Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) of the family Valerianaceae, is a tall perennial herb with hollow stems that bear white or reddish flowers. The vertical rhizome and attached rootlets are harvested in the autumn of the second year’s growth. These plant parts possess an unpleasant aroma due to the contained volatile oils.
Valerian extract, derived from the dried rhizomes and roots of the plant, has been used for thousands of years as a folk remedy, tranquilizer and calmative for several disorders such as restlessness, nervousness, insomnia, hysteria, menstrual problems, and as a sedative for “nervous” stomach. Valerian extracts are currently used in scores of compounds and teas in Europe.
Most current treatments for insomnia work by disrupting natural sleep rhythms and risk psychologically addiction. Natural sedatives, free of side effects, are constantly being sought. In the early 80’s many people turned to L-tryptophan (no longer available – see article) as a sleep aid. More recently western consumers have become aware of the benefits of low-dose melatonin. Now health conscious consumers in Europe and United States are discovering that valerian root has a calming effect and helps them fall asleep more easily.
The German Commission E monograph for health authorities indicates that valerian is a safe and effective anti-anxiety agent and sedative for treatment of restlessness and sleep disturbances resulting from nervous conditions. Valerian is perhaps best characterized as a minor tranquilizer when administered in the form of a tea, a tincture or an extract.
During the past three decades extensive studies on Valerian have identified several unstable esters called valepotriates believed to be the primary source of the plants sedative effects. Researchers have found that although Valerian is effective in producing depression of the central nervous system, neither the tested valepotriates, nor the sesquiterpenes valerenic acid or valeranone, nor the volatile oil itself displayed any such activity. This has led to speculation that it is a combination of volatile oil components, valepotriates or their derivatives that is responsible for Valerians calmative actions.
For example, a 1985 study conducted in the Netherlands showed no anxiety-reducing activity by an extract of valerian root or purified valepotriates. However the study did find that didrovaltrate, a valepotriate, as well as valeranon, an essential oil component from the herb, were able to produce a pronounced smooth-muscle relaxant effect on the intestines. The researchers concluded that certain valerian preparations may produce a calming effect indirectly through local spasmolytic activity.
A another study conducted in Russia, researchers reported that valepotriates inhibited caffeine-stimulated motor activity and prolonged barbiturate-induced sleeping time in mice and rats. This translates to anti-anxiety and sedative activities. In other research, valerenic acid and related sesquiterpens have been found to inhibit the breakdown of the neurotransmitter, aminobutyric acid.
Overall, Valerian is relatively safe and no significant side effects or contraindications are noted, though those with impaired kidney or liver functions should not take valerian except under a physician’s supervision. Valerian can interact with alcohol, certain antihistimines, muscle relaxants, psychotropic drugs and narcotics. Those taking any of these drugs should take valerian only under the supervision of a health care provider.