It’s estimated that 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder. Insomnia, the most common sleep disorder effects 30% of adults, with around 10% experiencing chronic symptoms. Valerian root is widely used as an effective sleep aid, improving quality of sleep and sleep duration. Yet some studies remain inconclusive. We’re going to talk about the science behind valerian root and its potential health benefits, with some evidence-based research.
Valerian, also known as Valeriana officinalis, is a flowering plant native to Europe and Asia. The use of Valerian root dates back 1,000 years to the ancient Roman and Greek empires. Hippocrates noted that Valerian could treat nervousness, headaches, and even heart palpitations.
Although the exact mechanisms aren’t clear, researchers believe that valerian root naturally increases levels of the neurotransmitter gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, blocking signals such as fear, and anxiety experienced from excitatory neurons, contributing to a calming effect in the body.
Valerian root is best known for its benefits as a sleep aid. A systematic review published in the American Journal Of Medicine, investigating the effects of valerian root on sleep quality and sleep duration, identified a total of 370 articles, 16 of those being randomized controlled trials, examining 1093 patients. The most commonly reported outcome reported that, the use of valerian root was found to nearly double sleep latency and sleep quality as compared to placebo groups. But, despite the reported outcomes, study design was sub-standard, not well measured, and methodology varied considerably.
Some evidence suggests that Valerian root may have an effect on patients with anxiety. Valerenic acid is thought to have a direct influence on receptors which enhances GABA transmission and serotonin, but without the pronounced sedative effects. Prescription benzodiazepines “benzos” like Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin, work to calm or sedate a person, by raising the level of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. Researchers suggest that valerian may be a potential alternative to benzos for anxiety.
A systematic review conducted by Harvard Medical School, found two different studies that explored the stress-reducing effects of valerian root. Both studies concluded that valerian root may reduce stress levels in healthy patients [R,R] Another study combined valerian root with St. John’s Wort, and put it head-to head against diazepam in 100 patients with anxiety. After two weeks of randomized treatment, the combined valerian and SJW group reported superior relief of anxiety symptoms [R].
Despite the inconclusive evidence on the efficacy of Valerian, researchers still do suggest that Valerian Root appears to be a promising candidate for anxiety and insomnia.
Valerian root is also thought to benefit women, during menopause by reducing hot flashes. Hot flashes are amongst the biggest complaint of menopausal women, affecting their career, social activities, and quality of life.
A 2013 study involving 68 menopausal women, reported that symptoms and severity were significantly reduced when given 255 mg Valerian capsules 3 times a day for 8 weeks as compared to placebo. Thus valerian root could be an effective alternative to hormone therapy for women open to alternative treatment options [R
Historically, Valerian root was believed to have an impact on headaches. Tension-type headaches are the most common and frequently reported type of headaches amongst the general population. It can cause a mild, to intense pain behind the eyes, head, and or neck. 2 out of every 3 adults in America experience some type of tension headache, affecting a large majority of the population.
A study investigating the effects of Valerian on tension-type headaches, conducted a double-blind, randomized controlled trial. Researchers administered 530mg of valerian or placebo to 88 patients for a period of 6 months.
After only one month of treatment, the severity and impact of headaches amongst the intervention group, was significantly reduced, as well as disability scores [R].
Although more in-depth research is needed to confirm the mechanisms and potential therapeutic effects of valerian root for sleep and anxiety, researchers suggest that valerian root does show promising effects as a potential option for better sleep and reduced anxiety and stress.
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Bent, Stephen et al. “Valerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” The American journal of medicine vol. 119,12 (2006): 1005-12. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2006.02.026
Baek JH, Nierenberg AA, Kinrys G. Clinical applications of herbal medicines for anxiety and insomnia; targeting patients with bipolar disorder. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 2014;48(8):705-715. doi:10.1177/0004867414539198
Kohnen, R, Oswald, WD (1988) The effects of valerian, propranolol, and their combination on activation, performance, and mood of healthy volunteers under social stress conditions. Pharmacopsychiatry 21: 447–448.
Panijel, M (1985) Therapy of symptoms of anxiety. Therapiewoche 41: 4659–4668.
Azizi H, Shojaii A, Hashem-Dabaghian F, Noras M, Boroumand A, Ebadolahzadeh Haghani B, Ghods R. Effects of Valeriana officinalis (Valerian) on tension-type headache: A randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trial. Avicenna J Phytomed. 2020 May-Jun;10(3):297-304. PMID: 32523884; PMCID: PMC7256276.
Mirabi P, Mojab F. The effects of valerian root on hot flashes in menopausal women. Iran J Pharm Res. 2013 Winter;12(1):217-22. PMID: 24250592; PMCID: PMC3813196.