Can Valerian Root Help You Sleep?

An open jar of dried valerian root sits on a wooden table.

One of the most frustrating feelings is wanting to go to sleep and not being able to. This is a much more common problem than you might think and is why so many people use some form of sleep aid or medication. The problem is that many of these sleep aids can cause dependency or unwanted side effects. This is why many people who suffer from insomnia or sleep problems and use common drugs are constantly looking for natural alternatives to deal with their conditions.

In this sense, valerian root could present a viable and more manageable option than traditional sleep medications. If you want to understand what valerian root is and how it could help you sleep better, read on to find all the answers you need.

What Is Valerian Root?

Valerian or “Valeriana officinalis” is an herb native to Europe and some parts of Asia that carries intensely scented, white or pink flowers and can grow up to 6 feet tall. The therapeutic use of Valerian, specifically valerian root as a remedy, dates back to ancient Greek times. Its long history of use as a painkiller is thanks to this plant’s soothing properties. This plant seems to act as a sedative in the nervous system.

How Does Valerian Root Work?

The scientific community is still unsure what the valerian root’s mechanism of action is to exert the effects it generates. But, some researchers believe that valerian root might increase amounts of a chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, in the brain, which helps regulate nerve cells, giving it an anti-anxiety and calming effect. Still, more research needs to be conducted to definitively determine how this plant affects us.

Effects on the Body

Valerian root is one of the oldest remedies for better sleep. Humans have been using valerian root for thousands of years because many believe it may help regulate poor sleep patterns, promote relaxation, relieve anxiety, and help to better deal with premenstrual and menopause symptoms. There is also a belief that valerian root could help treat insomnia and stomach cramps. Valerian root is usually taken in tea as an infusion, as a powder supplement, in capsules, or as a liquid extract.

Effects on the Brain

A 2019 study conducted by the Hallym University of Medicine in Korea found that valerian root extract supplementation may promote greater coherence in the brain’s frontal region associated with neurophysiological integration, information processing, and cognitive flexibility.

In this study, after four weeks of supplementation, there was no sign of significant differences in clinical physiological tests between the groups that took the extract and the groups that took a placebo. However, the electroencephalographic score did show significant differences between both groups.

The results showed that, although there were no significant differences for the clinical scales, the electroencephalography data that analyzed the coherence values ​​in the alpha (8-12 Hz) and theta (4-8 Hz) bands showed increases in the Alpha coherence and decreases in theta coherence for the valerian root extract group compared to the placebo group. This is important because activity in alpha and theta frequencies may directly relate to reduced anxiety and emotional arousal.

However, it is still too early to make any conclusions about these observations. We still need more neurophysiological studies using different methods to confirm valerian’s benefits fully.

Benefits of Valerian Root

Although science cannot yet concretely claim the benefits of valerian root or how this plant works, even Hippocrates himself used it to treat insomnia and other conditions. Different cultures worldwide have been therapeutically using this plant to help treat various ailments for centuries. The possible benefits that valerian root could provide – based only on anecdotal and historical use – are:

Improved Sleep

Both lovers of herbal medicine and practitioners of various traditional medicine systems have been using valerian root to treat insomnia for centuries. Modern studies suggest that this root may have some sedative effects, but that more studies are needed to confirm this. Nevertheless, the same research studying the mechanism of action of valerian root in the brain found that it may modify certain brain waves and increase the amounts of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain, which may facilitate better sleep.

Decreased Anxiety

Preliminary studies suggest that a compound in valerian root called valerenic acid may be the anxiety-reducing element in this plant. While more scientific studies are still needed to confirm these beliefs, this hasn’t stopped people from using valerian root as an anti-anxiety agent.

Medical practitioners have been using valerian root to treat anxiety symptoms since the 1500s, while in the Second World War, people in the UK took valerian to relieve stress caused by air raids.

Early research on valerian root as an anxiolytic suggests that, in addition to displaying anti-anxiety qualities, valerenic acid does not bind to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain, which may be responsible for addiction. Benzodiazepines are the most commonly prescribed medications for anxiety. The valerenic acid contained in valerian root could present a healthier and less addictive alternative to benzodiazepines to treat anxiety. But, we need more research to validate this belief.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Although valerian usually finds its use as a complementary treatment for insomnia, migraines, or anxiety due to its analgesic and sedative effects, a double-blind placebo-controlled scientific trial on valerian root extract and other plants and supplements suggests that this plant could be more effective in the treatment of OCD compared to placebo. Another advantage of the valerian root extract in this type of treatment could be the rapid onset of its effects.

