Valerian root — also known by its scientific name Valeriana officinalis — is an herbal remedy that has roots in ancient Greece.
The valerian plant features pink or white flowers. It is native to Europe and Asia, but now also grows in North America. There are many forms available of this medicinal herb — including tinctures, pills, and teas.
Hippocrates, the Greek doctor who inspired the name of the Hippocratic Oath, used valerian root to treat insomnia. Since then, people have used it for a variety of potential health benefits:
Herbal medicine practitioners have prescribed valerian root for insomnia and trouble sleeping for centuries. However, modern scientific studies have not proven the mild sedative effect of valerian root. Several studies suggest that the effect exists, but further research is needed.
The studies performed did show that valerian root may help people sleep better. The data did not meet scientific expectations for standard measures of sleep, or ranges of doses that explore valerian root’s effects fully.
Researchers do not yet know exactly how valerian root functions to help people sleep better. They believe it is a combination of different factors. One is that valerian increases the amount of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain.
Anxiety and Stress Management
People took valerian root in the U.K. during World War II to relieve stress caused by air raids. Before that, medical practitioners used it to treat anxiety symptoms in the 1500s. Early research shows that valerian root may indeed have an anxiolytic effect — another term for an anti-anxiety property — but more research is needed.
Preliminary studies show that valerenic acid may be the anxiety-reducing element of valerian root. In this early research, not only did this acid show anti-anxiety effects, but it also did not bind with benzodiazepine receptors in the brain. Research suggests that these receptors may be responsible for benzodiazepine addiction.
Benzodiazepines are a class of pharmaceutical drugs often prescribed for anxiety. Valerenic acid may provide some anxiety relief while being less addictive than benzodiazepines. Again, more research is needed to fully prove this point.
Reduction of Hot Flashes in Menopausal Women
One study showed that taking valerian root helped reduce both the severity and frequency of hot flashes in people going through menopause. Hot flashes cause sweating, rapid heartbeat, and sudden warmth that some find uncomfortable. Hormonal changes cause hot flashes.
Up to 80% of people experiencing menopause will have hot flashes, as will 90% to 100% of people who have had their ovaries removed. They may disturb your sleep if they happen at night and can cause other disruptions to your life.
Hormonal therapies are available to people who wish to reduce hot flashes. However, these therapies may not be suitable for people with an increased risk of developing heart disease, blood clots, stroke, or breast cancer. Those seeking alternative therapies may find taking valerian root helpful.
Reduction of Premenstrual Symptoms
Experiencing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is common in 90% of people who menstruate. Some people have PMS severe enough that it affects their ability to live a normal life around the time of their period.
Symptoms of PMS include:
- Back pain
- Swollen and tender breasts
- Excessive tiredness
- Mood swings
- Food cravings
One study showed that taking valerian root may reduce the severity of both the physical and emotional symptoms of PMS.
Valerian root is considered a dietary or herbal supplement in the U.S. and is regulated as a food product. It is not classified as a drug and the FDA does not approve the use of this supplement in medical treatments.
Nutrients per Serving
The nutritional content of valerian root depends on which form you choose — alcohol-based tincture, tea or infusion, or a supplement pill. For nutrition and dosage information about valerian root, read the packaging of whatever product you plan to use.
Things to Watch Out For
Taking valerian root may result in some minor side effects, including:
- Pruritus or an uncomfortable itchy feeling
- Upset stomach
- Feeling tired in the morning
More severe side effects that you will want to report to your doctor if you notice them include:
- Barbiturates like morphine or propofol
- Muscle relaxers
- Sleep medications
You should also use valerian root supplements with care when combined with other supplements with sedative properties like California poppy or melatonin.
The risks for both pregnant women and children younger than 3 who take valerian root have not been studied, so those groups of people should avoid it.
How to Use Valerian Root
Valerian root is available as a supplement in many forms:
Follow all the directions on the package for whichever valerian product you buy. Valerian root is available over the counter in health food stores, herbal shops, and supplement stores, but always talk to your doctor before you take valerian root supplements.