Today, Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) has a solid reputation (particularly, in Germany) for sleep inducing, stress relief. In the Middle Ages, Valerian was regarded as a panacea remedy. While anxiety had a different name, the common use of Valerian root for anxiety persisted.
Perhaps because of its intense smell and flavor, the herb has fallen somewhat out of favor. Yet more than ever, Valerian root for anxiety remains a valuable herbal remedy. Especially, in our modern, fast-paced lives.
Valerian serves to advance sleep by promoting stress relief. The roots of this medicinal herb contain properties, which serve as gentle alternatives to synthetic drugs. They address mild forms of anxiety, nervousness, sleep disorders, or general restlessness.
On a more basic level, the Valerian plant shows-up as an herbal remedy in monastic medicine and medieval gardens. Beyond any medicinal use, the Valerian flower simply contributes a beautiful ornamental quality to a household garden.
What is Valerian Herb?
As a medicinal herb, Valerian traces back to deep roots. Its Latin name Valeriana derives from the Latin “valere”, meaning “well-being”. Valerian’s use as a medicinal plant dates to antiquity, but with very different indications over time. At one time, primary uses included addressing respiratory conditions and even treating the plague.
Greek and Roman doctors knew of Valerian herb by a mysterious name, “Phu” which they considered a warming herb. In ancient times, a different type of Valerian (Valerianaceae) rose to prominent use. We know this as the “Great Valerian” (Valeriana Phu) and not the Valeriana officinalis used today in traditional German herbal medicine.
Ancient Valerian Benefits
Hildegard von Bingen and Paracelsus appreciated Valerian root because of its analgesic effect. Hildegard of Bingen wrote about the medicinal plant, then known as “Valeriana id est denemarcha” for pleurisy, or inflammation of the tissue surrounding the lungs.
Hildegard medicine valued Valerian root along with the Hildegard duckweed elixir for a condition known in Hildegard’s time as Vich (Vicht). Vicht translates to the condition that precedes more serious diseases. Something we might refer to today as pre-cancerous.
Hildegard’s successor in healing, the German priest, Sebastian Kneipp thought of Valerian for anxiety. Of Valerian he suggested its use to treat “all forms of nervous states, whether in cramp or in pain, require Valerian.” Among other healing practices, Sebastian Kneipp became a folk medicine hero in Germany for his variation of water therapy.
Valerian root for mild anxiety and as sleep remedy
We find the first record of Valerian’s modern use as a sleep aid in monastic medicine. A manuscript dating back to the late 9th century states the following of Valerian for anxiety.
“In the case of excessive insomnia it provides the appropriate sleep, it frees you from exhaustion, takes away the inertia.”
The remedy goes beyond promoting good sleep. Rather we associate it with supporting a balancing effect. The philosophy of balance or disctretio shows-up throughout Hildegard’s medical teachings.
Rediscovery of Valerian root for sleep and anxiety
Beginning in the 18th century, Valerian appeared more commonly to treat anxiety, stress, and nervousness. Observations showed Valerian root gave rise to calming effects. In Germany today, Valerian remains one of the best known plant-based sedatives.
Among its plant parts, the Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) deserves the attention as an herbal remedy.
In 18th century Italy, the legal scholar, Fabio Colonna suffered from epilepsy and discovered Valerian in search of a cure for his condition. After introducing Valerian powder, his seizures waned. Eventually, he abandoned law to study botany, citing Valerian as a great nerve remedy.
Valerian preserves this reputation today. Although most experts do not recommend the large doses of Valerian required to address the symptoms of epilepsy.
Valerian root for ladies first
For a long time, Valerian had a unique reputation for treating and calming the nerves of females (over men). At the turn of the century, ladies in Germany commonly carried a Valerian bottle with them “just in case.”
Today, the uses of Valerian root include application by female patients to address mild discomfort caused by hormone fluctuations. Valerian’s relaxing effect relieves pain in menstrual cramps. In addition, it calms the female body during menopause.
