Valerian root is native to Europe, although today it can be found growing wild in grasslands of parts of Asia and in North America. It’s also used as an attractive garden plant.
It contains volatile oils, including valerenic acids, less volatile sesquiterpenes and valepotriates (esters of short-chain fatty acids), which are active compounds believed to be responsible for valerian’s ability to provide a calming, restorative effect on the central nervous system. It has a long history of use, dating all the way back to the 2nd century, for treating insomnia and nerve disorders like anxiety.
The name of this herb comes from the Latin verb “valere,” which means to be strong and healthy. Hippocrates described its properties, while Galen prescribed it to cure insomnia. The herbal medicine valerian may have been the world’s first epilepsy drug, an Australian neurologist says.
University of Queensland Emeritus Professor Mervyn Eadie looked through historical evidence and found that valerian root had been used to control seizures associated with epilepsy since the 1500s. Italian author Fabio Colonna first mentioned using valerian to control seizures in his 1592 botanical work Phytobasanos, and even noted that he used it to control his own seizures, taking powdered valerian root several times a day.
Valerian root’s medicinal compounds are many, including sedative, antibacterial, anti-diuretic, anticonvulsant, antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties. Many experts believe it’s effective due to its ability to elevate levels of a compound known as GABA, or gamma aminoburtic acid in the body, as GABA regulates the nerve cells.
In fact, common pharmaceutical drugs designed to fight anxiety, like Xanax and Valium work the same way, but raising GABA levels in the brain. Valerian offers a similar effect without the side effects or addictive qualities.
While some of valerian’s uses are rather well known, like fighting anxiety and helping one to get a better night’s sleep, there are many others that most people don’t know about. Here’s a closer look at all of those benefits, and why it works.
12 Health Benefits of Valerian Root
1. Treats sleep disorders
As mentioned, valerian root has long been used as a sleep aid. It’s been shown in studies to increase the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid that helps regulate nerve cells, providing a calming effect. A 2000 study out of Germany that compared the sleep improvements of two groups of patients, one that took a valerian extract and one that took a prescription sedative, found that the group that used valerian experienced far fewer side effects with as much relief.
Other research out of Sweden, conducted by the Foellinge Health Center, found that 44 percent of patients reported perfect sleep while 89 percent reported improved sleep when taking valerian root, and none experienced side effects.
Getting quality rest, which generally means 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night, can also eliminate a host of other problems as a lack of sleep can lead to weight gain, a diminished sex drive, an inability to focus, a greater likelihood of accidents, and other issues.
2. Eases anxiety
For the same reason valerian helps battle insomnia and other sleep disorders, by increasing the amount of GABA in the brain due to its valerenol and valerenic acid content, it can ease anxiety, acting like an anti-anxiety medication such as Valium and Xanax.
3. Helps to control stress levels
By lessening anxiety as well as improving both the quality and duration of sleep, valerian root can play a big part in controlling stress levels. By raising GABA levels in the body, it helps both the mind and body relax, providing the antidote to stress. Researchers from South Korea that was published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed that valerian root extract was able to suppress psychological, as well as physical stress.
4. Lowers blood pressure and supports heart health
Valerian not only relaxes the mind and body, but it can strengthen your blood vessels and improve their elasticity as well as to lower blood pressure to support better heart health, thanks to the same active compounds that make it so valuable for managing stress and anxiety.
5. Decreases symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder
Obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, can have a significant negative impact on the quality of one’s life. It’s characterized by the need to check on things repeatedly, and for routine, as sufferers often fear something bad will happen if they stop checking, or don’t follow a specific routine. The compulsions are behaviors that individuals with obsessions display in order to relieve themselves of their anxiety, which is likely why valerian can help.
Research published in 2011 from the Jundishapur University of Medical Sciences evaluated valerian root’s effects on OCD. The experts found that that valerian did offer positive effects for treating the disorder, and without side effects.
6. Soothes the pain of menstrual cramps and PMS
The calming nature of valerian root has also made it a popular plant for treating menstrual cramps as it can reduce their severity and discomfort – a common problem for women who have difficult periods every month.
It helps because it acts as a natural sedative, as well as an antispasmodic, which means that it suppresses muscle spasms, similar to a muscle relaxer. Valerian root calms severe uterine muscle contractions which is what causes the extreme pain that many women experience during menstruation as a 2011 study out of Iran’s Islamic Azad University in Iran demonstrated.
Other research has shown that valerian root may reduce the emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, like fatigue, irritability, mood changes, anxiety and breast tenderness.
