Valeriana officinalis, commonly known as valerian, is an herb native to Asia and Europe. It is now also grown in the US, China and other countries.
Flowers from the valerian plant were used to make perfume centuries ago, and the root portion has been used in traditional medicine for at least 2,000 years.
Unlike its delicately scented flowers, valerian root has a very strong, earthy odor due to the volatile oils and other compounds responsible for its sedative effects.
Interestingly, the name “valerian” is derived from the Latin verb valere, which means “to be strong” or “to be healthy.”
Valerian root extract is available as a supplement in capsule or liquid form. It can also be consumed as a tea.
Valerian root contains a number of compounds that may promote sleep and reduce anxiety.
These include valerenic acid, isovaleric acid and a variety of antioxidants.
Valerian has received attention for its interaction with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger that helps regulate nerve impulses in your brain and nervous system.
Researchers have shown that low GABA levels related to acute and chronic stress are linked to anxiety and low-quality sleep.
Valerenic acid has been found to inhibit the breakdown of GABA in the brain, resulting in feelings of calmness and tranquility. This is the same way anti-anxiety medications like Valium and Xanax work.
Valerian root also contains the antioxidants hesperidin and linarin, which appear to have sedative and sleep-enhancing properties.
Many of these compounds may inhibit excessive activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes fear and strong emotional responses to stress.
One study found that treating mice with valerian improved their response to physical and psychological stress by maintaining levels of serotonin, a brain chemical involved in mood regulation.
Moreover, researchers have shown that isovaleric acid may prevent sudden or involuntary muscle contractions similar to valproic acid, a medication used to treat epilepsy.
Staying calm while under stress can be difficult.
Research suggests that valerian root may help ease anxious feelings that occur in response to stressful situations.
In one study, rats treated with valerian root prior to a maze experiment displayed significantly less anxious behavior than rats given alcohol or no treatment.
A study in healthy adults given challenging mental tests found that a combination of valerian and lemon balm reduced anxiety ratings. However, an extremely high dose of the supplement actually increased anxiety ratings.
In addition to decreasing anxiety in response to acute stress, valerian root may also help with chronic conditions characterized by anxious behaviors, such as generalized anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
In an eight-week controlled study of adults with OCD, the group who took valerian extract on a daily basis showed a significant reduction in obsessive and compulsive behaviors when compared to the control group.
What’s more, unlike many of the medications commonly used to treat OCD, valerian didn’t cause any significant side effects.
Another study suggests that children who have trouble maintaining focus or experience hyperactive behaviors may benefit from valerian.
In this controlled study of 169 elementary school children, a combination of valerian and lemon balm improved focus, hyperactivity and impulsiveness by more than 50% among children with the most severe symptoms.
Sleep disorders are extremely common.
It’s estimated that about 30% of people experience insomnia, meaning they have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or achieving high-quality, restorative sleep.
Research suggests that taking valerian root may reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, as well as improve sleep quality and quantity.
In a controlled study of 27 young and middle-aged adults with sleep difficulties, 24 people reported improved sleep and 12 of those reported “perfect sleep” after taking 400 mg of valerian root.
Slow-wave sleep, also known as deep sleep, is important for repairing and recharging your body so you wake up feeling well-rested and energetic.
One study in adults with insomnia found that a single dose of valerian allowed them to achieve deep sleep 36% faster. Additionally, the time they spent in deep sleep increased during 14 days of taking valerian.
Valerian may also help people who have insomnia after they stop taking benzodiazepines, sedative medications that may lead to dependence over time.
In a study of people who had withdrawal symptoms related to stopping benzodiazepines after long-term use, significant improvements in sleep quality were reported after two weeks of valerian treatment.
Although most research looking at valerian’s effects on sleep has been conducted in adults, there are a few studies suggesting children who have trouble sleeping may also benefit from it.
In a small eight-week study of developmentally delayed children with sleeping disorders, valerian reduced the time it took to fall asleep, increased total sleep time and led to better quality sleep.
However, although systematic reviews of several studies have concluded that valerian is safe, some researchers feel there isn’t enough evidence to confirm that it is more effective for sleep disorders than a placebo.
There is less published research on the effects on other conditions. However, some studies suggest that valerian root can provide benefits for:
Valerian has been shown to be remarkably safe for most people.
Studies have found that it does not cause adverse changes in DNA, nor does it interfere with cancer therapy in patients who take it to relieve anxiety and promote sleep.
Furthermore, it does not appear to affect mental or physical performance when used as directed.
One study found no difference in morning reaction time, alertness or concentration in people who took valerian the evening before.
Unlike many anti-anxiety or sleep medications, valerian doesn’t seem to cause problems with dependency from regular use or withdrawal symptoms if it is discontinued.
Although side effects are uncommon, valerian has been reported to cause headaches, stomach pain and dizziness in a few cases. Ironically, even insomnia has been reported, although this is rare.
If you have liver disease or another serious medical condition, it’s important to speak with your doctor about whether it is safe for you to take valerian.
It is also advised that pregnant women and children under three years of age not take valerian without medical supervision because potential risks for these groups have not been evaluated.
Valerian will provide the best results when taken as directed for the desired effect.
Most studies in people with sleeping difficulty used 400–900 mg of valerian extract, which has been shown to be a safe and effective dosage. For the best results, take it 30 minutes to two hours before bedtime.
Keep in mind that the largest dosage may not always be best.
One study found that taking either 450 mg or 900 mg of valerian root at night helped people fall asleep faster and improved sleep quality. However, the 900-mg dose was linked to drowsiness the following morning.
An alternative to capsules is to make a tea using 2–3 grams of dried valerian root steeped in hot water for 10–15 minutes.
Research suggests that valerian seems to be most effective once you’ve taken it regularly for at least two weeks and then continue taking it for another two to four weeks.
Since valerian can cause drowsiness, it’s important not to take it if you plan to drive, operate heavy machinery or perform work or other activities that require alertness.
For anxiety, take a smaller dosage of 120–200 mg three times per day at mealtimes, with the last dose just before bedtime. Taking larger doses during the day could result in sleepiness.
It is important to note that alcohol, sedative or anti-anxiety medications, herbs and other supplements should never be taken with valerian because it can increase their depressant effects.