Botanical Name: Valeriana officinalis, Valerianaeae
Common names: Valerian, All Heal, Great Wild Valerian, Amantilla, Phu, Jatamansi
Similar species: V. edulis, V. wallachii, V. stichensis
Plant description: There are over 200 species in the Valeriana genus, many of which appear similar or are used in similar ways to the officinal species. Valerian is a large herbaceous perennial, with a tuberous brownish rhizome and numerous slender yellowish rootlets, both of which are white below the outer cortex. All parts of the rooting structure have the characteristic fetid odour of Valerian when dry, but not as strong when wet. Each Valerian plant sends up a single furrowed stem that is hollow and more or less hairy, attaining a height of 30-120 cm, but in some cultivated specimens can reach a height of more than two meters. The leaves arise from the stems in an opposite fashion, denser towards the base, with leaflets of seven to ten pairs, elliptical-lanceolate, the margins serrate to entire. The white to pinkish, sweet-scented flowers are borne in terminal clusters, the corolla tubular and five-lobed, with three stamens protruding from the tube. The fruit is a light brown ribbed achene, topped with a feathery tuft of hairs.
Habitat, ecology and distribution: The many species of Valeriana are spread throughout the temperate regions in North America, Europe and Asia, found commonly in moist clearings, meadows, and streambanks, some species (e.g. V. officinalis, V. dioica) preferring lower elevations, but others extending into the open forests of the subalpine (e.g. V. stichensis). The dark green colour of Valerian, erect stem, and a crowning mass of white or pink flowers make this plant rather conspicuous.
Part used: fresh or recently dried root and rhizome
History: Grieve mentions that the specific epithet of another species found in Asia Minor, Valeriana phu, was so named by Dioscorides and Galen in obvious reference to Valerian’s peculiar aromatic properties. In medieval Europe Valerian gained a reputation as a panacea, and received the name ‘All Heal.’ The genus name is said to be derived from the Roman physician Valerius, or from the Latin word ‘valere,’ meaning ‘to be in health.’ In India the herb Jatamamsi (Nardostachys jatamansi) is also in the Valerianaceae, and is used in a very similar manner to the European Valerian, considered to be a medhya rasayana, or rejuvenative to the mind and senses. Jatamansi however is not considered to be as nearly pungent as the European species and is used in perfumery. Valerian root is said to be a favourite of cats, along with Catnip (Nepeta cataria). It also said to be just as attractive to rats and was used in the past by rat-catchers to bait their traps (Grieve 1971, 825).
Constituents: Valerian is a relatively well-studied herb, and several groups of identified constituents seem explain some of the effects of the whole herb. These include the valepotriates, a group of iridoid glycosides comprising upwards of 0.5-2% in V. officinalis, including the valtrates, isovaltrates, didrovaltrates, and valerosidate. The valtrates and isovaltrates are stated to comprise upwards of 90% of the valepotriates. V. wallachii and V. edulis contain upwards of 6% and 8% valepotriates, respectively. Important volatile constituents in V. officinalis include the monterpene borneol, the sesquiterpene valerenal, and carboxylic compounds such as the esters of valerianic and isovaleric acid. The European Pharmacopoeia states that V. officinalis should contain no less than 5 mL/kg of the essential oil. Non-volatile cyclopentane sesquiterpenes include valerenic acid and its derivatives. Valerian also contains pyridine alkaloids such as actinidine, chatinine, skyanthine, valerianine and valerine, as well as lignans, amino acids, caffeic and chlorogenic acids, beta-sitosterol, methyl 2-pyrrolketone, choline, tannins, gum and a resin. The characteristic odor of Valerian is stated to be due to valerianic and isovalerianic acid in the volatile oil (Mills and Bone 2000, 582; Newall et al 1996, 260; Bradley 1992, 214).
