What is Valerian Root?
Valerian is currently one of the most popular herbal supplements on the market because of its calming properties. It has been used as a sleep aid for at least a few thousand years and has a remarkable relaxing effect on the body.
Certain Native American tribes used valerian frequently for coughing and to heal wounds. During the Middle Ages, it even saw use to help treat epilepsy and was highly valued for treating nervous disorders.
There are many different types of valerian, but Valeriana officinalis is the species most often cultivated for use in herbal remedies. Other varieties can also be used medicinally and are naturalized in Europe, North America, and Asia.
A perennial plant, valerian can grow anywhere from 1-8 feet tall, depending on the species. It blooms with nice-smelling white or white-pink flowers on long stalks.
The roots of the valerian plant are the part harvested for medicinal use. They are best collected in the third year of growth when the essential oils and plant compounds are at their peak.
There's no doubt that valerian is a powerful and popular herb, but there's something else most people agree on: the roots taste terrible.
The flavor of valerian root has been nicely described as "musky" and "earthy" and not so nicely described as reminiscent of dirty gym socks. For this reason, most people prefer to take it quickly as an extract or combine it with other herbs that mask the flavor.
What are the Benefits of Valerian Root?
Natural Sleep Aid
The top valerian root benefit for most people is its ability to help ease insomnia. When taken in a large enough quantity, valerian has a sedative-like quality that can help you both fall asleep more quickly and get better quality rest.
Valerian is thought to work by interacting with GABA receptors, which are responsible for sleep regulation and other nervous system functions. (1)
Research has shown that valerian can in some cases be just as effective as common sleep medications, particularly oxazepam (a benzodiazepine used for anxiety and insomnia). When combined with hops and passionflower, it was also a "safe and effective short-term alternative" to zolpidem (brand name Ambien) for insomnia. (2)(3)
Those who use valerian for sleep also report none of the normal side effects associated with conventional sleep medicine, especially no grogginess or next-day sedation. (4)
Eases Anxiety and Stress
Given that valerian has such a relaxing effect, it's no surprise that it can also help to reduce feelings of stress, tension, and anxiety.
As already mentioned, valerian root extract has shown comparable effects to certain anti-anxiety medications (oxazepam). Just like with sleep, it's thought to have this effect mainly because it interacts with gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors to help calm the nervous system. (5)
Research has shown that valerian can reduce anxiety symptoms and even help ease symptoms of depression. When combined with lemon balm, one study also found that valerian root greatly improve hyperactivity in children. (6)(7)
Helps Relieve Pain and Cramps
Although better sleep and reduced anxiety are the two most well-known benefits of valerian root, it can also help with menstrual cramps and other types of muscle-related pain.
Valerian is a natural muscle relaxant and antispasmodic, which is most likely why it has been shown to help relieve the pain associated with menstrual cramps. (8)
Other research has also shown that valerian extract can improve the symptoms of restless leg syndrome (RLS), most likely because it helps muscles to relax. (Magnesium can also be extremely helpful for RLS if a deficiency is present.) (9)
May Lower Blood Pressure
Research has uncovered another potential benefit of valerian: an ability to lower blood pressure.
High blood pressure puts a lot of strain on your heart and is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease. While leading a healthy lifestyle plays a big role in lowering blood pressure, certain herbs can also help.
Research shows that certain compounds in valerian can help to lower blood pressure, which would make it a good herb for heart health. However, human studies have yet to be conducted, so the results aren't yet confirmed. (10)
Other Benefits of Valerian Root
Coughing- Though there are many more frequently used herbs for congestion and coughing, valerian can be helpful specifically for dry, spasmodic coughing, particularly at the end of an illness. It calms the cough reflex, which is extremely helpful if you need to stop coughing to go to sleep. (However, that does make it not the best herb if you have a lot of mucus and need productive coughing.)
Digestion- Because of its slight bitterness and the plant compounds found in the root, valerian can benefit digestion by stimulating a stagnant digestive tract. It also helps to relieve gas and bloating and can help with that feeling of over-fullness when you've eaten too much.
Brain Function- Valerian typically is not known as an herb for your brain, but at least one study has found that it has a positive effect on cognitive function and may help prevent cognitive decline. (11)
How do I Use Valerian Root?
As mentioned earlier, valerian root has a very strong taste that many people object to. For this reason, it's usually not made into a tea on its own like many other herbs.
However, you can use small amounts of dried valerian root as part of a tea for stress or sleep. Try combining it with other herbs like catnip, passionflower, and chamomile for added relaxation and herbs like spearmint, lemon balm, or lemon verbena to help mask the flavor.
Another popular (and somewhat easier) way to take valerian is as a tincture. This allows you to take the dose quickly, and it can be hidden in fruit juice or something similar to hide the taste. Try either a traditional valerian tincture or an alcohol-free valerian glycerite.
Though herbalists traditionally favor valerian as a tea or tincture, you can also try valerian root capsules if you absolutely can't stand the taste.
Some people also find that the essential oil is helpful for stress and sleep when diffused or used in a bath.
What are the side effects of Valerian Root?
Valerian has one very interesting precaution: For certain people, the root has the opposite effect as intended and gets them "wired" instead of relaxed.
Herbalists have long been trying to pinpoint who will benefit from valerian and who will have an opposite reaction. There haven't been any solid conclusions, so the only way to know for sure is to try it yourself. Also, always start with small doses.
Other adverse effects are rare but can include nausea, headache, and diarrhea.
No adverse effects have been noted during pregnancy, but some herbalists still recommend avoiding valerian when you are breastfeeding.
Better Sleep and Less Stress
Who couldn't use better quality sleep and less stress?
If you could, valerian root has some of the most tried and tested benefits for sleep, stress, anxiety, and more. Don't let the taste put you off- this is one powerful herb that has helped many people over the years!
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and should not be substituted for medical advice. Please consult your health care provider, herbalist, midwife, or naturopathic physician before taking herbs, supplements, etc. Here's the link to our full disclaimer.