History of Valerian Root
Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), also know as Garden Heliotrope or Tobacco Root, has been utilized for its medicinal (and other) purposes for over a century. Over the course of this time, the root has also been used for a variety of different purposes. Native Americans, for instance, dried and ground the root to use as a substitute for flour. In Germany, valerian was steeped in hot water to produce a beverage or a base liquid for a soup.
During the Middle Ages, it was used as a perfume. Reportedly, even the ancient Greeks prescribed valerian for its medical properties. The ancient Greek physician Dioscorides recommended various parts of the plant to remedy such ailments as insomnia, epilepsy, digestive problems, liver problems, and urinary tract infections, amongst numerous others.
The name “valerian” comes from the Latin word valere, meaning “strong” or “healthy.” Although it is commonly thought that the plant received this name due to its medicinal properties, some argue that valerian was named for its powerful odor.
Valeriana officinalis grows naturally in Europe and some parts of Asia. However, there are many other species of valerian (some 150 or more) that grow in most parts of the world that have temperate climates (Rosenmund).
The active chemical compounds believed to contain medicinal qualities are found in their highest concentrations in the rhizomes and roots of the plant. This is the reason why the stems, leaves, and flowers of the plant are rarely used. The chemical composition of valerian root includes the following:
· Volatile oils (valeric acid)
· G-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
Although the valeric acid is thought to be primarily responsible for valerian root’s medicinal and biological effects, it is more likely that all of the aforementioned chemical components work together to produce the effect(s) (Baranauskiene).
In recent times, valerian root has mainly been used as a treatment for insomnia, as well as other sleep disorders. Many clinical studies have been conducted to test the efficacy of the root for a variety of purposes.
One double-blind study of 128 volunteers was done to evaluate the effects of a single dosage of 400-mg of valerian extract compared with a commercial valerian/hops supplement and a sugar placebo. The results were evaluated based on the criteria of sleep latency (how quickly a person falls asleep), quality of sleep, night awakenings, sleepiness upon awakening, and dream recall. Valerian extract was observed to cause a significant increase in sleep latency and quality as compared to the placebo. Study groups of the volunteers further revealed that the valerian extract had the greatest effect on women and older men who described themselves as poor sleepers prior to the experiment, as well as smokers and people who normally take a long time to fall asleep (long sleep latencies). Volunteers who did not report prior habitual sleep troubles were minimally if at all affected by the valerian extract (Hadley).
Another placebo-controlled double-blind study of valerian root was conducted using volunteers who had medically confirmed insomnia. A single dose of 600-mg of valerian extract had not noticeable or measureable effects. However, multiple doses administered over a two week period did prove to drastically increase the patients’ slow-wave sleep (Ryder).
A study of nine independent trials that tested valerian’s effects on insomnia, however, raises some conflicting questions. Two of the studies showed that patients’ sleep improved after two to four weeks of repeated dosages. Another study demonstrated an improvement in patients’ slow-wave sleep after day one and day eight, but no other significant positive effects. The remaining clinical trials, each using single doses of valerian, proved to be contradictory. The authors of the study suggest a number of possible reasons for the inconclusive research, such as the variety of methods used for gathering data, attention to randomization and blinding, and differing statistical analyses (Rosenmund).
Another traditional use of valerian root is in the treatment of anxiety, either by itself or in combination with other anxiolytic herbs. While many herbalists still recommend this, there is very little scientific evidence to support any true efficacy.
One double-blind study subjected 48 healthy individuals to stressful situations. The subjects were then given either 100-mg of valerian extract, 20-mg of propranolol (another anxiolytic drug), a combination of the two, or a placebo. Valerian did not prove to have any physiological effect, unlike the propranolol. However, when the test subjects were asked about their level of anxiety, they reported a significant decrease (Hadley).
Another controlled trial administered 120-mg of kava, 600-mg of valerian, and of course a placebo. Fifty-four volunteers were randomly given one of the three products for a seven day period so researchers could measure any significant physiological effects. Both valerian and kava were shown to reduce heart rate reaction, lower blood pressure responsiveness, and decrease subjective feelings of anxiety. Due to the small number of trials of this sort that have been conducted, however, valerian’s use as an anxiolytic is still inconclusive (Ryder).
Potential Side Effects and Interactions
Since valerian root is technically classified by the Food and Drug Administration as a supplement and not a medication, the only regulation it is subject to is standard U.S. labeling requirements. This reason is often cited as to why some people are hesitant to use products such as valerian or other supplements. However, the fear tends to be unfounded.
Adverse side effects associated with valerian are quite rare. One clinical trial that administered multiple doses over a two week period reported only two (out of 16) cases; one being migraine, the other gastrointestinal issues. The placebo group from the study, on the other hand, reported 18 adverse events. Another study, this time of 102 subjects, looked for any negative effects upon waking the morning after taking valerian. After single and repeated doses, no adverse effects were reported in parameters such as concentration, reaction time, and alertness (Baranauskiene).
Although valerian has not been shown to have any negative interaction with alcohol, it is still recommended to avoid the combination. This is because the (potential) sedative effects of valerian could increase the sedative effects of alcohol, along with barbiturates, anesthetics, or any other depressants (Valerian).
Valerian extract is generally sold in 300 to 600-mg capsules. This amount is equivalent to two to three grams of dried valerian root, which should be steeped for 10 to 15 minutes in one cup of hot water. Either form should be ingested 30 to 90 minutes before going to sleep (Valerian).
Although valerian root has been used for at least a century to treat various medical conditions and ailments, scientists are still doubtful as to whether the root is as effective as many people claim it to be. While there have been numerous clinical studies, results have varied. Some showed evidence that supported valerian’s efficacy as a sedative and as an anxiolytic. Other studies, however, suggested the opposite. Even throughout the various studies that suggested valerian does have sedative/anxiolytic effects, there is a good deal of variation as to proper dosages, frequency of dosages, and the time it takes for valerian to begin working (as in, over a two day period or over the span of two weeks).
One definite benefit however is that valerian has very few known side effects. In more than one double blind study that administered a placebo, there were more side effects reported from the placebo group than the valerian root group. Side effects that were reported due to valerian root were mild and included gastrointestinal discomfort and headaches.
In summation, valerian is a safe alternative to over the counter or prescription sleep medications that tend to have worse side effects and potential for dependency. Although valerian’s effects are not proven, there is a good amount of evidence to suggest that the root does have at least minor pharmacological value.