Valerian: Health Benefits and History
Most people associate “valerian” with sleep support, and for good reason — it’s one of the world’s most popular herbal sleep supports!
Why is sleep so important in the first place?
Like many other interconnected processes of the body, your sleep determines much about your health. Maintaining healthy sleep is a part of a holistic view of your all-body health.
Since ancient times, valerian has been used to promote calm, sleep, and rest.
Where does it come from? Does it actually work? Are there risks to taking valerian?
We discuss this, and more, below.
What is Valerian Root?
Valerian is a perennial flowering plant found in North America, Europe, and Asia. The root of this plant is frequently used to encourage peaceful sleep in ancient cultures for many centuries.
While it carries health benefits, the valerian plant is considered a weed in some areas. Gardeners frequently plant red valerian (Centranthus ruber), but this is not the same species as the valerian known for its rest-promoting benefits.
Though there are over 250 valerian species, Valeriana officinalis is the most commonly used for sleep support.
There are several compounds that may provide valerian its popularity in herbalism, such as:
- Alkaloids such as valerine and valerianine
- GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid)
- Iridoids such as valtrate
- Sesquiterpenes such as valerenic acid
- Flavonoids such as linarin and hesperidin
History of Valerian
Herbalists have used valerian as far back as ancient Rome and Greece, when their empires were at the height of power.
The first figure to mention valerian was Hippocrates. Galen, considered “the Roman Empire’s greatest physician,” also used valerian, according to his written accounts. Pilgrim Marpeck, an Anabaptist reformer, was said to suggest valerian to promote women’s health.
Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, a book by 16th century English botanist John Gerard, mentioned valerian as an essential ingredient in foods for the health of the poor in north England and South Scotland.
Nicholas Culpeper, a well-known astrological botanist in the 1600s, described valerian as having “a warming faculty” and recommended the full plant to his clients.
More recently, valerian was recommended to civilians in England during the frequent air raids in World War II.
How Valerian Works
It’s not just one chemical compound found in valerian that makes it beneficial. Many of its individual chemical compounds have been shown to promote a feeling of calm and relaxation.
These chemical compounds work in conjunction. The exact way in which valerian affects the brain is still being discovered. It may influence nerve cells to release a chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid, referred to as GABA.
Valerenic acid may support the normal release of GABA within the body. GABA slows down nerve activity rather than exciting it, which may be one reason for its soothing qualities.
Hesperidin and linarin, antioxidants found in valerian root, may be part of the process by which the brain’s amygdala responds to fear and strong stress responses.
Benefits of Valerian for Health
1. Sleep Support
Valerian helps to promote restful sleep as part of a lifestyle designed for overall health.
The best part? The evidence suggests that valerian is unlikely to cause side effects when used for rest and calm.
Other ways to support restful sleep include:
- Avoiding artificial blue light, especially in the evening
- Making your bedroom an oasis
- Discontinuing caffeine intake at least 6-8 hours before bedtime
- Exercising regularly
- Limiting alcohol before bed
- Going to sleep at the same time every night
2. Emotional Support
Having a healthy response to stress is one way to manage emotions in a positive way.
Valerian can promote a normal response to the daily stresses of life.
Other supports for a healthy response to stress:
- Surrounding yourself with a supportive community of friends and family
- Journaling, drawing, or artistically expressing yourself
- Prayer and spiritual wellness
- Light-to-moderate exercise
- Good hydration
- A healthy, nutrient-dense diet
- Minimizing screen time and social media interaction
- Practicing good self-care
- Breathing exercises
3. Hormone Support
Limited research suggests that the valerian plant may be good for maintaining balanced female hormones.
4. Brain Support
Valerian may also support mental focus and overall cognition.
Plus, a healthy sleep routine is one way to keep your brain sharp!
Sleep & the Immune System
Our bodies are made up of many interrelated systems. These systems work in a coordinated effort for our optimal performance.
Something we may consider small could be messing up the whole operation. Occasional sleeplessness and daily stress may be a seemingly “small” problem today that could interfere with your whole body’s operation.
The immune system releases cytokines, a specific type of protein, during sleep. These cytokines play a role in restful sleep as well as stress management.
Together, sleep and your circadian rhythm can affect your immune system. In fact there is a bidirectional link between the two, meaning that sleep impacts the immune system and the immune system alters sleep.
Two positives about this situation are that:
- Many factors that influence sleep are easy — and inexpensive — to address
- The immune system renews itself every 100 days
If this bidirectional relationship is disrupted, it may be possible to adjust your diet and lifestyle in a way that supports both!
Side Effects of Valerian Root
Taking valerian as a dietary supplement is not known to cause any side effects, according to multiple clinical trials.
Although it supports a sense of calm, there is no evidence that it causes mental sluggishness or problems with alertness. However, it’s usually best not to drive, drink alcohol, or operate heavy machinery until you know how valerian makes you feel.
It’s possible that valerian can interact with certain medications, so if you take any of the following, talk to your doctor before using valerian:
- Alprazolam (Xanax)
- Sedatives (benzodiazepines and central nervous system depressants)
- Medications altered by the liver (including allergy medications, antifungals, cancer drugs, and statins)
If you have serious medical problems or any diagnosed condition, you should consult with your doctor before taking valerian or any other dietary supplement.
Dosage & How to Take Valerian
Always take the dosage of valerian shown on the label of the product you purchase unless directed otherwise by a physician.
Clinical trials with valerian typically use between 400-900 milligrams per dose. Study trial participants generally took their doses 30-120 minutes before bed, sometimes breaking consumption into multiple doses throughout the day.
Valerian is also available in dried root form. You can steep dried valerian root in hot water to make tea.
The Bottom Line
Valerian root can be one part of a healthy sleep routine, along with a supportive lifestyle and dietary regimen. Optimizing your sleep and immune system are key ways to promote overall health.
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