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Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

It's 3 a.m. and you're wide awake – again.  You wish there was something that you could safely take to help you fall asleep.  Valerian may be just what you need, because this herb gently induces slumber without the unpleasant side effects of conventional drugs.

What it is?

In Britain, Germany and other European countries, valerian is officially approved as a sleep aid by medical authorities.  A perennial plant native to Europe and North America, valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has pinkish flowers that grow from a tuberous rootstock, or rhizome.  Harvested when the plant is two years old, the rootstock contains a number of important compounds – valepotriates, valeric acid and volatile oils among them – that at one time or another were each thought to be responsible for the herb's sedative powers.  Many experts now believe that valerian's effectiveness may be the result of synergy among the various compounds.

What it does?

Taken for centuries as an aid to sleep, valerian can also act as a calming agent in stressful daytime situations.  It is used in treating anxiety disorders and conditions worsened by stress, such as diverticulosis and irritable bowel syndrome.

Major Benefits

Compounds in valerian seem to affect brain receptors for a nerve chemical (neurotransmitter) called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA.  It's through this interaction that valerian promotes sleep and eases anxiety.  Unlike benzodiazepines – drugs such as diazepam (Valium) or alprazolam (Xanax) commonly prescribed for these disorders – valerian is not addictive and doesn't make you feel drugged.

Rather than inducing sleep directly, valerian calms the brain and body so that sleep can occur naturally.  One of the benefits of valerian for insomniacs is that when taken at recommended doses, it doesn't make you feel groggy in the morning as some prescription drugs do.

According to various studies, valerian works as well as prescription drugs for many people, and when compared with a placebo, appears to lull people to sleep.  In one study, 128 people were given one of two valerian preparations or a placebo.  It was found that the herb improved sleep quality: those taking valerian fell asleep more quickly and woke up less often than those receiving a placebo.  In another study involving insomniacs, nearly all reported improved sleep when taking valerian, and 44% classified their sleep quality as perfect.

Although interest in valerian as an anti-anxiety aid is relatively recent, the herb is increasingly recommended by herbalists and nutritionally oriented doctors for this purpose.

Additional Benefits

Valerian helps to relax the smooth muscle of the gastrointestinal tract, making it valuable for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulosis, both of which often involve painful spasms of the intestine.  In addition, because flare-ups of these disorders are sometimes triggered by stress, valerian's calming action may account for its effectiveness.

Common Uses

  • Promotes restful sleep.
  • Soothes stress and anxiety.
  • Improves the symptoms of some digestive disorders.


  • Capsule.
  • Tablet.
  • Tincture.
  • Dried herb/tea.


  • If taken during the day, valerian may cause drowsiness.
  • If you're pregnant or breast-feeding, do no use valerian.
  • Reminder:  If you have a medical or psychiatric condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.

How to take it?


For insomnia:  Take 250-500 mg of the powdered extract in pill form or 1 teaspoon of the tincture 30-45 minutes before bedtime.  Studies show that for most people, higher doses produce no additional benefit.  However, if the low dose does not work, it is safe to take as much as 900 mg of the powdered extract (or 2 teaspoons of the tincture).
For anxiety:  Take 250 mg twice a day and 250-500 mg before bedtime.

Guidelines for use:

If you opt for the tincture, try blending it with a little honey or sugar to make this herb, which has a rather unpleasant taste, more palatable.  Although valerian is not addictive, it is not a good idea to rely on any substance, herbal or not, to fall asleep every night.  Therefore, don't take valerian nightly for more than two weeks in a row.  And make sure you don't combine it with prescription tranquillisers or sleeping pills.  It's safe, however, to take valerian with other herbs, such as chamomile, hops, Melissa (also known as lemon balm) or passionflower, which may increase its effectiveness as a sleep aid.  Valerian can also be used with St. John's wort if you're depressed, or with kava if you're anxious.

Possible side effects

Studies have shown that even in amounts 20 times higher than recommended, valerian has no dangerous side effects.  However, extremely large doses can cause dizziness, restlessness, blurred vision, nausea, headache, giddiness and grogginess in the morning.

Shopping Hints

  • When buying valerian, look for a product made from a standardized extract that contains 0.8% valeric (or valerenic) acid.

Latest Findings

  • Prescription sleep aids often cause grogginess the morning after they are taken and can impair a person's ability to drive to perform other tasks requiring concentration.  Valerian does not, according to a German study.  Researchers compared the effects of valerian; valerian and hops; a benzodiazepine drug; and a placebo.  All improved sleep quality, but the benzodiazepine drug reduced performance the next morning, whereas the herbal preparations did not.  However, performance was slightly impaired for two or three hours after taking the herbs, so don't drive or perform hazardous tasks for a time after you take valerian.

Did you know?

Valerian preparations have a very disagreeable odour – so much so that inexperienced users may think they have a bad batch.  Don't be put off by the smell; it's completely normal.