Valerian Official Recognition in Germany
While Valerian’s nerve-soothing effects remain scientifically valid by modern standards, few, if any of the historical applications of Valerian remain today. Formally, the monograph of Europe’s, Commission E recognizes Valerian root uses for “restlessness and nervous sleep disorders.”
The European, Commission E’s approved uses of Valerian root include “nervous states of excitement; sleep disorders; nervous spasmodic pains in the gastrointestinal tract as well as nervous heart complaints.” In addition, exploration continues on the following – not yet proven – indications.
“Learning difficulties in children, poor concentration, irritability, stress, general nervousness, anxiety and tension.”
The following Valerian root benefits bear-out in clinical studies.
Shortened sleep latency (i.e. time to fall asleep), improved sleep quality, reduced time spent awake at night, and improved sense of general well-being.
Valerian Plant Botany
At first glance, the plant’s white-pink flower umbrellas suggest Valerian belongs to the umbellifer family. Botanically speaking, Valerian has decoy umbels. In fact, Valerian forms its own plant family, which shows-up throughout the world, with about 250 subspecies.
For medicinal purposes, we focus on true Valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Like so many of Hildegard’s healing plants, medicinal Valerian grows in ditches, brook banks, damp meadows, and sunny forest clearings.
The Signature of Valerian
Paracelsus thought a plant’s appearance signals its healing power. Today, we know this concept as the doctrine of signatures. Valerian grows in appearance as anything but a heavy plant. Rather, it appears airy and light, with flowers that seem to reach towards the light. Legend has it that the German name for Valerian (“baldrian”) derives from the Norse god of light, Baldur.
Much like Dr. Victoria Sweet’s description of Hildegard’s herbal healing as “Rooted in the Earth, Rooted in the Sky,” the nature of Valerian appears characterized by two poles. The upper, light-filled pole reaches for the sky with its flowers, while the other, subterranean pole remains firmly anchored to the earth, with an unusually sturdy root system.
Valerian plants bloom from May to August, the quarter when days are the longest and time for rest, the shortest. As a calming agent, Valerian helps through the long days of nervous exhaustion. When we feel the ground beneath our feet slipping, and exaggerated thought-patterns begin to get the best of us, Valerian helps slow things down.
Valerian Root and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
We talk a lot about traditional German medicine, but research also supports historically active use of Valerian among ancient Asian cultures.
Traditional Chinese Medicine recommends Valerian for people struggling to sleep, due to “thinking of tomorrow”. The premise suggests that when you lay in bed, thinking about the next day, Valerian helps to calm the mind, making space to organize thoughts, evaluate priorities, and eventually get to sleep.
Valerian root, an uncharacteristic smell
Valerian possesses a striking aroma, which many find unpleasant. In fact, the smell of a living valerian plant differs from the smell of dried Valerian, as we know it. The characteristic and penetrating smell only appears upon cutting and drying the roots.
The Science of Valerian Benefits
The healing effect of Valerian derives from the combination of a multitude of different substances contained primarily in the root, and to a lesser extent in the flowers. Valerian possesses over 150 chemical agents, many of which have specific physiological properties.
The main active substances in Valerian, include essential oils, valenol, valeric acid, valerenic acid, and other substances to form a group of valepotriates, along with a few alkaloids. Valerenic acid, for example, has a spasmolytic, anxiety-relieving and muscle-relaxing effect and acts directly on the central nervous system.
Valerian root for sleep and anxiety – the chemical reaction
The sleep-promoting and relaxing properties of Valerian trace to the interaction among several substances, including valepotriates, not yet fully explained by science.
Substances found in the Valerian root bind to the human receptors of the chemical transmitter, adenosine, which causes sleepiness. Adenosine serves as a quasi-performance limiter. With more activity comes a greater release of adenosine. This substance serves to induce fatigue, forcing rest after physical exertion.
