What is Valerian Root?
A native of Europe, this perennial plant grows wild in grasslands but is also used as a garden decoration. It grows to around 2 feet in height and its straight stems have umbrella-shaped heads and dark leaves.
The root of the Valerian plant is pressed into a fresh juice or made into a powder and used for medicinal purposes.
This extract is available in several forms including capsules, tablets, and tea. It is mainly used to aid sleep and promote a feeling of calm.
Valerian has a very long history of use; it has been taken to treat insomnia, nerve conditions like anxiety and restlessness dating back to the second century and in Europe, it found new popularity during the 17th century.
While all herbal remedies need to be treated with a degree of caution, it has been approved in Germany as a mild sedative and regarded as generally safe by the food and drug administration in the United States.
Health Benefits of Valerian Root
Experts are certain that it is effective but are less sure of exactly how it works. Many scientists believe it elevates levels of a chemical is known as GABA or gamma-aminobutyric acid.
GABA regulates the nerve cells and benefits those with nervous conditions by calming anxiety.
Popular pharmaceutical anxiety drugs like Xanax and valium work in exactly the same way by increasing GABA levels within the brain though valerian offers a weaker yet more natural and less addictive remedy.
Insomnia can have a dramatic effect on your quality of life; I am quite familiar with the problems it causes as I have suffered insomnia for over a year some time back. Thankfully, my sleep patterns are back to normal but the prescription pills that I was given at the time did not get to the root of the problem and I was very concerned about their addictive nature.
Effects of Insomnia
Insomnia is a real issue these days and estimates suggest that it is so common that some 60 million Americans are affected at some point. Sleep deprivation can have very far-reaching consequences including the following:
It causes accidents
Sleep deprivation is a major cause of work and road accidents in the US alone it is estimated that some 100,000 accidents resulting in over 1500 deaths are the direct result of sleep deprivation. Work accidents are also far more likely when employees are fatigued not to mention the amount of work absenteeism caused by insomnia.
It can dumb you down
Adequate amounts of good quality sleep are essential to learning and thinking. Without the required amount of sleep, you will have trouble focusing at school or at work.
Sleep cycles are also very important when it comes to consolidating your memories meaning that you will have more trouble taking on board new information gleaned during the day.
It can lead to health problems
Apart from the mental problems it causes, sleep deprivation can have grave consequences on your physical health. Lack of sleep puts you at a far greater risk of severe illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Estimates suggest that around 90% of insomniacs have at least one other serious health condition.
It kills your sex drive
Unfortunately, a lack of sleep can also pull you right out of the mood for love. Lack of sleep significantly depletes your sex drive which obviously has serious knock-on relationship effects.
Other potential effects of insomnia include depression and anxiety, poor skin health and even potential weight gain so it is vital that we do all that we can to ensure that we are getting enough sleep. There are a number of potential home remedies and tactics that you can try and one such natural treatment is valerian root.
Unlike more powerful pharmaceutical medication, valerian root is considered to be gentle and safe when used properly and several studies confirm its use for those who are seeking a good night’s sleep.
A number of studies have been conducted to evaluate the efficacy of valerian root as an alternative insomnia remedy.
It might not work immediately and you will need to exercise a degree of patience. One very well designed study using 184 adults was published in 2005 and found that valerian root was no better than a placebo for the first 14 days of treatment but after 28 days, it significantly improved the quality of sleep of the subjects who took it. (1)
Not every piece of research has been so positive and the jury is still out on how well valerian root can actually help with insomnia. The evidence is still contradictory with many pieces of research noting no difference between the effects of valerian treatment and a placebo.
A meta-analysis of the published research conducted in 2010 was not entirely conclusive and suggested that valerian root may be beneficial for insomnia but that more research was necessary to quantify its objective benefits. (2)
Why Valerian Root Works for Sleep
So what is it about valerian root that helps people get a much better night of sleep?
