According to the National Library of Medicine, there are over 75 different Herbs found in the National Library of Medicine garden (NLM Herb Garden). One of these plants used for medical use is called Valerian, or Valerian Root. Valerian Root’s scientific name is Valeriana officinalis. Other common names for Valerian Root include: garden heliotrope and all-heal. Despite the numerous advances that have been made in the medical community in the last few hundred years, Valerian Root is still used by a number of people.
Valerian Root is an herbaceous perennial; it returns year after year. The plant is native to Europe and Western Asia; however, it has spread across northern parts of the United States and Canada (Valeriana officinalis). It is commonly called an invasive species, as it spreads fairly easily using rhizomes and spreading many of its seeds. The plant typically grows to about three to five feet in height with a spread of about two to five feet in width.
It has small flowers that are pink to white in color. Valerian is a dicotyledon. It has vascular bundles in concentric circles, flowers in fours or fives, and a root system that develops from the radicle (Valeriana Officinalis L. Garden Valerian).
In the medical community, Valerian is a herbal supplement that is used quite often (Felgentreff et. al). It is typically used for sleeping disorders. More specifically, it is used for insomnia. Valerian root is also sometimes used to help treat anxiety and physiological stress (Murphy et. al).
According to the National Institute of Health, Valerian has been utilized as far back as 800 BC. There are mentions that Valerian was used as a medicinal herb in both Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. The Greek Physician, Hippocrates, considered to be a key figure in the history of medicine, recorded a number of its therapeutic uses around 400 BC. Galen, a prominent Greek physician in the Roman Empire, is known to have used Valerian to treat insomnia in his patients (Office of Dietary Supplements).
During the middle of the 1800’s, many people started to doubt the uses of Valerian. People began to believe it was actually part of the cause of many of the ailments it was supposed to be treating. However, Valerian use continued through the doubts of numerous people, and Valerian’s use eventually began to rise again. An example of this rise in use was seen during World War II. Many people of England utilized Valerian to help them find sleep during the Germain Air raids. People claimed the Valerian helped them to relieve stress (Office of Dietary Supplements).
Due to the prevalence of Valerian’s use throughout history, it is also found scattered in different stories and lore throughout different cultures and areas throughout the world. In a famous folk lore, there was a “pied’ piper of Hamelin, Germany. In the story, the town had a very serious rat problem. The town hired a rat catcher to rid the town of the rats. The story tells us that the piper played his flute and the rats followed him out of town. Today, people speculate that he used Valerian in his pockets to have the rats follow him out of town. Rats are known to be attracted to the smell (Getting to Know). In addition to the German folk lore, Hertha, a Nordic Goddess of cows and cattle, was known to have used a whip made of Valerian as she rode her horse. The Valerian plant was also used in the country of Greece. In ancient times, Greeks would suspend Valerian in places they would live to ward off evil spirits from entering (Getting to Know).
In today’s era, Valerian is commonly sold as a dietary supplement. These supplements are produced using roots, horizontal stems called stolons, and underground stems called rhizomes (Office of Dietary Supplements).
Valerian is also taken in pill form. Extracts from Valerian are commonly put into tablets or capsules to be taken orally (Office of Dietary Supplements). Along with dietary supplements found in stores, Valerian is often made into tea. The root of the Valerian is brought to a boil to produce Valerian tea (Getting to Know).
The effectiveness of Valerian is somewhat questioned in the medical community. Like many other herbal medicines, many physicians steer treatment in other directions. According to Dr. Lori Steinley, Physician Assistant and Dr. of Naturopathy, “In my Job as a Physician Assistant, I commonly see a resistance by some medical professionals in using natural remedies. With my experience in both fields, I feel as though the two go hand in hand”. When asked about Valerian in particular, Dr. Steinley elaborated on its effects that are known to help people with both anxiety and insomnia (Steinley).
With the effectiveness of Valerian in question, a multitude of studies have taken place to try to determine if, and what specifically in Valerian helps reduce anxiety and insomnia. In a study using laboratory rats, an active ingredient called valerenic acid is found to have an effect on the GABAA system. Commonly prescribed drugs called Benzodiazepines also work by interacting with the GABAA system to treat anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. The results of the study also showed that the use of a valerian extract or valerenic acid led to lower “anxious behavior” in the rats when measured to the control group (Murphy et. al). In another study pertaining to Valerian officinalis, it found that the presence of an anxiolytic 6-methylapigenin with the addition of glycoside 2S and hesperidin, both which come from Valerian, result in sleep-inducing effects (Fernandez et. al).
The National Institutes of Health found three studies that proficiently observed the efficacy of Valerian Root to treat insomnia. All three of the studies received the highest rating possible in terms of the study design. In the first study, 128 volunteers were tested on 9 consecutive nights. For three nights each, the volunteers were given either 400 mg of valerian extract, 60 mg of a commercial valerian supplement, or a placebo. The subjects filled out a questionnaire each morning answering amount of time it took to fall asleep, sleep quality, and number of times they woke up during the night. The results of the study showed that the 400 mg of valerian extract showed a correlation with less amount of time to fall asleep and the amount of time woken up during the night as well as better sleep quality. The study failed to show a correlation between the commercial valerian supplement to anything when compared to the placebo (Office of Dietary Supplements).
The second study used eight subjects that had mild insomnia. These subjects were given either 450 milligrams of valerian extract, 900 milligrams of valerian extract, or a placebo. Each subject was given one of the three variables four times each, for a total of twelve nights of testing. Results showed that the 450 milligrams of valerian reduced the time to achieve sleep latency, a five-minute period in which the person does not move at all, from 16 minutes to nine minutes. The 900 milligrams of valerian extract showed no difference in time to achieve sleep latency; however, it did show an improvement in sleep quality, via questionnaire responses (Office of Dietary Supplements).
The last study used 121 subjects that were tested with valerian root or a placebo. The people involved in the study were given questionnaires at the beginning of the study, on day 14 of the study, and on day 28 of the study. Both on day 14 and day 28, questionnaires showed that insomnia symptoms in the subjects were decreased in comparison to taking the placebo (Office of Dietary Supplements).
Multiple adverse reactions may take place when taking Valerian root. Negative reactions include headaches, dizziness, itchiness, and gastrointestinal problems. There are also reports of increased drowsiness in the mornings after the supplement has been taken (Office of Dietary Supplements).
Due to the lack of research done on Valerian, certain groups of people are typically not recommended to take the supplement. Both nursing woman and pregnant woman should not take the supplement. In addition to these women, children under the age of 3 are also typically not recommended to take Valerian. People taking sedatives, like alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates, are also cautioned about taking Valerian root. Taking a mixture of one of these sedatives and valerian may cause adverse reactions (Office of Dietary Supplements). It is also recommended that people with liver disease avoid taking Valerian (Bauer).
After thousands of years of use, Valeriana officinalis is still commonly used in medicine to help treat anxiety and insomnia. Famous people from history including Hippocrates and Galen are known to have used the herbal medicine. Even though the plant is native to Europe and Western Asia, the plant is seen scattered in a wide range of cultures. The wide range of its reach is partially due to the plant being an invasive species; it has spread its reach all throughout the northern parts of the Unites States and parts of Canada. A number of studies concerning the effectiveness of Valerian have concluded that is does indeed have some properties that help to promote sleep. With its effectiveness becoming relevant and proven with studies, this ancient plant looks like it will be continued to be used for many years to come.