Valerian acts like physical exertion
Much like the rest we crave after intense physical activity, Valerian oil and extract induces a similar feeling. People simply fall asleep better after taking Valerian oil or extract. On the other hand, coffee, for example, prevents sleep by blocking these docking points.
Like other remedies borne from monastic medicine, several questions remain unanswered about the effects of Valerian. Sometimes it is enough to simply know that klosterheilkunde works.
Scientists have speculated that some element of Valerian’s efficacy derives from the olfactory senses, as demonstrated from studies using calming teas containing Valerian and bath additives.
Buying Valerian root products
We consider the valepotriates contained in the fresh plant carcinogenic in higher concentrations. These substances generally degrade through the drying process and subsequent preparation as tincture or tea, releasing isovaleric acid. Watery extracts of the plant show a near absence, altogether.
European Valerian generally contain extremely small quantities (about 1 %) of carcinogenic valepotriates. Reference to true Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) remains important, because other varieties of Valerian occasionally appear as substitutes (without adequate disclosure). For example, you might find varieties from Mexico (Valeriana edulis), India (Valeriana jatamansi) and occasionally Japan (Valeriana fauriei).
Recognize that these products deviate from the tradition and experience of European naturopathy. In addition, Indian and especially Mexican Valerian contains up to 8% of the so-called valepotriates thought to contribute to increased risk of cell damage.
While Indian and Mexican Valerian species, often contain higher valepotriates, experience shows European Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) consumed in the form of tea or a finished product limits exposure to dangers.
Long-term Valerian Root for Sleep
In recent years, several placebo-controlled clinical studies have demonstrated that Valerian preparations lead to significant improvements in existing, non-organic sleep disorders. Valerian remains most effective over long-term use.
Consuming Valerian over a period of four to six weeks remains safe. Accordingly, Valerian may not immediately promote sleep, but rather helps foster a relaxed state, and thus increases the natural inducement to fall asleep. If taken over a longer period, Valerian accelerates the time it takes to fall asleep, and improves the quality of sleep.
Generally, the sleep-promoting effects of Valerian occur only after a few days or even weeks of use. And, improved sleep, resulting from Valerian usually results from a relief of the nervousness and restlessness, which usually contribute to disrupted sleep patterns.
Valerian Root for Anxiety
Valerian works against temporary nervousness or feelings of anxiety, if not caused by a more serious, deeper disorder. Valerian primarily relaxes, without making you drowsy, per se. This explains why Valerian also works during the day to moderate event-related stress, such as before exams, presentations, or other big events.
Temporary consumption of Valerian also helps to overcome the nervous tension that may accompany an attempt to quit nicotine, caffeine, or alcohol.
The activity-dampening property of Valerian helps to calm the mind, and promote good sleep. Like most traditional remedies, patience helps. Valerian does not work within hours, but rather over several weeks before appreciating the desired effect. Avoid using Valerian in combination with other synthetic drugs.
Valerian may also serve to treat stress and concentration problems, because it promotes focus and increased mental fitness.
Valerian for gastrointestinal, cramps and other purposes
Valerian helps address mild symptoms related to asthma, intestinal colic, rheumatism, and neuralgia. The use of Valerian also appears for irritable stomach and irritable bladder. Think of Valerian for conditions associated with anxiety and cramps, such as flatulence, headaches, stomach cramps, and vomiting.
With fewer side-effects, including non-habit forming, Valerian may represent a reasonable substitute for certain psychotropic drugs. However, Valerian should not be used to treat depression, persistent anxiety, or chronic restlessness. In these cases, it is essential to consult a doctor. Or for milder symptoms, consider St. John’s Wort.
Like other herbs and remedies, some people show a high degree of sensitivity to Valerian. Even at the recommended dose, symptoms may include anxiety and over-activity.
Valerian Root in Folk Medicine
Folk medicine recognizes the following primary applications of Valerian root.
