The ancient Greeks, Europeans and the Chinese have used valerian to induce sleep and reduce anxiety for thousands of years. Valerian is well-known for its sedative properties.
Valerian is a plant native to Europe and Asia and it’s found in North America. Its therapeutic uses were described by Hippocrates, and in the 2nd century, Galen prescribed valerian for insomnia. Today, valerian is used as a traditional remedy for sleep disorders and anxiety, as well as headaches, depression, irregular heartbeat, and trembling.
The roots and rhizomes (underground stems) of valerian are typically used to make supplements, including capsules, tablets, and liquid extracts, as well as teas.
Several studies suggest that valerian (for up to 4-to-6 weeks) can improve the quality of sleep and slightly reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. However, not all of the evidence is positive.
Valerian and sleep: Latest views
The mechanism of action of valerian in general, and as a mild sedative in particular, remains unknown to some extent. Over 150 constituents have been identified in valerian, many with central nervous system sedative action. However, it is known that valerian interacts with GABA receptor, melatonin and the brain’s adenosine processes.
Valerian has been shown to be effective for insomnia in many studies. There has been rather few conflicting studies. Some research show that valerian’s effects can take two to three weeks to appear. Ph.D Casey Adams’ experience in clinical experience is that some people report little or no response to valerian while others reports significant response. This can also be explained by an old product or poor extract. Rushing to judgement with expectations of an immediate response may also be problematic. The rule of thumb is that all herbal therapies work after a reasonable period of continued use.
Some recent researches from 2006 concluded that, “The available evidence suggests that valerian might improve sleep quality without producing side effects.” Another systematic review, done in 2007, concluded that valerian was safe but not clinically efficacious for insomnia.
Researchers have concluded that valerian appears to be safe at recommended doses for short-term use. Some ‘sleep formula’ products combine valerian with other herbs such as hops, lavender, lemon balm, and skullcap. Although many of these other herbs have sedative properties, there is no reliable evidence that they improve insomnia or that a combination of products are more effective than valerian alone.
As a summary we can say that most research suggests that valerian may be helpful for insomnia, but there is not enough evidence from well-designed studies to confirm this. There is neither enough scientific evidence to determine whether valerian works for other conditions, such as anxiety or depression.
NCCAM-funded research on valerian includes studies on the herb’s effects on sleep in healthy older adults and in people with Parkinson’s disease. NCCAM-funded researchers are also studying the potential of valerian and other herbal products to relieve menopausal symptoms.
Using valerian for sleep
Studies suggest that valerian is generally safe to use for short periods of time (for example, 4 to 6 weeks). Medicine.Net.com, however, warns that valerian should not be taken for more than two weeks.
No information is available about the long-term safety of valerian according to NIH. Some people have stomach upsets, headache, or morning grogginess with valerian. Taking valerian with sleeping medications or with alcohol can compound its effect, so don’t use it with other sleep aids. Start with the lowest dose, then increase over several days’ time.
The NIH says children under 3 years old should not take valerian because the risks to them are not known.
Pregnant women and nursing mothers should only take valerian under medical advice. This is because of the lack of studies of how safe the herb is to the foetus or infant.
Valerian is sometimes recommended as a first-line treatment when risk-benefit analysis dictates. Valerian is often indicated as transition medication when discontinuing benzodiazepines.
Side effects of valerian
Valerian can make people drowsy, so if you take it, extra care is needed when driving or using machinery. The herb might combine with alcohol to cause people to feel too sleepy.
Valerian can cause mild side effects, such as tiredness the morning after its use, headaches, dizziness, and upset stomach.
Common side effects are:
- blurred vision
- change in heartbeat
- tiredness the morning after its use
- gut problems
- dark urine (rare)
- stomach pain (rare)
See a doctor if any side effects persist or worsen. Also, tell all your health care providers about any complementary health practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
Check all nonprescription medicine labels carefully, especially cough-and-cold mixtures. This is because many contain antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine.