How effective is valerian for sleep?
Valerian is a herbal medicine with a history of use for relieving anxiety, over-stimulation, and muscle tension. These actions make valerian really effective for improving sleep. Studies show patients taking valerian had an 80% greater chance of reporting better sleep compared to placebo.
How does valerian improve sleep?
Valerian calms the nervous system and influences GABA receptors. This means it works centrally at the level of the brain to promote physical and emotional relaxation. (1) The more relaxed your nervous system and body are, the more able you are to fall asleep. So, valerian improves the time it takes to get to sleep; but that's not all it does.
Valerian's relaxant qualities also promote good quality, natural sleep. (2) A natural night's sleep means you cycle through all 5 stages of the sleep cycle. These stages are really important for mind-body rest and recuperation. Without good quality sleep, our emotions, thinking capacity and physical body are negatively affected.
Pharmaceutical sleep aids don't always allow you to cycle through all sleep stages, whereas valerian has been shown to lengthen deep sleep while leaving the other sleep stages unaffected. (3)(4)
What makes valerian relaxing?
Medicinal herbs contain such a wide variety of chemical constituents that it's difficult to pinpoint which one does what. In fact, plant constituents work as teams: if one is isolated from the other, the positive effects are often lost.
It is likely that valerian's relaxing qualities are partly explained by the valepotriates and sesquiterpene compounds contained in the plant. (5)
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How to use valerian as a sleep remedy
Valerian root can be taken as a tea, in a tablet or as oral drops. I prefer to choose preparations made with fresh valerian root extract rather than dried. Sesquiterpene compounds found in the essential oil in valerian's root give it a distinctive smell. To get the full effect from these compounds, it's best to use a remedy made from the fresh plant, as they are lost in the drying process.
If you are using valerian as a sleep aid, you want valerian to get to work as quickly as possible. For this reason, I recommend taking oral drops in a little water or juice 30 minutes before bed. This way, valerian's compounds get straight into your blood stream through the tiny blood vessels in your mouth. Tablets take more time to break down in the body so are more appropriate for use as an ongoing stress support.
If you wake up during the night take another dose of valerian in liquid to help you fall back to sleep. I like to have my valerian drops right beside my bed for sleepless nights.
Herbs are often synergistic – they work well together as a team. Taking valerian combined with other herbs is a great way to maximise valerian's effects with regard to sleep. Look out for products containing valerian combined with hops or passionflower.
Who shouldn’t take valerian?
A small amount of people find valerian unhelpful for relaxation. Often people with a fiery constitution or Pitta-types in Ayurvedic medicine. These people benefit from combining valerian with herbs like hops, hawthorn or passionflower. These herbs work as a team to calm and balance the system. Another option is to pick a different calming herb, such as passionflower, or a combination that doesn't contain valerian.
If you are already on medications that induce sleep or relaxation, you should consult your doctor before considering valerian.
Side effects of valerian
Unlike pharmaceutical sleep remedies, valerian won't leave you feeling groggy the following morning and won't create dependency or addiction. This herb has a long history of safe use when taken in over the counter dosage, and research supports this. (6) Some people experience minor, short-lived side effects when using valerian. For example: feeling sick and stomach discomfort.
Cats love valerian. Not because it helps them sleep, the opposite in fact! A compound called actinidine in valerian makes cats ecstatically happy and they writhe around in a state of bliss. So if your cat is sniffing around your bottle of valerian, you know why!