- Restlessness, nervous sleep disorders
- Anxiety and tension, nervousness, restlessness
- Stage fright and test anxiety
- Nervous exhaustion, burn-out syndrome
- Nervous heart and stomach complaints
- Sleep-through disorders in the elderly
- Nervous learning difficulties and difficulty falling asleep
- Weather sensitivity symptoms
- Premenstrual syndrome and menopausal symptoms
- High blood pressure
- Intestinal cramps
- Stomach cramps
- Mild Gastritis
- Mild Migraine headaches
- Nervous heart complaints
- Irritable bladder
Dosage of Valerian
Find a Valerian product which contains sufficiently high active substance levels. At one time, under-dosage of Valerian incorrectly led to dismissal of the plant as a placebo. Paradoxically, in some cases, under-dosage leads to inverse reactions, such as demonstrating stimulating effects.
Valerian promotes sleep in combination with hops
Valerian most commonly comes in the form of Valerian tablets, Valerian root pills, and Valerian tea, made from dried and chopped Valerian root. Herbal medicine includes Valerian root (Valeriana radix) as an important component of many sleeping teas. Often these teas also include lemon balm, green oat, hops or passion flower.
Hops improve the efficacy of Valerian, and the combination leads to overall higher quality sleep. Among other things, the combination of hops with Valerian contributes to increased duration of sleep, a mitigation of the effects of caffeine, and improved feeling of recovery from a healthy sleep.
Valerian commonly comes in the form of pills, tinctures, and tablets. Capsules and tablets address acute conditions, such as high stress (e.g. exam anxiety, job interviews). Valerian tea, on the other hand, addresses persistent conditions, such as mild sleep deficiency, nervous restlessness, or psychological headaches.
Limit the consumption of Valerian tea to no more than three cups per day.
Valerian tea, best as cold extract
Ideally, prepare Valerian tea as a cold extract. Although slightly more complex, it improves efficacy over Valerian tea with a hot water infusion. Excessive heat may compromise some of the active components in Valerian, thereby reducing overall efficacy.
For a cold extract, combine one to two teaspoons of Valerian root (3 grams) with a cup of water (250-300 ml). Let the combination steep for about twelve hours. Filter and heat, without boiling, the tea to drinking temperature. Drink the tea in small sips.
To simplify the process, prepare tea in large quantities, store it in the refrigerator, in sealed containers (due to the smell), warm 1-2 cups on demand, especially at bedtime.
Cold water extracts work best using powdered Valerian root filled into tea filters. To simplify the preparation process, do not hesitate to prepare Valerian root tea as a hot water infusion, allowing the tea brew for 10 to 15 minutes.
Valerian flower and blossoms as tea
Though not as effective as Valerian root, the Valerian flower also works as tea. While Valerian blossoms smell better than the root, they lack the intensity of effect. Valerian flowers rarely show-up on store shelves, often requiring harvest directly from the garden. The flower works either as a cold extract or an infusion for hot tea.
Valerian tea for sleep works best with Hops and Lemon Balm
The best traditional German herbal remedy for mild forms of sleeplessness includes a tea mixture of Valerian, hops and lemon balm (Melissa), consumed slowly and in small sips before bedtime.
Hops enhance the effects of Valerian. The following tea mixture relaxes, calms and helps induce sleep. Consume this in the evening, one half hour before bedtime, or when restless and trying to relax. To make the most of this tea, drink it slowly, in small sips, in a quiet environment.
1 part Melissa leaves
1 part hop cone
1 part Valerian root
Brew Valerian tea using one Tablespoon (approx. 3 grams) of tea mixture per cup and allow 10-15 minutes to steep. Once filtered, and if desired, sweeten with a little honey. Take up to three cups a day.
