Classified as Valeriana officinalis, valerian is native to North America, Europe and Asia. Valerian is a tall perennial herb with hollow stems that bear white or reddish flowers. The name Valerian is from the Latin word valere, meaning ‘to be in health’. The root stock of valerian harbors many active compounds and many herbalists believe it is what gives this plant its amazing medicinal value.
Healing oils found in valerian root include valeranone, valereal, borneol, and azulene. These oils have nerve-calming, anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic effects. Valerian extract, derived from the dried rhizomes and roots of the plant, has been used for thousands of years to treat several disorders including restlessness, nervousness and insomnia.
Valerian has been used around the world for centuries. During the middle ages it was used as a perfume. Native Americans used the valerian plant as a substitute for flour, as well as to treat horses with distemper. In the early 19th century, Shakers grew valerian as a principle cash crop. It was given to soldiers and civilians during World War I, to assist with stress and anxiety. German women used valerian as a coffee substitute and the British used valerian as a soup base. Today, valerian is the most common non-prescription sedative used in Europe.
One the most well-known affects of valerian is its ability to promote sleep and aid with insomnia. Valerian is not an addictive substance and does not leave one feeling tired and disoriented like some sleep aids.
Another health benefit of valerian is its ability to help alleviate the effects of stress and anxiety. Valerian has also proven useful in alleviating headaches, reducing pain, improving menstrual flow and cramps, and as an aid with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Valerian is excellent for use against nervous disorders, palpitations, neuralgia, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, vertigo, sciatica, chronic skin diseases and muscle spasms. Valerian has a grounding, calming and relaxing affect on the body.
Numerous clinical studies in the United States and Europe have found valerian root to be effective in relieving stress and anxiety, as well as improve sleep quality. It has also been shown to decrease headaches in adults and improve sleep in children.
In one study, children who exhibited behavioral disorders such as hyperactivity, anxiety, and learning difficulties, were given an extract of valerian root. The results were extraordinary and showed a 75 percent improvement in symptoms in 100 percent of the children, without negative side effects or toxicity.
Overall, Valerian is relatively safe and does not appear to pose risks oftentimes associated with the use of sedatives or drugs. Few adverse effects have been reported; but as with any food or medicine, side effects can occur.
Possible side effects generally occur when from taking extraordinarily high amounts of valerian root. These side effects can include: nausea, headaches, dizziness, grogginess, and palpitations of the heart. Very high dosages may also impair the liver and the central nervous system. Large doses can cause some people to feel depressed, nauseous and lethargic.
Valerian root can interact with alcohol, muscle relaxants, certain antihistamines, psychotropic drugs and narcotics. If you are taking any of these drugs, take valerian only under the supervision of your healthcare provider.
Valerian root is not suggested during pregnancy, except in very small doses and under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. It is also not recommended for people with low blood pressure or those with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).