Health Benefits of Valerian
Valerian is a popular herbal remedy for sleeplessness and other sleep problems. It is thought to relax the central nervous system, reduce nervous restlessness and promote restful sleep, and so may be beneficial for people who regularly wake up during the night. This non-addictive herb is often taken as an effective alternative to prescription medications.
What Is Valerian?
Valerian, Valeriana officinalis, is a flowering perennial herb native to parts of Europe and Asia and has been naturalised in North America. One of the earliest recorded medicinal uses of valerian dates back to Hippocrates during the ancient Greek period, and it has since become a popular remedy to soothe anxiety and relax active minds.
It is not yet fully understood how valerian works, but it is thought that a combination of compounds within the stem and root work together to create the beneficial effect. There is some evidence that the volatile oils, volatile sesquiterpenes and valepotriates increase the supply of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which helps to regulate nerve cells and has a calming effect on anxiety. In this, it works in a similar way to the drugs Xanax and Diazepam.
What Are the Benefits of Valerian?
Valerian appears to reduce sleep latency - the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. This benefit does not negatively affect the normal stages of sleep, which means that naturally, sleep quality is also improved.
With regards to the scientific research, one well-designed study involved 128 participants who were split into three groups. Those in the first group took valerian root extract, the second group took a combination of valerian and hops, and the third group took a placebo. After nine nights, those taking the valerian extract alone had a significant subjective improvement in the time required to fall asleep, sleep quality, and the number of night-time awakenings.
A second well-designed study involved 121 participants with nonorganic insomnia. They took either valerian (two tablets of 300mg) or a placebo one hour before bed for 28 days. At the end of the trial, those taking valerian showed significant decreases in insomnia symptoms, including sleep patterns, sleep quality and psychological well-being, when compared to the placebo group. The rate of improvement also increased as the trial progressed. While only small improvements were recorded at the halfway point, by the end of the 28 day trial period, the improvements were substantial. This suggests that valerian takes several weeks for the full benefits to be felt.
Interesting and potentially very positive findings were reported by a team of scientists from the Mayo Clinic in the United States in 2011. These researchers found that patients undergoing cancer therapy were able to improve sleep latency and reduce episodes of waking during the night following the provision of 450mg of valerian root extract an hour before bed. The patients also reported a reduction in tiredness and fatigue and there was an absence of drowsiness.
Valerian is becoming a firm alternative to prescription sleeping pills. This is because Valerian calms rather than sedates the nervous system, and so in the correct dosage it does not cause the same mental grogginess as prescription sleeping pills. As a result, many people find that they wake feeling properly rested each morning. To support this, one study found that 600mg of valerian did not have a clinically significant effect on reaction time, alertness and concentration the morning after ingestion.
That being said however, it is important not to take doses over 750mg before sleep as two studies have shown that doses in this range can actually cause symptoms of drowsiness that are akin to commonly taken prescription sleeping tablets.
It is important to note, however, that there is some conflicting data. Valerians effect on sleep has not been proven exhaustively, as several trials haven’t found beneficial effects. Some experts have blamed this on small-scale studies, inconsistent dosages, and methodological design flaws. More research is needed to fully understand the mechanism responsible for valerians potential calming benefits.
Reduced Muscle Spasms and Cramps
Although valerian is most popularly taken to improve sleep quality and quantity, it is also taken for other reasons that have also been underpinned by research. There is some evidence to suggest that the valepotriates found in valerian may have a regulatory effect on the autonomic nervous system and so offer antispasmodic benefits. Some people find that it also helps to relieve abdominal cramps caused by nervousness. However, more research is needed.
Control of Stress, Anxiety and Depression
Valerian can act as a mild tranquiliser to help relieve emotional stress or exhaustion. It has even been used in programmes designed to wean patients off anti-depressant drugs (though of course this should not be attempted without medical supervision).
Reduction in Menopause Symptoms
Valerian is growing in popularity with women going through the menopause. This is due to a collection of studies that have shown noticeable benefits. One study conducted in 2013 found that 775mg of valerian per day split into 3 doses was effective at reducing the frequency of hot flushes. Impressively, the frequency and severity was cut by 29.3% after 4 weeks of supplementation and almost 50% after a further 4 weeks.
Complimentary findings have been shown by another study that investigated the effect of valerian on sleep quality in postmenopausal women. It was found that 1060mg of valerian per day split into two doses reduced incidences of insomnia by 30% as assessed by a commonly used insomnia questionnaire.
What Else Can Be Done to Improve Sleep?
