The Purported Benefits and Uses of Valerian Root

Valerian root
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Valerian, also known as Valeriana officinalis, is a flowering plant native to Europe and Asia. The root of the plant has long been used in herbal medicine for a variety of conditions such as sleeping difficulties, digestive complaints, anxiety, and headaches.

Common Uses for Valerian Root

Here's a look at the most common uses for valerian root:

Ease Anxiety

Valerian root contains compounds called valerenic acid, which may increase the brain's supply of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a compound that quiets brain signals and may help you relax.

Although valerian root is touted as an alternative to prescription medication for anxiety, there is only preliminary evidence suggesting that it may help.

The available evidence includes a small study published in the Annals of Pharmacology in 2017. People who were taking efavirenz (an HIV antiretroviral medication) took either valerian or a placebo nightly one hour before sleep for four weeks. At the end of the study period, anxiety and sleep significantly improved in those taking valerian compared to those taking the placebo.

Unlike certain types of medication, the effects of valerian root are said to be noticeable within one to two hours. For example, in a study published in 2015, women who were preparing to undergo hysterosalpingography (a type of x-ray) took either a single dose of valerian along with standard preparation for the procedure or a placebo with the standard preparation. After the treatment, the level of anxiety in those taking valerian was significantly reduced compared to those taking the placebo.

Relieve Insomnia

Preliminary evidence suggests that valerian root may help to relieve insomnia, however, recent reviews haven't confirmed it.

In a report published in Sleep Medicine Reviews, for instance, researchers analyzed previously published studies involving 1602 people with insomnia who took the herbs valerian root, chamomile, kava kava, or wuling. In their analysis, they found no significant improvement with insomnia for any of the herbs.

Side Effects and Cautions

Side effects of valerian may include headache, dizziness, itchiness, upset stomach, drowsiness during the daytime, dry mouth, and vivid dreams.

Rarely, liver damage has been associated with the use of valerian. It is not certain whether the cause of the liver damage was due to valerian itself or to contaminants in the product. Until we know more, people should use valerian only under the supervision of a qualified healthcare practitioner and people with liver disease should avoid it.

Although liver injury doesn't always produce noticeable symptoms, excessive tiredness, intense itching, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, pain or discomfort in the upper right side of the abdomen, or a yellowing of the whites of the eyes or skin should prompt an immediate visit to the doctor.

Valerian may cause excessive sleepiness, daytime drowsiness, or CNS depression if combined with other drugs that cause drowsiness (such as the benzodiazepines lorazepam or diazepam), some antidepressants, narcotics (such as codeine), barbituates (such as phenobarbital), or with over-the-counter sleep and cold products containing diphenhydramine and doxylamine.

Valerian may also cause excessive sleepiness if taken with herbs thought to have a sedative effect, such as hops, catnip, and kava.

The herb is broken down in the liver. Theoretically, it could interfere with the effectiveness of medications that are broken down by the same liver enzymes, such as:

  • Allergy medications like fexofenadine
  • Cholesterol medication such as lovastatin
  • Antifungal drugs such as itraconazole and ketoconazole
  • Cancer medications such as irinotecan, etoposide, STI571, paclitaxel, vinblastine or vincristine

Valerian supplements haven't been tested for safety and keep in mind that the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established. It's always wise to research the safe use supplements, but if you're considering the use of valerian, make sure to talk with your primary care provider first. 

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