Medical Research: Most of the research on Valerian has focused upon its sedative activity and for whatever constituents are responsible for this action. Early medical research on Valerian tended to be focused upon the activity of the volatile oil, but this was soon thought to be only a minor constituent, and by the 1960’s the iridoid valepotriates began to receive more attention. The valepotriates and their degradative products, the baldrinals, turned out to be an interesting group of compounds, with a definite but mild sedative activity, tending to improve co-ordination when compared to drugs like chlorpromazine, and reducing anxiety and aggression in mice (Mills and Bone 2000, 583). The valepotriates are thought to exhibit their activity upon the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, interacting with allosteric sites that control chloride anion influx (Mills and Bone 2000, 583). Since the discovery of the valepotriates the sesquiterpenoid valerenic acid has received more attention, and has been shown to depress central nervous function in mice, inhibiting the enzyme system that is responsible for the catabolism of GABA (Newall et al 1996, 260). Other unidentified constituents besides the valepotriates and valerenic acid however have also shown to exhibit an affinity for GABA receptors, with the administration of the aqueous and hydroalcoholic extracts (Mills and Bone 2000, 583). Valerian is also known to contain small amounts of GABA, displacing muscimol from synaptic membranes (Mills and Bone 2000, 583). A lipophilic extract of Valerian has been shown to have an affinity for the barbituate and peripheral benzodiazepine receptors (Mills and Bone 2000, 583). All in all, the effects of Valerian’s various constituents and their interaction with the human body and each other have demonstrated that the mechanisms of action are complex, and that different species of Valerian, or even Valerian picked at different times of the year, may have different activities upon nervous function (Mills and Bone 2002, 582-584; Newall et al 1996, 260-261; Bradley et al 1991, 214-215). Human clinical trials have demonstrated a mild sedative activity for Valerian, promoting a beneficial effect in a variety of sleep-disorder parameters, including sleep latency, wake-time after sleep, frequency of waking, night-time motor activity, feelings of restless and tension, and quality of sleep (Newall et al 1996, 260-261). Unlike barbiturates, Valerian has been shown to be free of a marked hang-over effect upon arising (Mills and Bone 200, 586). While many studies that have evaluated the effects of Valerian with polysomnographic and EEG recording have shown that the effects of Valerian cannot be objectively determined, in every case the subjective reports of the patients were found significantly improved, which should be the baseline criteria for the efficacy of any agent that helps to improve subjective parameters. The following is an overview of some of the most recent studies on Valerian.
Sedation: The effectiveness of Mexican Valerian (Valeriana edulis) extract in the treatment of 20 patients complaining of insomnia and anxiety was evaluated in double-blind, cross-over, controlled study. In a sleep laboratory, polysomnographic (PSG) recordings were performed for analyzing the quantity and architecture of sleep as well as evaluating morning sleepiness, memory quotient, and side effects. Based on the PSG results, V. edulis reduced the number of awaking episodes, increased the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and increasing the sleep efficiency index. The extract produced beneficial effects on sleep architecture, diminishing the time of stage 1 and 2 in non-REM sleep while increasing delta sleep (Herrera-Arellano et al 2001). In a controlled clinical study of 75 patients complaining of insomnia, the effect of the benzodiazepine oxazepam was compared against an extract of Valerian. The results showed that there was no statistical difference between their sedative activities, but the Valerian was considered by the researchers to be a safer therapy with fewer side-effects (Dorn 2000).
Benzodiazepine withdrawal: In a placebo-controlled clinical study of 19 patients with chronic insomnia despite chronic benzodiazepine use, Valerian was found to be an effective agent to wean patients of the drugs, displaying a mild anxiolytic effect and improved subjective sleep parameters (Poyares et al 2002).
Toxicity: There was some concern over the in vitro but it has since been determined that they are No acute in vivo toxicity for valtrate, disrovaltrate or acevaltrate have been observed, although in vitro testing has demonstrated a concern for the cytotoxicity of the valepotriates. It has since been determined that the valepotriates are decomposed into a class of constituents called the baldrinals by the acid in the stomach, and are comparatively non-toxic (Mills and Bone 2000, 587; Newall et al 1996, 261; Bradley et al 1991, 214-215).
Herbal action: sedative, nervine relaxant, antispasmodic, hypotensive, anodyne, carminative
Indications: insomnia, restless, irritability, anxiety, headache, intestinal colic, rheumatism, dysmenorrhea
Contraindications and cautions: Valerian affects a few individuals very differently, promoting marked excitation and agitation. Traditionally Valerian is stated to be a heating herb and should probably be avoided in sthenic individuals, or used in combination with more cooling nervines such as Skullcap and Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). Valerian should also be used with caution with any drug that acts upon the central nervous system or are otherwise GABA agonists, including benzodiazepines, barbiturates, anti-epileptics and antidepressants.