Sleep is obviously of high importance seeing as most individuals spend around a third of their lives in this state. Sleep benefits us in a huge number of ways, from brain function and emotional well-being to physical health and performance. A lack of sleep can also be a concern for safety as reaction time is impaired and mistakes can become all the more apparent.
Valerian is likely to work best when taken in conjunction with behavioural changes that are also known to improve sleep quality. To give yourself the best chance of a good night’s sleep, limit that the consumption of caffeinated products after 5pm and ensure that exposure to ‘blue light’ from phones, computers, tablets and televisions is limited before sleep. Making sure your bedroom is cool, dark and comfortable will also go a long way.
There are also some potential nutritional solutions that will complement the use of valerian. Firstly, eating a high carbohydrate evening meal can help sedation, and has been shown consistently to decrease sleep latency. Similarly, a high protein intake has been shown to decrease episodes of waking during the night.
There is a growing body of research regarding the use of cherries, specifically montmorency cherries for improving sleep quality. It is thought that these cherries stimulate the production of melatonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates the sleep cycle. Also known as tart cherries, Montmorency cherries can now be enjoyed as a liquid or as an extract. Valerian could also be taken alongside other supplements such as tryptophan and 5HTP which have also been shown to enhance sleep quality.
To summarise this information limiting caffeine and ingesting a high carbohydrate, high protein evening meal, along with supplements such as Montmorency cherry extract, tryptophan and 5HTP alongside valerian could work wonders for improving your sleep quality.
How Much Valerian Should I Take?
Valerian is available in several different forms but is most commonly consumed as a herbal tea, tincture or supplement. Some people have likened the smell to that of old socks, and so for those who find the herb to be unpalatable, valerian supplements are often the popular choice.
The best time to take valerian appears to be an hour before bedtime, although the beneficial effects may take 2 to 4 weeks to take full effect. Many experts advise taking valerian in cycles to prevent the body from becoming too accustomed to the effects. For this reason, take valerian daily for 10 to 12 weeks, and then stop taking it for a 2 week period. Simply repeat this cycle. Valerian extracts are often standardised to 0.3 to 0.8% valerenic or valeric acid so that you can see exactly how potent the extract is.
- For sleeplessness – take a 400mg to 600mg tablet/1 teaspoon of liquid extract before bed.
- For anxiety – take a 200mg tablet/half a teaspoon of liquid extract 3 to 4 times per day with a meal.
If you are taking capsules or tablets, do not crush or chew them. Swallow them whole. Valerian should be avoided during pregnancy and lactation as the risks have not been evaluated. This is the same for children.
Valerian Side Effects
Few side effects have been reported from valerian use, which makes it considerably safer than prescription medications. On occasion, mild valerian side effects have included headache, dizziness, itchiness, diarrhoea and dry mouth. As with any herb, valerian can trigger allergic reactions in the form of hives or breathing difficulties. If you think you are experiencing an allergic reaction to valerian, seek emergency medical help.
Valerian is broken down in the liver and so it is possible that it could interact with certain medications. You should consult your GP prior to supplementation if you are taking any prescription drugs. Often, GP’s will advise against taking valerian in combination with antidepressants or tranquillisers. If you are having surgery, tell your doctor about any supplements you are taking. They may recommend lowering the dose before surgery.
With the Sleep Health Foundation claiming that roughly 1 in 3 people have at least mild insomnia, it comes as no surprise that supplements such as valerian have become highly popular.
Take home points:
• Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a herb that is thought to have been used for its medicinal properties since the ancient Greek period, specifically for its calming effect.
• Although the scientific support for valerian is not unanimous, this natural supplement has been shown in numerous populations to decrease the time it takes to fall asleep and episodes of waking during the night. Similarly, individuals who have participated in these studies have often perceived that their sleep was significantly better.
• The benefits of valerian are likely to be amplified when taken alongside other supplements, nutrition strategies and behavioural changes that have also been known to improve sleep quality.
• Less-known is the research that has suggested valerian is influential in reducing symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, muscle spasms and cramps and also symptoms of the menopause.
• The current body of research suggests that valerian could take around 2 weeks to feel an effect and up to 8 weeks before the full benefits are realised.
• To improve sleep quality, 400-600mg appears to be the best dose. Research has shown that doses greater than 750mg do not have a heightened benefit and can actually cause negative symptoms such as grogginess the following day.
• Valerian is widely considered to be very safe, but sometimes side effects such as headache, dizziness, itchiness, diarrhoea and dry mouth are experienced.
• Valerian supplements are not currently recommended for pregnant women or children as not currently enough is known about this safety in these populations.