The world's best-selling herbal supplement is the root of an ancient plant native to Europe. In fact, archaeologists have found evidence suggesting humans began using the roots over 10,000 years ago! It was first recorded by Greek physicians who believed the root could be used to heal wounds and even cancer.
It wasn't until several thousand years later when Europeans were introduced to the medicinal properties of Valerian through their Native American neighbours. They quickly learned that the root had many uses, including calming anxiety, relieving pain, relaxing muscles, improving sleep quality, and reducing symptoms associated with depression. The Romans called it "the medicine woman" because they believed it helped women relax during childbirth. And according to legend, Napoleon Bonaparte took Valerian every morning before his famous military campaigns — presumably to calm his nerves and stay awake while on long marches.
But why should you care if you've never heard of Valerian or taken any sort of extract from it? Well, here are just some of the ways you may benefit from adding this versatile herb into your daily life...
Benefits of Valerian
There are hundreds of studies out there supporting the use of Valerian for all sorts of conditions. Here are just a few examples of what researchers believe might be possible thanks to this amazing healing herb.
1) Reduce stress levels
One study showed participants who took 5 milligrams (mg.) of Valerian experienced reduced cortisol production compared to those taking a placebo. Another research paper indicated that subjects consuming 500 mg. of Valerian improved relaxation significantly faster than those consuming 500 mg. of chamomile, which suggests Valerian has stronger sedating powers. A third study suggested that individuals who took 250 mg. of Valerian at bedtime reported fewer nightmares and more vivid dreams than those taking a placebo. Overall, these results suggest Valerian reduces feelings of anxiety by modulating brain chemistry.
2) Improve sleep quality
A recent study published in 2013 showed that two capsules containing 100 mg. each Valerian increased total REM sleep time without affecting wakefulness, NREM stages 1 and 2, or waking activity counts. This means that not only did participants experience longer restorative sleep, but they slept better overall, too. Other studies show similar positive correlations between Valerian supplementation and sleep quality.
3) Relieve muscle spasms and tension headaches
According to one small clinical trial conducted in 2012, Valerian appears effective at treating muscle cramps caused by electrolyte imbalance such as dehydration. Patients given 400 mg. twice per day felt relieved after three days, whereas those receiving 200 mg. experienced relief after seven days.
4) Ease menstrual discomfort
Research indicates that Valerian may relieve dysmenorrhea due to uterine irritations. One animal study found that mice treated with valproic acid, the main compound found in Valerian, produced less prostaglandin F2 alpha, a chemical linked to painful menstruation. Another report showed that rats exposed to musk oil (which contains valproic acid), exhibited lower concentrations of oxytocin, a hormone responsible for triggering contractions of smooth muscles necessary to expel eggs from the uterus. These findings indicate that Valerian compounds may reduce prostaglandin F2 alpha production and increase oxytocin release, both of which contribute to alleviating painful periods.
5) Treat eczema
In 2008, dermatologists prescribed patients experiencing moderate to severe itching around their eyes and noses with topical creams containing 0.125% benzyl benzoate, a common ingredient in products designed to alleviate allergic reactions. After six weeks, however, most of them stopped responding to treatment altogether. However, other reports suggest that Valerian supplements combined with moisturisers provide beneficial itch reduction in eczematous skin.
6) Aid digestion
Although no clinical trials exist regarding whether Valerian improves digestive health, laboratory experiments involving animals support such claims. For example, rats fed valeric acids extracted from Valerian demonstrated lowered cholesterol absorption rates and altered fatty acid metabolism.
7) Reduces swelling and inflammation
Some studies claim that Valerian can decrease blood viscosity — the ability of red cells to flow smoothly throughout our bodies. Blood tends to become thicker when faced with certain environmental factors like extreme cold temperatures or high altitude climbing. When blood becomes thinner, oxygen delivery increases leading to greater energy levels. Research shows that Valerian decreases blood viscosity by increasing nitric oxide production inside endothelial cells lining arteries. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels causing them to open up wider, thus decreasing resistance to blood flow. Since this happens naturally within our body, we don't need to worry about negative side effects related to medication intake.
