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."
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.
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