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Valerian

Common name: Heliotrope, Fragrant valerian, European valerian

Botanical name: Valeriana officinalis

Photo

© Steven Foster

Parts used and where grown

Although valerian grows wild all over Europe, most of the valerian used for medicinal extracts is cultivated. The root is used in herbal medicine preparations.

Valerian has been used in connection with the following conditions (refer to the individual health concern for complete information):

Science Ratings Health Concerns
3Stars

Insomnia

2Stars

Anxiety (in combination with passion flower)

1Star

Pain

3Stars Reliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.
2Stars Contradictory, insufficient, or preliminary studies suggesting a health benefit or minimal health benefit.
1Star For an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support and/or minimal health benefit.

Historical or traditional use (may or may not be supported by scientific studies)

The Greek physician Dioscorides reportedly recommended valerian for a host of medical issues, including digestive problems, nausea, liver problems, and even urinary tract disorders. Use of valerian for insomnia and nervous conditions has been common for many centuries. By the 18th century, it was an accepted sedative and was also used for nervous disorders associated with a restless digestive tract.

Active constituents

Valerian root contains many different constituents, including volatile oils that appear to contribute to the sedating properties of the herb. Central nervous system sedation is regulated by receptors in the brain known as GABA-A receptors. According to test tube studies, valerian may weakly bind to these receptors to exert a sedating action.1 This might explain why valerian may help some people deal with stress more effectively.2

Double-blind trials have found that valerian is an effective treatment for people with mild to moderately severe insomnia.3 4 Generally, valerian makes sleep more restful as well as making the transition to sleep easier, but does not tend to increase total time slept, according to these studies. Two trials have also found that a combination with lemon balm is effective in improving quality of sleep and in treating insomnia.5 6

How much is usually taken?

For insomnia, some doctors suggest 300–500 mg of a concentrated valerian root herbal extract (standardized to at least 0.5% volatile oils) in capsules or tablets 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.7 Non-standardized dried root products, 1.5 to 2 grams 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime, may also be used. As an alcohol-based tincture, 5 ml can be taken before bedtime. Combination products with lemon balm, hops, passion flower, and scullcap can also be used.

Are there any side effects or interactions?

Research suggests that valerian does not impair one’s ability to drive or operate machinery.8 There is one case reported of a man experiencing severe cardiac symptoms that may have been due to withdrawing from valerian. This man abruptly discontinued taking valerian, after having used 5–20 times the recommended amount “for many years”.9 However, when taken at recommended amounts, valerian supplementation does not lead to addiction or dependence. In the case of an 18-year old college student who tried to kill herself by ingesting approximately 20,000 mg of valerian root (approximately 40–50 times the recommended amount), the only symptoms reported were fatigue, abdominal pain, and a mild tremor of the hands and feet.10 Valerian does not appear to impair reaction time, alertness, or concentration the morning after use.11 There are no known reasons to avoid valerian during pregnancy or breast-feeding.

At the time of writing, there were no well-known drug interactions with valerian.

References:

1. Mennini T, Bernasconi P, Bombardelli E, et al. In vitro study on the interaction of extracts and pure compounds from Valeriana officinalis roots with GABA, benzodiazepine and barbiturate receptors. Fitoterapia 1993;64:291–300.

2. Kohnen R, Oswald WD. The effects of valerian, propranolol and their combination on activation performance and mood of healthy volunteers under social stress conditions. Pharmacopsychiatry 1988;21:447–8.

3. Leathwood PD, Chauffard F, Heck E, Munoz-Box R. Aqueous extract of valerian root (Valeriana officinalis L) improves sleep quality in man. Pharmacol Biochem Behav 1982;17:65–71.

4. Leathwood PD, Chauffard F. Aqueous extract of valerian reduces latency to fall asleep in man. Planta Med 1985;51:144–8.

5. Dressing H, Riemann D, Low H, et al. Insomnia: Are valerian/balm combination of equal value to benzodiazepine? Therapiewoche 1992;42:726–36 [in German].

6. Dressing H, Köhler S, Müller WE. Improvement of sleep quality with a high-dose valerian/lemon balm preparation: A placebo-controlled double-blind study. Psychopharmakotherapie 1996;6:32–40.

7. Brown DJ. Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1996, 173–8.

8. Albrecht M, Berger W, Laux P, et al. Psychopharmaceuticals and safety in traffic. Zeits Allegmeinmed 1995;71:1215–21 [in German].

9. Garges HP, Varia I, Doraiswamy PM. Cardiac complications and delirium associated with valerian root withdrawal. JAMA 1998;280:1566–7.

10. Wiley LB, Mady SP, Cobaugh DJ, Wax PM. Valerian overdose: A case report. Vet Human Toxicol 1995;37:364–5.

11. Kuhlmann J, Berger W, Podzuweit H, Schmidt U. The influence of valerian treatment on “reaction time, alertness and concentration” in volunteers. Pharmacopsychiatry 1999;32:235–41.

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