First of all, it contains a chemical compound called linarin which has sedative effects. Valerian root extract causes sedation because it increases the level of GABA in the brain.
GABA or Gamma-aminobutyric acid is essentially a neurotransmitter in the nervous system. In large doses, it can exert a strong sedative effect and calm the mind and body.
According to research done in vitro, valerian root extract causes the release of GABA from the brain’s nerve endings before blocking it from uptake into the nerve cells.
Valerian also contains a compound called valerenic acid which inhibits the enzymes which destroy GABA. (6)
If you are prone to anxiety, you will be very familiar with its horrible effects and will have doubtless tried a number of remedies already. If you are at your wit’s end and feel like nothing is helping, then valerian might provide a safe and natural solution.
Many experts recommend valerian root as an alternative treatment for anxiety because of its ability to increase the brain’s GABA levels. There is some scientific evidence supporting its use for anxiety but as with insomnia, the results are far from conclusive.
One study published in 2006 was conducted to evaluate the effects of valerian in combination with lemon balm on anxiety. It concluded that a combination of these herbs had an anxiolytic effect and was worthy of more study in the future. (3)
As a Sedative
Although it has never been specifically studied as a sedative, its other known qualities make it a good sedative candidate. Its ability to promote sleep and ease anxiety coupled with its known effects on the nervous system means it has the potential to be used as a mild sedative treatment.
For Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is a relatively common condition characterized by the need to check things repeatedly and the need for routine. While it does not sound especially serious, it can have a major impact on quality of life and sufferers often seek medical help to improve the condition.
With herbal remedies being a more desirable and safer option for treatment than pharmaceutical medication, a study was published in 2011 which evaluated valerian’s effects on OCD. The 8-week long study found that valerian had some effect in treating compulsion and obsession and that it was well tolerated by the participants. (4)
For Digestive Problems
There is little or no research regarding the use of valerian for digestive complaints but it has been used traditionally to treat many stomach disorders. It is used by some as an antispasmodic especially for cramping caused by nerves and menstrual cramp.
Some of the complaints that it is said to help include intestinal cramps, colic, bloating and diarrhea. It may also be used to help with migraines and rheumatic pain but there is no evidence beyond the anecdotal.
For Migraine Headaches
Migraine sufferers will be familiar with the severe throbbing pain and nausea that they can cause. Many people who suffer from migraines are in an endless search for a working remedy so having suffered my first ever migraine headache recently I was interested to find out that valerian root may be an effective natural treatment.
I should point out that there is no research that proves its efficacy for migraines and that valerian has only been approved as a treatment for insomnia but migraine focused websites recommend it especially to treat triggers for headaches such as anxiety and stress. With valerian being so well tolerated, then it would certainly not hurt you to give it a try.
For Hyperactivity and Focus in Children
There seems to be an increasing amount of children who are labeled as hyperactive and incapable of learning or behaving at school. Hyperactive children are unable to sit still or to focus for long enough to take in their daily lessons and this causes a great deal of stress for their parents. Early studies into the effects of valerian root combined with lemon balm have been quite positive.
A very recent study published in 2014 treated primary school aged children with a combination of lemon balm and valerian root extract for seven weeks based on the previous research on the same combination of herbs when they were tested for insomnia and restlessness. 169 children participated in the study and the results while not conclusive were very promising.
The percentage of children who were unable to focus decreased massively from 75% to only 14% while those exhibiting hyperactivity also dropped significantly from over 60% to just 13%. The percentage of children deemed to be impulsive also fell a great deal. Moreover, parents observed improved sleep and symptoms in their children.
These results are excellent and researchers concluded by saying that the combination of herbs was a viable treatment together with traditional counseling. (5)
To Reduce Blood Pressure
Given that valerian has such a calming effect on the body and the mind, it is hardly a surprise to learn that it can also help reduce blood pressure levels. By reducing blood pressure, it can also have a beneficial effect on your heart. According to research, the very same properties that make valerian effective for sleep and relaxation help your body to regulate and maintain a healthy blood pressure.