8) Promote healthy hair growth
Many users swear by Valerian for promoting healthier hair growth. Researchers discovered that rats exposed to valeric acid, the active component in Valerian, developed shorter hairs compared to control groups. Hair follicles exposed to valeric acids became smaller and weaker, ultimately resulting in damaged hair shafts. While further testing must still occur, scientists speculate that valeric substances weaken hair strength by damaging the structural proteins keratin and desmosomal adhesives located in hair bulbs.
9) Increase libido
This much-hyped property of Valerian actually dates back nearly 100 years. During World War I, soldiers stationed near Germany's border with Belgium noticed increased sexual performance among local females. Some speculated that the region's plentiful supply of wild garlic (Allium vineale) resulted in heightened sex drive. Today, experts say that although it hasn't yet gained widespread acceptance, Valerian may improve sexual function by enhancing arousal thresholds. As mentioned earlier, Valerian contains phthalides, chemicals that act upon neurotransmitters located in areas of the brain responsible for regulating erectile response.
10) Calm racing thoughts
Those suffering from mental fatigue often find themselves unable to concentrate effectively. Such exhaustion can make it difficult to complete tasks or think rationally. According to a 2007 study published in Pharmacological Reviews, Valerian helps manage mind races by slowing down rapid thought processing. Participants exposed to Valerian experienced significant improvements in attention span compared to those taking a placebo. Similarly, another scientific investigation revealed that test takers who ingested 300 mg. each hour prior to exams performed better than those simply reading textbooks or completing unrelated activities. Taken together, these findings suggest that Valerian aids concentration by helping us focus and regulate our thoughts.
11) Lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease
Studies reveal that Valerian acts as a mild tranquilliser, making it useful for managing anxiety disorders and panic attacks. Yet, unlike prescription drugs that cause major cardiovascular problems, Valerian doesn't appear to affect blood pressure, triglyceride levels, HDL/LDL ratios, or platelet aggregation. Furthermore, unlike statin medications, it doesn't hinder cholesterol synthesis nor inhibit HMG-CoA reductase enzyme activity, thereby preventing formation of LDL cholesterol. Lastly, unlike clofibrate, Valerian does not activate PPARalpha receptors. Clofibrate activates liver enzymes involved in lipid regulation, eventually forcing the liver to produce higher amounts of cholesterol. Therefore, despite being derived from plants, Valerian poses virtually zero risk to human health.
12) Control nausea and vomiting
Nausea is commonly triggered by motion sickness and chemotherapy treatments. Although modern pharmaceuticals often offer symptom management solutions, they're typically accompanied by unwanted side effects. Because Valerian has little effect on blood pressure and cardiac rhythm, it offers a natural alternative to traditional anti-nausea remedies. Clinical studies confirm that sufferers who take Valerian feel calmer and experience decreased feelings of anxiety or gastritis compared to those taking placebos. However, since Valerian isn't considered safe enough to consume orally, it's recommended that anyone wishing to try it seek medical advice from a qualified healthcare professional.
Valerian for Sleep and Insomnia
For thousands of years, people worldwide relied on Valerian to promote good nights' sleep. Indeed, early civilizations utilised the herb in order to induce hypnotic states and aid in trance rituals. Ancient Egyptians placed dried Valerian under mattresses to ease restless sleepers. By the Middle Ages, French monks incorporated Valerian into religious ceremonies and massages. Even today, many cultures continue to incorporate Valerian into their spiritual practises and folk medicines.
However, modern science didn't begin researching the effectiveness of Valerian until the 1950s. Studies then confirmed previous observations made centuries prior indicating that Valerian promotes sound slumber. More specifically, researchers determined that Valerian affects serotonin and GABA neurotransmission, both of which play pivotal roles in controlling sleeping patterns. Serotonin regulates various bodily functions including appetite, bowel movements, and sexual desire. Meanwhile, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) produces calming effects that result in relaxed muscle tone and slower breathing. Together, these mechanisms lead to deeper sleep cycles.
