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Using Valerian to Treat Insomnia

Valerian is commonly used for insomnia, anxiety, and hyperactivity. Learn more about valerian and making valerian herbal tea.
Valerian is commonly used for insomnia, anxiety, and hyperactivity. Learn more about valerian and making valerian herbal tea.
Publications International, Ltd.

Valerian is a staple medicinal herb used throughout Europe. And, unlike benzodiazepines, using valerian to treat insomnia increases the amount of time spent in deep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Valerian isn't a modern discovery; doctors of yesteryear were quite familiar with this pungent-smelling herb. In 1831, family physician Samuel Thomson wrote: "This powder is the best nervine known. I have made great use of it and have always found it to produce the most beneficial effects in all cases of nervous affection. In fact, it would be difficult to get along in my practice in many cases without this important article."

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It's unlikely that many family doctors today would recommend valerian to their patients. More doctors, however, may consider valerian after reviewing the clinical evidence that supports the herb's use.

Clinical Evidence for Using Valerian to Treat Insomnia

In one double-blind study, 44 percent of insomniacs who took valerian described the quality of their sleep as "perfect," and 99 percent said their sleep had improved significantly. None of the patients reported any side effects.

In another experiment, 128 people with sleep problems were given either 400 milligrams of valerian root extract or a placebo (dummy pill). Those who were taking the herb reported significant improvement in sleep quality without morning grogginess.

Valerian also significantly improves sleep latency, which is how researchers describe the time it takes a person to fall asleep. One study found that valerian halved the time it normally took volunteers to fall asleep.

Another randomized double-blind study had patients with mild insomnia take either a placebo or an extract of valerian root. Subjective sleep ratings were assessed through a questionnaire, and the patients' movements were recorded throughout the night. The study found that those who took valerian experienced a significant decrease in the amount of time it took them to fall asleep. Higher doses of valerian, interestingly, helped subjects to fall asleep no faster than moderate doses, although clinically it has been observed that higher doses may increase duration of sleep.

At least two studies have assessed the effects of valerian in children. One small study of five children with learning disabilities found valerian significantly reduced the amount of time needed to fall asleep while lengthening time asleep and sleep quality, compared to placebo. A larger study of 918 children found valerian safe and effective, although it is important to note there was no control group in this study.

Valerian has even been shown in some studies to improve reaction times. And, unlike benzodiazepines, the herb may be taken with alcohol without causing depression or other adverse side effects. Even with prolonged use of valerian, there have been few reports of symptoms such as heartburn, upset stomach, diarrhea, or allergic reactions. Also, unlike sedatives, valerian does not impair one's ability to operate machinery, such as a car.

Valerian has even been shown to improve sleep quality and to decrease anxiety in people trying to wean off of benzodiazepines. Placebo was far less effective in this study.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

"According to the latest information available, we simply don't know," concededed the late pharmacognosist Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D, who served as a professor emeritus at the Purdue University School of Pharmacy in Indiana.

We do know that valerian contains volatile oils, alkaloids, and unstable chemicals known as esters. Esters are lost when valerian root is dried and kept for extended periods. For that reason, the herb's effectiveness may vary considerably, depending on the quality of the brand.

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Valerian contains chemicals with strong muscle-relaxant and sedative properties called valepotriates. All parts of the plant contain these chemicals, but they are most concentrated in the roots. Ironically, even valerian preparations without valepotriates have helped some people to fall asleep, raising the possibility that some still unidentified chemical, or a reaction amongst various compounds in the root, may produce a calming effect.

Animal studies conducted in the 1960s demonstrated that valerian acts as a powerful tranquilizer, and subsequent studies with humans replicated those effects. Valerian appears to work by affecting the central nervous system.

Researchers monitored electroencephalograph (a device that measures brain-wave activity) changes in rats that had been given a valerian preparation. They found significant sedative activity, recorded as an increase in brain waves associated with relaxation.

In another study, a tincture of valerian root was given to 23 hypertensive men. The preparation had a distinct tranquilizing effect, as measured by subsequent brain-wave activity.

Melatonin is another natural substance that may be used to treat insomnia. Continue to the next page to learn more.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS:Timothy Gower is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in many publications, including Reader's Digest, Prevention, Men's Health, Better Homes and Gardens, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. The author of four books, Gower is also a contributing editor for Health magazine.Alice Lesch Kelly is a health writer based in Boston. Her work has been published in magazines such as Shape, Fit Pregnancy, Woman's Day, Reader's Digest, Eating Well, and Health. She is the co-author of three books on women's health.Linnea Lundgren has more than 12 years experience researching, writing, and editing for newspapers and magazines. She is the author of four books, including Living Well With Allergies.

Michele Price Mann is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Weight Watchers and Southern Living magazines. Formerly assistant health and fitness editor at Cooking Light magazine, her professional passion is learning and writing about health.

ABOUT THE CONSULTANTS:

Ivan Oransky, M.D., is the deputy editor of The Scientist. He is author or co-author of four books, including The Common Symptom Answer Guide, and has written for publications including the Boston Globe, The Lancet, and USA Today. He holds appointments as a clinical assistant professor of medicine and as adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.

David J. Hufford, Ph.D., is university professor and chair of the Medical Humanities Department at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. He also is a professor in the departments of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Hufford serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine and Explore.

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