hard stuff. Valerian is most commonly used as a tea, but given that the combination with certain other herbs have shown clear synergy, its benefits as a supplement are clear. Look for it in with hops, passionflower, and lemon balm for maximum effect.

Furthermore, with some few exceptions (it should never be used by pregnant women, or people using any sleep or depression drugs), valerian is considered safe for most people when used in medicinal amounts over the short-term. It is believed that its efficacy often requires a few days to build up.

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Sleep Aid Supplement

Bent S, Padula A, Moore D, et al. Valerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Med 2006;119:1005-12.
Cerny A, Shmid K. Tolerability and efficacy of valerian/lemon balm in healthy volunteers (a double blind, placebo-controlled, multicentre study). Fitoterapia 1999;70:221-8.
Stevinson C, Ernst E. Valerian for insomnia: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Sleep Med 2000;1:91-9.
Francis AJ, Dempster RJ. Effect of valerian, Valeriana edulis, on sleep difficulties in children with intellectual deficits: randomised trial. Phytomedicine 2002;9:273-9.
Miyasaka LS, Atallah AN, Soares BG. Valerian for anxiety disorders. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2006;:CD004515.
Jacobs BP, Bent S, Tice JA, et al. An internet-based randomized, placebo-controlled trial of kava and valerian for anxiety and insomnia. Medicine (Baltimore) 2005;84:197-207.
Eadie MJ. Could valerian have been the first anticonvulsant? Epilepsia 2004;45:1338-43.

The opinions expressed in this article are of the author. Content and other information presented on the site are not meant to be medical advice or any substitute for professional advice, counseling, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard professional medical or mental health advice from your physician or other qualified health provider.



    • Avatar
      Jun 23, 2014

      I have such a problem with sleep, have had my whole life. I used to take sleeping pills but I needed to get off them and onto something that was not doing damage to my body and making me wiggy the next day. I tried a lot of stuff, and valerian was pretty good. I used to make a valerian and chamomile tea that I liked. I found that melatonin did not do much for me, but I had some luck with both valerian and phenibut, which so far is my go to natural alternative. Nothing worked like the drugs but at least now I struggle with one problem and not several.

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