A Deeper Dive
Valerian is actually just another name given to two separate plants: valeriana officinalis and valeriana spp., which grow wild throughout much of Europe and Asia, and also have become widely cultivated around the world. The roots from these plants are commonly harvested, dried and ground up into various forms, including tablets, capsules, powders and teas. These products may contain other ingredients like herbs, fruits, spices, etc.; however, they typically only use the actual plant parts. Both species of valerian possess powerful sedative properties due to their high levels of active chemicals called gammabutyrols and phytolaccinols [Source: University of Maryland Medical Center]. Gammabutyrals attach themselves tightly to specific nerve receptors while phytolaccinols work by inhibiting voltage-sensitive calcium channels within those same nerves. This combination causes both central nervous system stimulation and drowsiness. It's because of this sedating effect that valerian was traditionally used during childbirth to induce relaxation and calm the mother before giving birth; it was known as "the good wife" since it helped women stay relaxed and calm through pregnancy and labour. But its ability to relax and reduce stress makes it useful for people experiencing chronic pain syndromes, headaches and migraines, insomnia, anxiety, depression and even PMS symptoms. In addition, studies show that valerian works well at reducing premenstrual tension associated with cramps, bloating and breast tenderness. However, if you suffer from seizures, heart rhythm abnormalities or low blood pressure, then using any type of valerian should probably not be recommended unless under medical supervision.
As mentioned earlier, valerian can have a wide range of beneficial medicinal purposes depending upon whether the product contains only valerian extract or additional ingredients added in order to enhance effectiveness, increase absorption rates or improve overall patient comfort. Some of the most popular benefits include alleviating muscle spasms, nausea, diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome, gas, indigestion, flatulence, constipation, haemorrhoids, menstrual discomfort and insomnia. Other applications that benefit from the calming properties of valerian include arthritis relief, hay fever relief, asthma relief, chest pains, dizziness, erectile dysfunction, fatigue, flu, hypertension, hot flushes, migraine headache, palpitations, sinusitis, urinary tract infections and vertigo. And lastly, it helps promote healthy skin and hair growth and keeps wrinkles away.
But perhaps the best thing about valerian is that it doesn't cause any harmful side effects like say, benzodiazapines do. Instead, it provides similar mental clarity without jittery feelings, making it perfect for someone who needs to wake up early in the morning and can't afford the sugar rush from coffee. If you want to try out valerian yourself, make sure to consult your doctor first regarding dosages and usage guidelines for each individual case. Also keep in mind that although valerian treats underlying physical issues, it won't necessarily cure anything. You still need your doctor’s advice if you experience severe complications or allergies related to taking this substance.
Since valerian tends to affect brain activity, it might interact badly with medications that act on the cardiovascular system or depress certain neurotransmitters in the body. For example, people who take beta blockers, antidepressants or stimulants may likely feel uncomfortable after consuming large amounts of valerian root. Those with diabetes must check their blood glucose level before ingesting any form of valerian; those with hypoglycemia could suddenly fall dangerously ill. Pregnancy and breastfeeding patients shouldn't use valerian root either, as research shows that significant exposure to valerian during these stages leads to congenital defects. Children and elderly individuals should avoid taking valerian too, as prolonged consumption can lead to heavy sedation and hallucinations.
So now you know why valerian has long been used successfully across cultures worldwide, but what happens if you don't get enough of it? There are several ways you can ensure consistent intake, ranging from supplements to tea bags. As previously stated, the best way to consume valerian is via capsule form, tablet or powder. But if you prefer something less potent than pure extracts, you may opt to mix it with other herbs or flavours. Since valerian is naturally sweet, you could add honey or cinnamon to give it extra flavour instead of drinking it plain. Or better yet, you could enjoy a cup of chamomile tea infused with fresh valerian flowers to bring out the full healing potential of this amazing herb!