What is Valerian Root and is it good for sleep and anxiety?
The Valerian Plant
Valerian root is the root of the Valerian plant (Valeriana officinalis), a herbaceous perennial that is native to Great Britain, mainland Europe and also parts of Asia. The Valerian plant has feather-like leaves and produces clusters of small pink or white flowers in the summer months. The flowers have an interesting smell that you could describe as a sweet, musky vanilla and it has often been used in perfume manufacturing for its scent. Valerian is also known to be a great nectar and pollen source for bees!
What is Valerian Root used for?
Valerian is an edible plant and was in fact a very common ingredient in stews and vegetable soups during the middle ages. It's thought that its use went out of favour across Europe when people started growing and using potatoes instead. The root has a sharp, distinct smell that may be strange or unpleasant to some, especially those who are not used to it. This is due in most part to the many rich oils and nutritional compounds in the root.
What are the benefits of Valerian Root?
The natural compounds and oils in Valerian root can have sedative affects and this is the reason that Valerian root has been used as a medicinal herb since Greek and Roman times. It has been used to treat a wide range of ailments, from migraines to depression, however today it's most commonly used as a sleeping aid. Because of its calming and relaxing effects, it is said to also help with anxiety. If you look at the ingredients of any natural sleep aid products available today many of them will contain Valerian root extracts.
Does Valerian root really work?
The European Medicines Agency have published research from the Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC) on the medicinal uses of Valerian root. In summary they concluded that Valerian root “can be used for the relief of mild nervous tension and sleep disorders.” and that on the basis of its long-standing use, Valerian root preparations “can be used for relief of mild symptoms of mental stress and to aid sleep.”
The HMPC also stated that their conclusions “are based on their 'traditional use'. This means that, although there is insufficient evidence from clinical studies, the effectiveness of these herbal medicines is plausible and there is evidence that they have been used safely in this way for over 30 years. Moreover, the intended use does not require medical supervision.”
Why does Valerian root help you sleep better?
Valerian root contains a number of compounds that appear to interact with brain receptors involved in mood and sleep and that can help promote calmness. So it would seem that for poor sleepers, especially due to stress, sleep disorders or mild nervous tension, Valerian root can indeed be an effective and natural sleep aid and alternative to prescription medications.
Smaller studies have suggested that Valerian root may be helpful for helping women who experience Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) and menopausal symptoms, specifically 'hot flushes'. In clinical trials there were some positive outcomes and indicators but there is not enough evidence at this time to know for certain.
Unfortunately knowledge about using Valerian to treat other ailments is limited because only a relatively small amount of research has looked into its effectiveness on various other conditions. Although many years of anecdotal evidence would suggest that a lot of people have been using Valerian root to treat themselves successfully.
Valerian root side effects and precautions
Valerian root is regarded as generally safe, however some caution should always be taken.
Because Valerian root is a mild sedative it should not be taken before operating machinery or driving. Valerian Root can adversely affect your focus and reaction speed. It is only recommended that you take Valerian root before bed! If you experience any other side effects or adverse reaction to Valerian root, you should stop taking it immediately.
If you are currently taking other medications then you should consult your doctor before taking Valerian root. It could interact with those medications and you should not stop taking those medications without consultation.
There is very little information on the safety of Valerian root for children, pregnant women or nursing mothers, so for that reason we would not advice its use in these cases.
If you would like to read and understand more about Valerian root then you can find The European Medicines Agency document “Valerian Root: summary for the public” in PDF form here.