7. Treats restless leg syndrome
As many as 10 percent of the population are believed to suffer from restless leg syndrome, or RLS, reports the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
It occurs in both men and women and is characterized by pain and uncomfortable sensations in the legs that trigger the urge to move them. Data has suggested that valerian root, due to its ability to calm and promote better sleep, may benefit those with this neurological disorder.
As valerian root has been shown to provide sedative properties, researchers from The University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in Philadelphia wanted to find out if it could help people with RLS. They asked study participants to take 800 milligrams of valerian every day just before bedtime for eight weeks, and found that taking it significantly improved their symptoms, as well as relieving other problems that resulted from a lack of sleep. The volunteers reported having more relaxed leg muscles which helped them fall asleep faster, and stay asleep.
8. Helps control epileptic seizures
Valerian root, as mentioned previously, may help to decrease the frequency of seizures occurring in epileptic patients due to its anticonvulsant properties and ability to provide sedative effects on the nervous system.
9. Supports skin health
Using the oil of valerian root, valerian essential oil, topically – but diluted in a carrier oil – can significantly benefit your skin as it infuses it with protective compounds, including antioxidants, that can help prevent wrinkles from developing as well as serving as an antiviral barrier to decrease the risk of illness. It can also reduce dryness, keeping the skin more supple.
10. Fewer heart palpitations
Research published in Alternative and Complementary Therapies in 2004 directly linked valerian to a lower occurrence of heart palpitations, which are started by a miscommunication between the heart and the brain. The volatile compounds in valerian interact with the acids and oils in the heart to trigger a more normal metabolic rate, and calm erratic behavior of the heart and cardiovascular system.
11. Boosts brain power and protects against cognitive disorders
Valerian root has long been heralded for its ability to boost brain power and enhance cognitive abilities, including increasing mental alertness and cognitive function in elderly patients with dementia. It helps to stimulate various areas of the brain as well as improve blood circulation, and it may help protect memory and delay the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
12. Helps treat ADHD
Valerian root’s calming effects can also help alleviate symptoms of ADHD like anxiety and hyperactivity, and improve concentration, reasoning abilities, energy levels, and enhance motor coordination.
Research has found that certain learning disabilities and behavior disorders are especially prone to the benefits of valerian root. For the past 20 years or so in Europe, the herb has been used to treat youth behavior problems like hyperactivity and learning disabilities. In one study conducted in Germany, valerian extract was provided to 120 kids with an assortment of behavioral problems with impressive results: three out of four of the study participants displayed an improvement after just three weeks of using the herb.
How To Use Valerian Root
Valerian Root Safety Guide
Although valerian root is generally regarded as safe, as with just about anything there are still precautions that you should take, as well as a number of possible side effects to be aware of.
Brain fog. As valerian decreases some neurophysiological responses, it can impact clarity of consciousness, causing what’s known as “brain fog.” That means that after taking it, you may feel as if your mind is in a foggy, dream-like state. Until you know how it will effect you, avoid taking it just before driving, operating machinery or doing any task that requires a lot of focus and a quick reaction.
Increasing anxiety. While valerian typically calms the nerves and reduces anxiety, some people have reported increased levels of anxiety.
Depression. As valerian is known to decrease neurophysiological arousal, and reduced neurophysiological arousal is linked to depression, some users have experienced symptoms of depression, including a more negative outlook and/or a melancholic mood. Those with a history of depression need to be aware that taking valerian root could exacerbate symptoms and discontinue immediately if this occurs, or lessen the dosage. The symptoms typically subside within a few days of discontinuing the herb.
Headaches. While many take valerian root successfully to decrease the intensity of a headache or migraine, some can actually experience headaches as a side effect, which is believed to be an indirect cause of the rise in GABA levels.
Nightmares. Some people experience nightmares when taking valerian, so if you notice this side effect you may want to turn to something else.
Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers. As there has not been enough research conducted in regard to pregnant women taking valerian, it is better to be safe and avoid it during pregnancy as well as when breastfeeding.
Surgery concerns. As valerian slows down the central nervous system, the anesthesia and other medications used during surgery can heighten these effects, which means it could be harmful. It’s suggested to stop valerian at least two weeks before a scheduled surgery.
Medication interactions. Valerian can cause interactions with medications, particularly those that are broken down by the liver as it can slow down the process of which they are broken down. Avoid taking any type of sedative drug with valerian as it increases those effects including: antidepressants, barbiturates, benzodiazepines like xanax and valium, sleep medications such as lunesta, anticonvulsants, alcohol and other herbal sedatives such as lemon balm and catnip. Also avoid use when taking antihistamines, antifungal drugs, and medications for high cholesterol.
Withdrawal symptoms. Although valerian root is not considered addictive, there have been reports of withdrawal symptoms occurring after long term use, therefore, the herb should not be taken longer than one month without consulting a healthcare provider.