To make a Valerian tincture at home, cover Valerian with grain alcohol (at least 38% alcohol) in a seal-able glass jar, until all parts of the plant are covered. Allow the combination 2 to 6 weeks to steep. Then strain and fill into a bottle.
Take one to two teaspoons of this tincture in the evening or before bedtime. If too concentrated, consider diluting the tincture with water.
For more information on making tinctures, see our post by the same name (making tinctures)
Finished products with Valerian
Purchase Valerian tablets in shops and pharmacies. The dosage of these products varies dramatically, and ranges from light, for daytime calming use, to strong, for pronounced sleep difficulty, and to treat anxiety.
Off-the-shelf Valerian remedies often combine other medicinal plants, such as hops, lemon balm, or passion flower. If using Valerian to treat sleep difficulties and anxiety, studies show an optimal dose of 450 mg Valerian extract; a higher dose does not lead to improved efficacy.
Valerian pillow for sleep and anxiety
Germans often use herbal pillows to enhance the sleep experience. Delicate Valerian flower and blossoms do great in a traditional herbal pillow to help contribute to a good night sleep. In the absence of readily available sleeping pillow products, simply fill a small fabric cushion cover with dried Valerian flowers.
To complete the effect, you can also fill the pillow with lavender blossoms, lemon balm, and hop cones. Place the pillow in your bed, next to the pillow you use to sleep. Inhale the gentle sleep-inducing fragrance.
Valerian Refreshment Drink
Add fresh Valerian flowers/blossom together with lemon slices to a carafe of water and drink for thirst. This specialty is called “Valerianae tisane” in Belgium. A cooling drink, traditionally used to calm heated minds.
Fill a tightly seal-able 1-liter jar to a quarter with fresh, cut Valerian roots. Add 1 tablespoon of chopped orange peel and fill with a good white wine until just under the lid. Allow two weeks to steep on a windowsill, shake the mixture several times, pass through a sieve, and enjoy. Drink 1 liqueur glass of Valerian wine to relax, when upset. Or, use as a nightcap, before going to bed.
Valerian in the kitchen
In addition to a reputation as a medicinal herb, Valerian also appears as a popular spice in some countries. For example, cuisine in India and Pakistan use the ground root of Valeriana officinalis to season soups and stews. With a bitter and slightly sweet undertone, the flavor fails to satisfy most western palates (notwithstanding Hildegard’s preference for bitter flavors).
Some raw food enthusiasts harvest the first Valerian leaves of the season and use them like lamb’s lettuce. The flavor of fresh Valerian resembles lamb’s lettuce; perhaps because the two plants are related species.
Valerian as a bath additive
In the form of a bath additive, Valerian works to relax the bather and relieve muscle tension. Valerian extract can be used to create an infusion used topically or as a bath additive. For a full bath combine 100 grams of crushed Valerian root with 2 liters of hot water and infuse into the full bath. Alternatively, consider a finished bath additive found at most specialty herbal stores.
Side Effects of Valerian
In rare cases gastrointestinal problems may arise. And, in very rare cases contact allergies. The sleep-inducing effect can impair reflexes and limit a person’s ability to operate motor vehicles or machinery and equipment.
As there are no extensive studies on Valerian in children, pregnant women and breastfeeding women, consumption is not recommended due to lack of evidence of safety.
Unlike many synthetic sleeping and anxiety remedies, Valerian root does not pose a risk of habit formation or addiction. According to previous findings, Valerian is neither mentally or physically addictive. However, this does not rule out abuse. The use of Valerian alone is not a substitute for consulting a doctor on matters of nervousness and anxiety.
US National Library of Medicine, Title: Valerian for Sleep: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, 11/2006, PubMed
US National Library of Medicine, Title: The use of Valeriana officinalis (Valerian) in improving sleep in patients who are undergoing treatment for cancer: a phase III randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study, 2/2011, PubMed
US National Library of Medicine, Title: Effectiveness of Valerian on insomnia: a meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials., 6/2010, PubMed