Common name: Valerian
Other names: Garden valerian, phu, all-heal
Latin name: Valeriana officinalis
Affinities: Nervous system, digestive system, circulatory stimulant
Actions: Sedative, hypnotic, antispasmodic, hypotensive, carminative, nervine
Specific indications: Poor sleep, anxiety, convulsions, heart palpitations, migraine, muscle and intestinal cramps, bladder spasms
Diseases: Insomnia(1), anxiety(3), epilepsy(3), high blood pressure(3)
Parts used: Roots, rhizome
Energetics: Warming, drying
Characteristics: Valerian is a perennial herb that is native to Europe, North America, and parts of Asia (Kuhn and Winston, 2000). It blooms white to red flowers from June to September. The European valerian, valeriana officinalis, has an Indian counterpart that is found in the Himalayas used similarly in Ayuvedic medicine called, valeriana jatamansi (Verma et al., 2011).
History: The valerian herb has an ancient history of medicinal use that goes back as far as the ancient Greeks and the Romans (Castleman, 2001). The term valeriana first occurred around the 10th century, it was derived from the latin ‘valere’, meaning, ‘to be strong’. The distinguished Greek physician, Dioscorides, recommended valerian as a diuretic and antidote to poison. Pliny, a Roman physician, recommended it as a pain reliver, while Galen, another Greek physician, prescribed it as a sleep aid and decongestant. By the time the herb started being called valerian early herbalists viewed it as something of a panacea and it became called all-heal. In the 12th century the German abbess called Hildegard of Bingen applied valerian as a sleeping aid and tranquilizer. This was approximately 100 years prior to the legend of the pied piper who supposedly used valerian to charm rats and children out of the town, Hamelin, in Germany.
Later, the 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper praised valerian and added to its claimed medicinal uses as he said, ‘The decoction of the root … is of special virtue against the plague … (it) provokes a woman’s courses … is particularly good for those troubled with cough … is excellent (for) any sores, hurts, or wounds …’. Remarkably, early colonists found Native American tribes using the roots of valerian to treat wounds, this use brought the herb to the attention of Samuel Thomson, founder of Thomsonian herbal medicine, popularised before the American Civil War. Thomson called valerian, ‘the best nervine known’. The Eclectics in the 19th century recommended valerian as a ‘calmative… for epilepsy… mild spasmodic affections… (and) hypochondria’.
Current applications: In the text, ‘Holistic Herbal’, David Hoffman writes, ‘Valerian is one of the most useful relaxing nervines that is available to us’ (Hoffman, 1998). He recommends it for tension, anxiety, hysteria, insomnia, intestinal cramps and intestinal colic, and period pain and cramps. It may also help with migraines and rheumatic pains. For tension he recommends it be combined with American skullcap, while for insomnia, with hops and passionflower. For cramps it works well with crampbark.
Matthew Wood writes, quoting herbalists of the past and in his own words, ‘Valerian is principally used as a remedy for insomnia or to relax the muscles and ease pain… it’s action on the nervous system is best obtained when the circulation of those centers inactive and feeble, especially when there is paleness of face and the skin is cool…Valerian is an excellent cerebral stimulant…Valerian is a powerful relaxant to the nerves and muscles’ (Wood, 2001).
Science: There are two types of compounds in valerian that have attracted interest (Lindahl et al., 1989). These are the valepotriates and sesquiterpenes. It is thought that the valepotriates are responsible for the sedative action of valerian. A study found that valerian was effective for reducing insomnia versus the placebo in humans (Lindahl et al., 1989), but these findings conflict with other studies. In another experiment, valerian found was not better against insomnia than a placebo, however the authors did find valerian and hops together were significantly better (Koetter et al., 2007). Another study found valerian with lemon balm effective at improving sleep in healthy people compared with the placebo (Cerny et al., 1999). Another combination study found valerian and hops together displayed a trend towards better sleep in the treatment group, although this was not quite significant it was very close (p = 0.06) (Morin et al., 2005).
A relatively recent review article concluded that most studies seemed to favour valerian having a hypnotic effect alone or in combination, however more large scale double blind placebo controlled studies are required to resolve the issue (Shanah, 2010). It may be sensible to combine it with hops for insomnia, although it may be effective alone in milder cases.
Safety: Valerian is very safe for people of all ages; it can also be taken whilst pregnant or breastfeeding.
Dosage: 5-60 drops of tincture 2-4 times daily. In larger doses it may produce the opposite effect and in fact over stimulate a person.
Form: The fresh root provides the best tincture, this preserves the volatile oils (Wood, 2001). It is thought to be more ‘tonic and less reactive’ than the dried root tinctures.
Research on humans
Insomnia: One study (n = 27 in treatment group, double blind placebo controlled) examined if an extract of valerian could significantly reduce the insomnia, they found it could (Lindahl et al., 1989).
Insomnia(II): Another study (n = 43, double blind placebo controlled) tested if valerian or valerian and hops could reduce insomnia compared with the placebo (Koetter et al., 2007). They found valerian and hops was effective, but valerian alone was not.
Insomnia(III): A large study (n = 98, double blind placebo controlled) tested if valerian and lemon balm together improved sleep quality in healthy individuals compared with a placebo (Cerny et al., 1999). They found it could.
Insomnia(IV): Another large study (n = 184, placebo controlled) observed that a combination of valerian and hops improved sleep in individuals with insomnia, but the effect was not quite significant, it was nearly so (p = 0.06) (Morin et al., 2005).
Castleman, Michael. “The new healing herbs.” Bantam Book, New York (2001): 465-471.
Cerny, A., and K. Schmid. “Tolerability and efficacy of valerian/lemon balm in healthy volunteers (a double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicentre study).” Fitoterapia 70.3 (1999): 221-228.
Hoffman, David. Holistic herbal. Element Books, 1988.
Koetter, U., et al. “A randomized, double blind, placebo‐controlled, prospective clinical study to demonstrate clinical efficacy of a fixed valerian hops extract combination (Ze 91019) in patients suffering from non‐organic sleep disorder.” Phytotherapy research 21.9 (2007): 847-851.
Kuhn, Merrily A., and David Winston. Herbal therapy and supplements: a scientific and traditional approach. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2000.
Lindahl, Olov, and Lars Lindwall. “Double blind study of a valerian preparation.” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior 32.4 (1989): 1065-1066.
Morin, Charles M., et al. “Valerian-hops combination and diphenhydramine for treating insomnia: a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial.” SLEEP-NEW YORK THEN WESTCHESTER- 28.11 (2005): 1465.
Salter, Shanah, and Sonya Brownie. “Treating primary insomnia: the efficacy of valerian and hops.” Australian family physician 39.6 (2010): 433.
Verma, Ram S., et al. “Chemical Diversity in the Essential Oil of Indian Valerian (Valeriana jatamansiJones).” Chemistry & biodiversity 8.10 (2011): 1921-1929.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal, Volume I: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, 2011.