Valerian (Valerian officinalis)

Photo by Steven Horne

Valerian is one of the herbal kingdom’s powerful nervines.  The root of this plant has been used since the 2nd century AD and continues to be one of the more popular modern herbal remedies for insomnia, stress and mild pain. It is a tall (3-5 ft.) shrub that yields small pale pink flowers from June to August.  The main stem is hollow, grooved and hairy.  The stalks bear large, toothed, dark green leaves that are widely spaced. It grows in moist soil on the banks of rivers and in low meadows, especially near stones.  

Although Valerian officinalis is the official herbal remedy, other valerian species have similar properties.  Various species of valerian are found in  Western Asia, Europe and North America.

Unfortunately, it’s not one of the more pleasant smelling herbs.  The smell of valerian has been described as something akin to “moldy cheese” or dirty socks. Dioscorides, a Roman physician in the first century AD, called valerian "phu" which later became the colloquial "pew."  

Despite its putrescent odor, cats seem to love the smell of valerian.  It intoxicates them much the same as catnip does.  Valerian root has also been used in rat traps to attract the rats to the poison.  It is no wonder that the Pied Piper is purported to have used it, along with his flute, in his extermination efforts.

In spite of its not so pleasant odor, valerian has been used for food. In Sicily, the leaves of this herb have been used in salads.  Paiute Indians have been known to grind the flowers into flour for bread.  Though the root's taste would ruin most gourmet dishes, people in England have incorporated it into broths that are drunk as counterpoisons.

Uses for Valerian

In clinical applications, valerian is most often used for insomnia. Studies have shown 400-900 mg. of valerian root to be sufficient to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep.  Best of all, it does not give "hangover" symptoms and is nonaddictive. The only down-side to valerian is that it can have the opposite effect in some people, meaning it stimulates them and keeps them awake.  

Valerian can be a useful remedy for pain, especially when caused by tension and stress. The doses required for pain relieve are usually quite high, at least three to four capsules or more, and don’t expect it to “numb” pain the way drugs do.  It helps to take the edge off and make the pain tolerable.

Another possible use for valerian is heart palpitations.  It seems to slow the heart while strengthening the beats.  This effect allows the heart to work more efficiently.

Valerian may also be useful in controlling withdrawal for  those coming off of benzodiazepine or "sleeping pills." Other uses for valerian include restlessness, anxiety, emotional stress menstrual cramps and backaches.  

The constituents in valerian responsible for valerian’s relaxing and sedative effects include its volatile oil, sesquiterpines, iridoid esters and amino acids.  Specifically it contains valerenal, valerianic acid, valeranone, which are sedative and  antispasmodic, valopotriates, which are also sedative, and the amino acids arginine, GABA, glutamine and tyrosine. GABA and glutamine help to calm brain function and arginine has a relaxing effect on arteries.  

Suggested Use

Valerian is seldom used alone.  It is commonly combined with other nervines such as hops, skullcap, passion flower, blue vervain, lemon balm or chamomile.  A common sleep formula is hops, valerian and skullcap or passion flower. NSP sells this as Herbal Sleep. 

Use 1-2 capsule one to three times daily with meals or 1 capsule every hour for pain.  When using NSP’s time release valerian, the dose is 1-2 tablets approximately one hour before bedtime. Valerian can also be used in tincture form.

Cautions

Valerian is not recommended for persons with “hot” disorders, i.e., high strung, nervous and excitable. (Skullcap or passion flower are better for such individuals.)  It is also not recommended for long-term use in large doses, although there is no risk of dependence or addiction.  It does not generally cause drowsiness that could affect driving, but possible side effects from high doses are vasodilative headaches, nausea and lessened alertness.  In persons with a low thyroid or in hyperactive children, valerian sometimes acts as a stimulant rather than a sedative.

Selected References
"An Herb to Know: Valerian" in The Herb Companion  (March 1995).
The Book of Herbs by Dorothy Hall
Medicinal Plants by George Graves
"Valerian: Clinical Overview" by Donald J. Brown, ND. in Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients (May 1995).
The Wild Rose Scientific Herbal by Terry Willard