By: Marlene Affeld ~
Many people, plagued by insomnia, have heard of valerian root as a remedy for sleeplessness, depression, anxiety, restlessness, migraines and menstrual problems. They ask, what is Valerian and does valerian root work as a natural remedy for sleep? The answer is yes, that for many people, valerian root works very well. However it is not without cautions and contradictions.
Clinical test results from several short-term sleep studies indicate that valerian may help reduce the amount of time it take most people to fall asleep, may encourage a sounder sleep, and be a natural alternative to prescription medications for those suffering from chronic insomnia or wakefulness.
Research studies indicate that the various active compounds in valerian root are capable of promoting the production of GABA in the brain. GABA, or gamma aminobutryic acid, is a powerful neurotransmitter that promotes muscle relaxation, sedation and sleep. Some athletes take valerian to not only promote sleep but to trigger the production of growth hormone. Studies indicated that valerian root appears to increase the amount of GABA released from nerve ending. In the studies, it was also noted that valerian help prevent GABA from being reabsorbed by nerve cells thus increasing the amount of GABA available in the brain through these two supportive mechanisms.
For more than 4,000 years, valerian has been a staple in Greek, Roman, and Chinese traditional medicine. In traditional herbal remedies, the valerian plant’s root and rhizomes (underground stems) were finely chopped and dried for tea or used as an extract to be used primarily as a sleeping sedative. Valerian’s roots contain several; different compounds, including valerenic acid, a sesquiterpenoid that is used as the active marker compound for valerian root powder tinctures and extracts.
In both herbal medicine and pharmacology, Valerian is the name of an herbaceous plant or natural dietary supplement made from the root of a wild-growing plant found flourishing all across North America. Valerian is available as a pure supplement in powdered or form or markets as valerian tea, tinctures, valerian root, liquid valerian extracts or the root can be brewed as a tea.
Valerian’s History As An Herbal Supplement
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis, Caprifoliaceae), also known as garden valerian, all-heal, or heliotrope, is a tall, herbaceous perennial flowering plant prized for its sweet scent and as well as its culinary and medicinal properties. In late spring or early summer valerian, a grassland plant exhibits a profusion of white or pink flowers.
During the 16th century, extracts from the highly fragrant blooms were used as an ingredient in flavoring perfume, bath salts, lotions, and soaps. When extracts of the medicinal flower were added to bath water, they were said to promote relaxation, reduce restlessness, relieve muscle pain and encourage a good night’ sleep. As a culinary ingredient, extract of valerian root was used to flavor foods and beverages such as teas and root beer.
Native to Europe and many parts of Asia, valerian was introduced to North America by early European settlers who used an extract from the root of the plant to calm anxiety, combat depression and hypochondria, provide pain relief from migraine headaches and stomach cramps and to relieve hot flashes and other menstrual symptoms in women. During the early 1800’s Shaker settlers formed a cooperative to commercially cultivate valerian for sale to pharmacists and doctors.
Although the fresh chopped root has very little odor, the dried root projects a pungent offensive odor often described as being similar to dirty socks or stale garbage, the likely origin of the word “pew”. The first-century Roman physician Dioscorides first used the word “phu” in reference to valerian. Valerian is attractive to cats, containing “cat-attracting” properties similar to those found in catnip.
Valerian root supplements are indexed in the Commission E (Germany’s regulatory agency for herbs) list of approved herbs. Valerian supplements are available in tablets, liquid extracts or tinctures, and dried roots can also be brewed as a tea.
When taken as a sleep aid, valerian many be taken in any form or in combination formulation of other sleep inducing natural supplements such as serotonin, melatonin or 5-HTP. The usual dosage of valerian extract in tablet or capsule form is 300 to 900 milligrams to be taken a 1-to-2 hours before bedtime. For restlessness, depression, stress and anxiety, the usual dose is 50 to 100 milligrams taken 2 to 3 times a day. Dependent on the patient’s body weight and presenting symptoms, some practitioners recommend doses of 200 milligrams or even 400 milligrams take 3 times a day.
Clinical trials indicate that only a single dose of valerian tends to show no significant benefit or improvement in symptoms. The studies suggest that improvement increases over a period of 2 to 4 weeks and may work best when taken over an extended period of time.
American Family Physician has evaluated the merits valerian and notes, commenting, “Valerian is a traditional herbal sleep remedy that has been studied with a variety of methodologic designs using multiple dosages and preparations. Research has focused on subjective evaluations of sleep patterns, particularly sleep latency, and study populations have primarily consisted of self-described poor sleepers. Valerian improves subjective experiences of sleep when taken nightly over one- to two-week periods, and it appears to be a safe sedative/hypnotic choice in patients with mild to moderate insomnia. The evidence for single-dose effect is contradictory. Valerian is also used in patients with mild anxiety, but the data supporting this indication are limited. Although the adverse effect profile and tolerability of this herb are excellent, long-term safety studies are lacking.”
Cautions And Concerns
Using valerian, when combined with other herbal supplements or prescription medications may increase side effects such as stomach distress, dizziness, drowsiness, lack of coordination, balance and difficulty concentrating. Some persons may also experience some impairment in thinking and judgment.
The National Institute of Health notes that valerian might have additive therapeutic and adverse effects when taken with sedatives, other medications or certain herbs and dietary supplements containing sedative properties. These include the following:
- Benzodiazepines such as Xanax®, Valium®, Ativan®, and Halcion®.
- Barbiturates or central nervous system (CNS) depressants such as phenobarbital (Luminal®), morphine, and propofol (Diprivan®).
Dietary supplements such as St. John’s wort, kava, and melatonin.
Avoid or limit the use of alcohol while being treated with valerian or these medications to avoid a possible drug interaction. Avoid driving or operating hazardous machinery until you know how the medications are likely to affect you. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding you should not take valerian or any other herbal supplements unless prescribed by your physician.
Remember to tell your healthcare provider about all other medications you are taking, including vitamins, supplements, and herbs. Do not stop your medications without first talking to your doctor.
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