Premenstrual symptoms

For some people, the symptoms of PMS can make it difficult to live their everyday lives around the time of their period. These symptoms are common in more than 90% of people who menstruate, and among these symptoms, we find:

  • Irritability
  • Swelling
  • Severe headaches
  • Cramps
  • Tender and sore breasts
  • Back pain
  • Sudden mood swings
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Excessive tiredness
  • Food cravings

A study published in 2016 suggests valerian root extract may reduce the severity of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms of PMS.

Tension headaches

There is a belief in ancient Persian medicine that valerian may play a significant role in relieving headaches by improving brain function. Although people generally use valerian to deal with insomnia, anxiety, and depression, some studies on the analgesic effects of this plant find that it may be effective in treating migraines and dysmenorrhea. Data from these studies suggest valerian capsules may reduce migraine attacks’ frequency, intensity, and duration.

Hot flashes

Hot flashes are a common symptom of menopause and hormonal changes; Its symptoms may include increased heart rate, sweating, and hot flashes. Over 80% of people who experience menopause may experience hot flashes, and 90% to 100% of people who have had their ovaries removed may also experience this condition. One study suggests that taking valerian root might reduce the severity and frequency of hot flashes in people going through menopause. Although there is hormone therapy to treat hot flashes, these types of treatments may not be ideal for everyone as they can increase the risk of developing blood clots, stroke, heart disease, and even breast cancer. Valerian root could represent a viable alternative therapy for people who suffer from hot flashes and cannot follow traditional treatments for some reason.

Hyperactivity and concentration issues

Although many people use several herbs to treat concentration problems and ADHD, user reports claim valerian could help better cope with this condition. Valerian might help calm hyperactivity due to its anti-anxiety and relaxing qualities, but there is no evidence that it can improve concentration in any way. Valerian may also help improve sleep patterns in people with hyperactivity and reduce the “rebound effect” that some children experience when stimulant medications for ADHD wear off.

Cognitive dysfunction

A study published in 2018 showed that valerian could increase cognitive values in some people. This means that it could be a natural alternative to improving cognitive status. Another hypothesis from a 2015 study indicates that valerian could be an effective supplement to prevent some postoperative cognitive dysfunctions after coronary artery bypass graft surgery in some people.

Pain

Pain reduction is one of the reasons people have been taking valerian for so long. A 2018 study shows valerian root extract’s effectiveness in reducing pain in its acute and chronic phases, especially when taking this extract simultaneously with turnip extract. There are also user reports that valerian root extract may soothe joint and muscle aches as well as other types of pain. Science still does not fully understand the mechanism through which valerian root acts as an analgesic.

As always, consult with a doctor before attempting to treat any illnesses on your own or with alternatives to a prescribed medication.

Valerian Root Side Effects

Too much of a good thing can be bad, and as with many herbal medicines, this can also happen with valerian root. That is why taking only the necessary doses of valerian root when needed is essential and consulting with a medical professional is a must. In cases of excess use, some of the side effects that you could experience are:

Headache

Although the general belief about valerian root is that it is safe, taking too much of it could actually cause a headache instead of relieving it. We still don’t precisely know what factor triggers the headache or exactly how much it happens. But, we know that amounts greater than 700 or 800 mg could pose a risk of this side effect.

Upset stomach

As with headaches, excessive consumption of valerian or valerian root extract could cause stomach discomfort. This discomfort can present itself in several ways, such as nausea, stomach pain, or cramps, and may be due to the naturally acidic content that valerian carries.

Feelings of uneasiness

Paradoxically, although people commonly use valerian extract for its calming effects, too much valerian or use for too long can lead to a feeling of perennial restlessness that can give some a hard time.

Heart rate changes

Although reports suggest that people used valerian to treat heart palpitations in the 16th century, some people report heart palpitations as a side effect of using or discontinuing the use of this root.

Insomnia

The feeling of perennial restlessness that some people experience as a side effect of valerian use can sometimes escalate into insomnia. Especially when there are pre-existing anxieties and people use excessive doses of valerian.

Drowsiness 

Excessive use of valerian could lead to drowsiness and mental buzz, making it difficult to carry out your daily tasks. This may be due to the body’s inability to process or metabolize the natural sedative compounds present in valerian and its extracts.

Dry mouth

As one of the natural compounds of valerian is an acid called valerenic acid, the excessive use of valerian extract could cause what many know as cottonmouth. Therefore, when using valerian, in addition to staying within the ideal dosages, it is good to stay hydrated.

Vivid dreams

The sedative properties of valerian root are why many people use this plant to treat insomnia. However, using valerian root can cause vivid dreams or even nightmares in some people. There is also evidence suggesting that valerian could intervene in the natural composition of the stages of sleep since it seems to have a relationship between the reduction of REM sleep during the first stage of rest accompanied by an increase in this same REM sleep during the last sleep stages. Some people believe that valerian can help induce lucid dreams or conscious sleep. Still, there is no scientific evidence to support this belief and you should be careful when using it.

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