Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

Valerian: Medical Uses

Valerian is used for anxiety, stress, insomnia, and hypertension in which anxiety is a factor.

Historical Uses

The Greeks, Romans, and English colonists used valerian for sleep problems, digestive problems, and menstrual cramps. It has also been called garden heliotrope.

Growth

Native to Europe and North America, valerian will grow in New England herb gardens. It loves wet soil. Its stems can grow to 5 feet tall, and the petite flowers make up a flower head with small, fragrant pink and white flowers. The roots are harvested in the spring and fall. Unfortunately, they smell like dirty socks.

Part Used

• Root

Major Chemical Compounds

• 0.8 to 1 percent valeric acid

• 1.0 to 1.5 percent valtrate

• Volatile oils

Valerian: Clinical Uses

Valerian is used for anxiety, stress, insomnia, and hypertension in which anxiety is a factor. It is approved by the German Commission E for “restlessness and sleeping disorders based on nervous conditions.” It is approved by the World Health Organization for “sedative and sleep-promoting properties”. Valerian is generally regarded as safe and is approved for food use by the Food and Drug Administration.

Mechanism of Action

In animal studies, valerian and benzodiazepines bind to gamma-aminobutyric acid-A receptors to cause sedation. Valerian‘s active compounds have a weaker effect than diazepam (Valium) or alprazolam (Xanax). There is no risk of dependence or addiction as there is with benzodiazepines. Valerian decreases the time it takes to get to sleep and reduces nighttime awakenings.

Valerian: Dosage

Controversy exists over which chemical compound should be used to standardize valerian; therefore, it is standardized to 0.8 to 1 percent valerenic acid or 1 to 1.5 percent valtrate or 0.5 percent essential oil. It may take 6 to 8 weeks to see the effects of the herb. Valerian combines well in teas and tinctures with other anti-anxiety herbs such as chamomile and lemon balm.

Standardized extract: 300-400 mg a day. Take 30 minutes to 1 hour before bedtime.

Tea: Pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 to 2 teaspoons of the root and infuse for 10 to 15 minutes. Keep covered while steeping to preserve the volatile oils. Drink up to 2 cups a day.

Tincture: Start with the lowest dosage of 1 to 3 mL ( ½ to 1 teaspoon) up to three times daily.

Side Effects

Valerian may cause mild stomach upset. A small number of people who have tried valerian have experienced excitement and irritability rather than relaxation.

Contraindications

• A standardized extract should always be used.

• Patients should not drive or operate machinery after consuming valerian.

• Some research indicates that continuous high doses may lead to headaches and palpitations. Patients who develop these symptoms should take frequent breaks from valerian (every 2 to 3 weeks).

Herb-Drug Interactions

Valerian may potentiate barbiturates and increase sedation. Advise patients against consuming alcohol while taking valerian.

Pregnancy and Breast-Feeding

Valerian is safe at the recommended dosage.

Summary of Studies

Cerny et al. (1999). This double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicenter study included 88 healthy volunteers who did not have insomnia. They took a valerian-lemon balm combination (Songha Night from Switzerland containing 480 mg valerian dry extract [4.5:1] and 240 mg lemon balm dry extract [5:1]) 30 minutes before bed. Results: Subjects who took the valerian combination had a much greater improvement in sleep quality without serious side effects.

Willey et al. (1995). In this valerian overdose case report, an 18-year-old woman ingested 40 to 50 470-mg capsules of 100 percent powdered valerian root in a suicide attempt. She presented with mild symptoms, all of which resolved within 24 hours. Valerian overdose, at about 20 times the recommended therapeutic dose, appears to be benign.

Lindahl & Lindwall (1988). This double-blind study included 27 subjects. Results: Compared with placebo, valerian showed a good and significant effect on poor sleep; 44 percent of patients reported perfect sleep, and 89 percent reported improved sleep. No side effects were reported.

Balderer & Borbely (1985). This double-blind, crossover study included 18 subjects. Results: Aqueous valerian extract exerts a mild hypnotic action and significant sleep-promoting action.

Leathwood et al. (1981). This study included 128 subjects. Results: Valerian produced a significant decrease in subjectively evaluated sleep latency scores and significant improvement in sleep quality. Women and younger people who define themselves as habitually poor or irregular sleepers were most sensitive to valerian.

Fussel et al. (2000). In this pilot study, 30 patients suffering from mild to moderate insomnia were given a combination extract of valerian 250 mg and hop extract 60 mg and reported improvements in sleep after 2 weeks.

Donath et al. (2000). In this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study, 16 subjects with mild insomnia took valerian extract for 14 days and reported an improvement in sleep with a low number of adverse effects.

Valerian: Warnings

  • • Valerian may cause mild stomach upset.
  • • Asmall number of people who have tried valerian have experienced excitement and irritability rather than relaxation.
  • • Some research indicates that continuous high doses of valerian may lead to headaches and an irregular heartbeat. Report any side effects to your health-care practitioner.
  • • Valerian is generally regarded as safe and is approved for food use by the Food and Drug Administration. Always use standardized extract.
  • • Don’t drive or operate machinery after taking valerian.
  • • Don’t take valerian with barbiturates or when drinking alcohol.
  • • Valerian is safe during pregnancy and breast-feeding at the recommended dosage.