What is Valerian?
Valerian is a plant native to Europe and Asia. It grows to up to four feet high and has trumpet-shaped flowers. The roots are used medicinally. Although the fresh root is relatively odorless, the dried root has a strong odor that many find unpleasant.
Valerian is believed to have been used since at least the time of ancient Greece and Rome. It was used as a folk remedy for a variety of conditions such as sleeping problems, digestive complaints, nervousness, trembling, tension headaches and heart palpitations.
Valerian's popularity waned with the introduction of prescription sleep medication.
There is no consensus on the active constituents of valerian. It's possible that valerian's activity may result from a combination of compounds rather than just one. Valerian appears to increase the body's available supply of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), possibly by increasing its production, decreasing its absorption or slowing its breakdown.
Valerian can be found in capsule, tea, tablet or liquid extract forms in most health food stores, some drugstores and online.
Other names for valerian include All-heal, Amantilla, Setwall, Setewale, Capon's Tail, and Valeriana officinalis.
Uses for Valerian
So far, scientific support for the potential benefits of valerian is fairly lacking.
The use of valerian is supported by some evidence from clinical studies. The problem with many of the studies, however, is they've generally been small, used different amounts of valerian for varying lengths of time, or had problems with the study design, making it impossible to form a conclusion about the effectiveness of valerian.
Valerian appears to be less effective than prescription sleep medication. One possible advantage of valerian, however, is that it may not have as much of a "hangover" effect on mental or physical functioning the following day. Also, people taking sleeping pills sometimes have a temporary worsening of insomnia when they are discontinued, an effect that hasn't been reported with valerian.
See Natural Remedies for Insomnia.
Valerian is also used for anxiety, although there's insufficient evidence that it's effective.
People taking medications for insomnia or anxiety, such as benzodiazepines, should not combine these medications with valerian.
Side effects of valerian may include headache, dizziness, itchiness, upset stomach, drowsiness during the daytime, dry mouth and vivid.dreams.
Rarely, liver damage has been associated with the use of valerian. It's not certain whether the cause of the liver damage was due to valerian itself or to contaminants in the product. Until we know more, people should use valerian only under the supervision of a qualified healthcare practitioner and those with liver disease should avoid it. Although liver damage doesn't always produce noticeable symptoms, if excessive tiredness, intense itching, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, pain or discomfort in the upper right side of the abdomen, or a yellowing of the whites of the eyes or skin occurs, see your doctor immediately.
Valerian may cause excessive sleepiness or daytime drowsiness if combined with other drugs that cause drowsiness, such as the benzodiazepines Ativan (lorazepam) or Valium (diazepam), some antidepressants, narcotics such as codeine, and barbituates such as phenobarbital, or with over-the-counter sleep and cold products containing diphenhydramine and doxylamine.
It may also cause excessive sleepiness if taken with herbs thought to have a sedative effect, such as hops, catnip, and kava.
Valerian is broken down in the liver. Theoretically, it could interfere with the effectiveness of medications that are broken down by the same liver enzymes, such as:
- allergy medications like fexofenadine
- cholesterol medication such as lovastatin
- antifungal drugs such as itraconazole and ketoconazole
- cancer medications such as irinotecan, etoposide, STI571, paclitaxel, vinblastine or vincristine
Valerian supplements haven't been tested for safety and keep in mind that the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established. You can get tips on using supplements here, but if you're considering the use of valerian, talk with your primary care provider first.
Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J, eds.: Valerian root. In: Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Newton, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications, 2000: 394-400.
Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.