For Menstrual Cramps
Because of its natural, relaxing abilities, valerian root is a great choice to relieve painful menstrual cramps in women. You can use valerian to decrease the severity of your pain and cramps which is a very common issue for many women during their monthly period.
Valerian helps because of its natural antispasmodic and relaxant effects. It can help to relax the muscles and suppress cramps. As well as easing cramps in other parts of the body, it can even benefit the very severe uterine contractions responsible for the agonizing pain so many women get during menstruation. One Iranian study found that valerian root had a significant benefit on menstrual cramps in women compared to a group who took a placebo. (7)
How to take Valerian Root
If you are thinking of taking valerian root, it is best to speak with your doctor or an herbal supplement expert in advance. Take it as you directed on the package or as you have been instructed by your healthcare practitioner.
Valerian is available in a number of forms such as capsules, tablets, and teas. If you are taking valerian capsules, they should be swallowed whole not chewed or opened. They should also be stored at room temperature.
If you are taking valerian to treat your insomnia, it should be taken an hour or two before bedtime but you should be aware that it might take several weeks before it takes effect.
For anxiety disorders, you can take valerian up to 3 times spread out throughout the day.
Valerian Precautions and interactions
Although Valerian is regarded as generally safe, there are still precautions that you need to take and possible side effects that you should be aware of.
- Studies have not demonstrated any adverse effect on fetal development; nevertheless, pregnant women should avoid taking valerian.
- While it is often taken to calm the nerves, valerian may in some cases cause increased levels of anxiety.
- Although it is not considered addictive, there have been reports of withdrawal symptoms after long-term use of valerian.
- Valerian should not be taken for more than a month without approval from your medical provider.
- Because of its mild sedative effect, valerian may adversely affect your focus and reaction speed and should not be taken when you are operating machinery or driving.
Valerian Root Side Effects
Valerian might interact with a number of medications so if you are being treated with any of the following medicines, make sure that you consult your doctor before taking valerian.
- Medications which are broken down by your liver may be affected. Valerian may actually slow down the process by which your medications are broken down.
- Sedatives-valerian may increase the effect of sedative drugs including the following:
– Benzodiazepines like Xanax or valium
– Drugs that treat insomnia like sonata and Lunesta
– Other herbal sedatives such as lemon balm or catnip
- Anti-fungal medication
- Drugs taken for high cholesterol
- Anesthesia medication: make sure that you stop taking Valerian at least 2 weeks prior to surgery.
Some people get nightmares with Valerian root. While it is rare–it is something to watch out for.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is valerian root extract good for?
Valerian root extract is mostly used to treat sleep problems like insomnia. It is a popular natural remedy for stress, anxiety, muscle cramps, and spasms. Valerian root also has a positive effect on blood pressure.
Is valerian root bad for you?
Valerian root can cause you to feel drowsy. You should avoid driving and operating dangerous machinery when taking it. There are also several potential side effects like headaches, upset stomach, dry mouth and strange dreams. Valerian might also enhance the effects of other sleep and anti-anxiety medications. It can also increase the sedative effects of depressants like alcohol, narcotics, and benzodiazepines.
Is valerian root good for anxiety?
Valerian root is a very good natural remedy for anxiety. It works in the same way as anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and Valium by increasing the level of GABA in the brain. GABA regulates nerve cells and calms down anxiety. Several of the chemicals in valerian root including valerenol and valerenic acid also have anti-anxiety properties. Lack of sleep can also cause anxiety and stress so by promoting a good night of sleep, valerian can have an even greater impact on your anxiety levels.
Can you take melatonin and valerian root?
Both Valerian and melatonin supplements can have a positive effect on sleep and anxiety. You can take both supplements but NOT at the same time. You could possibly rotate your supplements by taking melatonin one evening and valerian the next but never take them both at the same time.