Using Valerian to Treat Insomnia

How does valerian work?

"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.

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.


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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