Medicinal uses: Cook states that Valerian acts upon the nervous system, “…first the peripheries,” where is acts as antispasmodic in cases of irritability and restlessness, followed by an effect upon the central nervous system, “…inducing quietude and sleep” (1869). Although some equate Valerian with a narcotic it generally does not promote anything other than a natural sleep, “…usually accompanied by a gentle and warm perspiration,” without any adverse effect upon awakening (Cook 1869). Although the pulse under the influence of Valerian becomes fuller and softer, it has not enough stimulating activity to make it suited to anything other than “…moderately depressed conditions” (Cook 1869). Felter and Lloyd state that Valerian is specific to states of nervous depression, with “…enfeebled cerebral circulation and mental despondency (1893). Its virtues are also mentioned in King’s in the treatment of chorea, or involuntary movements, often accompanied by restlessness and irritability (Felter and Lloyd 1893). Felter and Lloyd state that Valerian “…excites the cerebro-spinal system,” and in large doses can promote “…headache, mental excitement, visual illusions, giddiness, restlessness, agitation, and even spasmodic movements, and frequently nausea” (1893). In the treatment of spasm Valerian acts as a mildly relaxing agent, to pacify chronic states of muscular irritability and prevent convulsion, rather than treat seizures once they have occurred (Felter and Lloyd 1893). Valerian is also indicated in migraine headaches, where the pain is relieved by warmth on the back of the neck, indicating a cerebral anemia rather than a sthenic, irritable condition. Thus Valerian may also be helpful for the headaches and back pain associated with premenstrual syndrome, taken with herbs such as Collinsonia, improving cerebral circulation while relieving visceral vasodilation. In the treatment of menopausal symptoms Priest and Priest recommend Valerian with Pulsatilla (Anenome pulsatilla) (1982, 83). As a treatment for epilepsy and seizure Valerian may prove to be an effective agent in petit mal, but taken alone is probably insufficient for more severe conditions. Cook particularly recommended Valerian in infantile convulsion (1869). In the treatment of benzodiazepine addiction Valerian can be an effect remedy to wean patients off of the drug, but in the treatment of other addictions, such as in heroin or even tobacco it is probably insufficient, although Cook mentions its virtues in delirium tremens (1869). In the treatment of digestive disorders Priest and Priest recommend Valerian with Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) and Ginger (Zingiber officinalis) in the treatment of flatulent colic, abdominal cramping and pain, and diarrhea (1982, 83). After ingesting Valerian the taste and odour can stay on the breath and in the eructations for several hours after ingestion. Some people find the odor of Valerian to be particularly disagreeable.
Pharmacy and dosage:
• Fresh Plant Tincture: fresh root and rhizome, 1:2, 95% alcohol, 3-60 gtt • Dry Plant Tincture: recently dried root/rhizome, 1:4, 40% alcohol, 3-60 gtt, 2.5-15 mL • Hot Infusion: recently dried root and rhizome, 1:20, 100-200 mL • Powder: recently dried root and rhizome, pulverized, 500 mg-5 g
VALERIAN ROOT (Valeriana officinalis)
Latin: Valeriana officinalis
WHAT IT DOES: Valerian root is bitter, slightly sweet and pungent in taste. It is warming in action with a strong odor. It calms the nerves and muscles and helps induce restful sleep.
RATING: yellow, due to limitation is use.
SAFETY ISSUES: Use cautiously when driving. May potentiate the effects of benzodiazepine drugs.
STARTING DOSAGE: • 1:5 tincture: 15-30 drops two to three times per day, and up to 60-120 drops one hour before bedtime. • Concentrated 4:1 powder: 250-750 mg one to three times per day
Valerian root is an excellent non-narcotic nervine for treating certain forms of anxiety and tension. It is best known as a gentle, safe sleep aid, and is most often used to treat insomnia, stress and anxiety. It has an additional antispasmodic action that makes it useful for easing muscle tension and menstrual cramping. Valerian root is easily identified by its strong, unpleasant odor. Every herbalist knows that there are patients for whom it works really well, and others for whom it does not work at all.
Valerian occasionally has an excitatory effect, making insomnia worse. There are three possible reasons for this. First, as valerian root ages, the odor worsens due to the degradation of chemicals called valepotriates. As this degradation occurs it becomes less effective at inducing sleep. Therefore, I only use tinctures made from fresh plants (as opposed to dried). Second, the Eclectic doctors classified valerian as a warming cerebral stimulant, more effective “when brain circulation is feeble” (Felter, 1922). If your system is irritated and hot, the warming and stimulating qualities of valerian may exacerbate the problem. Finally, pharmacological studies show that valerian has a dual action depending on dosage. It's still worth trying, as you will know after three or four nights of use whether or not it has value for you. If it does work, it induces a calm, restful sleep, and you awaken the next morning with no sense of a “drug hangover.”
• Valerian root interacts with GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and benzodiazepine sites. At low concentrations valerian extracts enhance activity at specific sites, but at higher concentrations they inhibit the same sites (Ortiz et al., 1999).
• Based on reports from animal experiments demonstrating the ability of valerian root to cause vasodilation and relieve smooth muscle spasms (Hazelhoff et al., 1982), researchers performed a controlled clinical trial on 82 chronic heart disease patients with angina pectoris. The total effective rate in reducing symptoms was greater than 87%. Valerian was significantly superior to salvia root in short-term symptom reduction (Yang and Wang, 1994).
• In a randomized controlled clinical trial on 128 subjects, an aqueous extract of valerian root caused a significant improvement in sleep quality, most notably for people who were poor or irregular sleepers, smokers, and those who reported difficulty in falling asleep quickly (Leathwood et al., 1982). A follow-up study showed that valerian root is as effective at improving the ability to fall asleep quickly as barbituates and benzodiazepine (Leathwood and Chauffard, 1985).
• In a controlled clinical trial, valerian root did not cause the side effects of morning-after sleepiness seen commonly with pharmacological sleep agents (Lindahl O, Lindwall, 1989).
• In a controlled double-blind clinical trial, valerian root in combination with St. John's wort was reported to be more effective than valium (diazepam) (Newall et al., 1996).