Sleep

Can Valerian Root Really Help with Anxiety and Sleep?

By Justin Fowler-Lindner

Are you anxious, restless, or having a hard time falling asleep?

Then valerian root might be worth a shot.

After all, the ancient Greeks and Romans used it all the time, and now modern research is starting to catch up.

Valerian root calms the nervous system through a variety of mechanisms, and as it turns out, it’s good for more than just sleep and anxiety.

Other potential benefits of valerian root include:

  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces stress
  • Prevents seizures
  • Eases menstrual cramps

With that said, there are also a few risk factors to consider. However, as long as you don’t mix it with the wrong substances, you shouldn’t have any problems.

Fortunately, we cover all that and more in the rest of this article.

Here’s what valerian root can do for your anxiety, sleep, and overall health:

What Is Valerian Root?

Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) is one of 250 different kinds of species in the Valerianacae family.

Valerian root supplements are made from the roots and stems of the plant. You can also find valerian products for sale as tinctures, teas, tablets, and capsules.

The main active compounds in valerian root include, valepotriates, various alkaloids, valerenic acid and valenol.

These compounds are responsible for the majority of valerian’s wide-ranging effects.

History of Valerian Root

Since the second century A.D., valerian root has been used in Europe and parts of Asia to treat nervousness, insomnia, headaches, heart palpitations, and trembling.

The name “valerian” is derived from the latin verb “valere” which means to be strong and healthy.

The philosopher Hippocrates was one of the first to record valerian’s properties, and later Galen prescribed it for insomnia.

Up until the 19th century, valerian was considered the leading treatment for epilepsy.

How Valerian Root Works

Valerian’s interaction with gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain is involved in most of its health benefits.

GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter that regulates nervous system activity and calms anxiety.

Valerian’s compounds bind to GABA receptors in the amygdala: the area of the brain that manages the stress response.

Valerenic acid inhibits the breakdown of GABA enzymes and prevents GABA from being taken back into the nerve cells. In other words, it’s a GABA reuptake inhibitor.

Other compounds that are responsible for valerian’s sedative and anti-anxiety effects include:

Together, valerians many compounds work to reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and treat various disorders.

Valerian Root for Anxiety

Valerian has earned the nickname “nature’s valium” because it mirrors the pharmacological properties of benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax, which also bind to GABA receptors in the amygdala.

Here’s what the research has to say about using valerian root for anxiety:

  • In a 2010 rodent study, mice were treated with valerenic acid, valerian root extract, or diazepam. Mice treated with valerenic acid and valerian showed a significant reduction in anxious behaviors compared to the control group. According to the study’s authors, “The evidence supports Valeriana officinalis as a potential alternative to the traditional anxiolytics.”
  • In a human study published in the journal Phytomedicine, researchers found that six weeks of valerian and St. John’s Wort can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression better than St. John’s Wort alone. 
  • A 2014 rodent study tested the anti-anxiety effects of valerian root extract on mice under stress. Researchers found that the valerenic acid in valerian is responsible for its anti-anxiety effects. 
  • In a 2011 double-blind randomized trial, 31 adult patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) were given either valerian extract or a placebo for eight weeks. The valerian group showed a significant improvement in symptoms. Researchers concluded that, “The results suggest that Valeriana officinalis L. has some anti-obsessive and anti-compulsive effects.”
  • However, not all studies have been conclusive. For example, a pilot study involving 36 people with generalized anxiety disorder showed no significant differences in anxiety reduction between the placebo group and the valerian group.

Unfortunately, there still aren’t enough well-designed trials to support the safety and effectiveness of valerian beyond four to eight weeks of daily use.

Valerian Root for Sleep Quality

According to recent studies, valerian root may help you fall asleep faster and improve sleep quality.

Researchers believe that the compound linarin may be largely responsible for valerian’s sedative effects.

Here’s what the research has to say about valerian root for sleep:

  • In a human study published in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, patients with difficulty sleeping were treated with either valerian extract or a placebo. 44 percent of the participants in the valerian group reported perfect sleep and 89 percent reported improved sleep.
  • In a 2006 study, 918 children with dyssomnia and restlessness were treated with either a mix of valerian and lemon balm or a placebo. Researchers found that, “The core symptoms dyssomnia and restlessness were reduced from “moderate/severe” to “mild” or “absent” in most of the patients.”
  • In a human study published in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, 128 volunteers with difficulty sleeping were treated with 400mg of valerian root extract or a placebo. Researchers found that, “Compared to the placebo, the valerian extract resulted in a statistically significant improvement in time required to fall asleep, sleep quality, and the number of nighttime awakenings.”

Valerian appears to be most effective at promoting sleep after several weeks of regular use. Unlike other sleep-aid supplements, like melatonin, valerian root shouldn’t make you feel groggy the next morning.

Other Health Benefits of Valerian Root

Here are a few more potential health benefits of valerian root:

1. Lowers Blood Pressure

The same naturally calming effects of valerian root that reduce anxiety and promote sleep may also lower blood pressure.

In one animal study, valerian root effectively widened the blood vessels in cats by mediating GABA receptors.

At the same time, several cell-based studies found that valerian root can strengthen blood vessels and improve elasticity, both of which are important for heart health.

2. Reduces Stress

Valerian may reduce stress and anxiety by inhibiting cortisol and increasing GABA.

For example, a 2013 animal study found that valerian root can improve nerve cell production, reduce corticosterone levels, and prevent oxidative damage in the hippocampus.

Similarly, a 2014 rodent study found that valerian extract can suppress physiological and psychological stress responses in mice undergoing stress tests.

3. May prevent seizures

There is widespread anecdotal evidence about valerian’s ability to treat epilepsy. 

Back in 1592, botanist Fabio Colonna reported that he was able to cure his own epilepsy with valerian root, and during the 18th and 19th centuries, valerian was regarded as the best available treatment for the condition.

Today, modern research is finally starting to catch up.

In a 2010 rodent study, mice with temporal lobe epilepsy were successfully treated with valerian root extract.

According to the study’s authors, “The results showed that aqueous extract of valerian had anticonvulsant effects.”

4. Relieve Pain from Menstrual Cramps

Valerian root may be able to relieve the pain of uterine menstrual cramps by relaxing the smooth muscles.

In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, 100 participants were either treated with valerian or a placebo for three days at the onset of menstruation.

Researchers found that, “Valerian seems to be an effective treatment for dysmenorrhea, probably because of its antispasmodic effects.”

How to Take Valerian Root

Valerian root comes in variety of herbal products, including extracts, teas, and dietary supplements.

In fact, you can even use valerian topically as an essential oil and still experience many of its health benefits.

Valerian root is most effective when taken regularly for at least two weeks straight, but due to the lack of long-term studies, it’s best not to take it for longer than eight weeks at a time.

The Food and Drug Administration says that valerian is safe to take, but you should still exercise a few precautions.

For starters, valerian root should not be mixed with other sedatives and depressants due to an increased risk of side effects, including:

  • Dizziness 
  • Headache
  • Upset stomach
  • Uneasiness
  • Severe tiredness
  • Dry mouth

Addiction and mild withdrawal symptoms have been reported upon cessation of prolonged use.

Especially if you have a history of fatty liver disease, it’s best to check with your doctor before you start taking valerian. Always consult a medical professional before giving valerian to children.

However, for most healthy individuals, taking valerian root for a period of 2-8 weeks shouldn’t pose any health risks.

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