Valerian root has long been used to support relaxation and sleep, but don’t think of it as just a nighttime herb! Many people use it during the day to support emotional well-being, ease discomfort, manage stress and more.
It makes perfect sense when you consider its name is derived from the Latin valere, which means “to be well” or “to be strong.” In fact, during World War II, England’s Vegetable Drug Committee listed valerian root as one of the most essential plants for collection because it was so helpful for relieving stress from the air raids. (1) (2)
What is valerian root?
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is flowering herb that has been used therapeutically since ancient times, when it was recommended by Pliny for pain and other complaints. (3)
Although the sweet smelling flowers have sometimes been used for perfume making, it’s the roots and rhizome (underground stalk) that are used therapeutically. They’re not used for perfume, though, because they smell a bit like sweaty socks. As you can imagine, that’s not really a plus in anyone’s book, so the popularity of valerian despite this downside speaks to how potent it is.
8 Valerian Root Benefits
Valerian root contains several powerful bioactive compounds that have relaxing, sleep promoting, anti-inflammatory, heart health and other benefits.
The list of known beneficial compounds has been growing over the past few years so there may still be some that are still undiscovered, but here are the most significant ones we know of so far:
- Valerenic acid
- Lignan 4
1. Valerian Root For Sleep
Research suggests that valerian may help with falling asleep, improving overall sleep quality, and increasing the amount of healing slow-wave sleep (deep sleep) that we get. (4)(5)
Valerenic acid – which is a component of valerian root – increases GABA, which is one of the main sedative neurotransmitters. It is associated with improved mood, a sense of calm and tranquility, improved sleep, help with PMS, and calm focus. (6) (7) (8) (9) According to WebMD, low levels of GABA may be linked to anxiety or mood disorders, epilepsy and chronic pain. (9) Other possible symptoms of low GABA are difficulty unwinding, becoming easily frustrated, feeling overwhelmed, and bowel issues. (10) The conversion of serotonin to melatonin, which is often called “The Sleep Hormone,” is dependent on GABA. (11)
Other supplements that may be helpful for supporting GABA are:
- Magnesium is also helpful for activating GABA receptors, which increases our ability to utilize this relaxing neurotransmitter.
- Although not a supplement, fermented foods are also helpful for increasing GABA because they produce it in the gut as a byproduct of amino acid metabolization
Also, coffee lovers check this out: Coffee works by binding with adenosine receptors in the brain, which control the body’s sleeping and waking rhythms. Adenosine is considered a “tiredness molecule” that lets us know when we need to rest, and coffee blocks it from being absorbed. A specific lignan – called Lignan 4 – in valerian also binds with the same receptors, but has the opposite effect of coffee. (12)
Valerian also contains the antioxidant linarin, which appears to have calming and sleep-enhancing properties. (13)
2. Valerian Root And Stress Management
Remember how I told you that England prioritized the cultivation of valerian during WWII? That’s because it’s been shown to help with both psychological and physical stress in two ways:
Increasing GABA – A stressful lifestyle, poor sleep, and other challenging experiences can cause us to burn through our GABA stores quickly. Ideally we’d get a break to replenish levels of this calming neurotransmitter before we encounter the next life challenge, but that doesn’t always happen. By increasing GABA signaling via the mechanisms discussed above, valerian helps the body optimize GABA levels during stressful times.
Maintaining Serotonin & Norepinephrine – One study found that valerian reduced stress in mice by helping maintain serotonin and norepinephrine in two specific brain regions that are associated with fear and anxiety – the hippocampus and amygdala. The presence of these two neurotransmitters inhibits excessive activity in the hippocampus/amygdala. (14) Another study done by many of the same researchers found that mice who were given valerian had reduced corticosterone levels, which is the mouse version of cortisol (often known as the “Stress Hormone). (15)
Here are some other ways to increase stress resilience:
- Incorporate adaptogens, which are herbs that help the body adapt to stress
- Focus on getting good quality sleep
- Gentle exercise such as walking or yoga
3. Valerian Root For Focus, Memory & Learning
In one study done with elementary children, a combination of valerian and lemon balm improved focus, while another study done with mice showed improvements in memory and learning. (16)(15)
4. Easing Discomfort
Pliny the Elder, who lived from 23 AD – 79 AD, recommended valerian for pain management, which makes sense if you consider that it supports GABA, which increases pain tolerance. (3) (17)
5. Valerian Root And Menstrual Cramps
Researchers have found that valerian relax the uterus, thus easing discomfort during menstruation. (18)
6. Anti-Inflammatory Properties of Valerian Root
As mentioned above, valerian root increases GABA. In addition to the benefits listed above – improved mood, reduced anxiety, improved sleep, help with PMS, and focus support – GABA also has anti-inflammatory properties. Specifically, it reduces the activity of NF-kappaB, which is pro-inflammatory. (19)
Is it safe to take valerian?
“Herbs that can be safely consumed when used appropriately.
- History of safe traditional use
- No case reports of significant adverse events
with high probability of causality
- No significant adverse events in clinical trials
- No identified concerns for use during pregnancy
- No innately toxic constituents
- Toxicity associated with excessive use is not a
basis for exclusion from this class
- Minor or self-limiting side effects are not bases
for exclusion from this class”
That said, “caution is advised during use of barbiturates, bensodiazepines, and other sedative drugs,” because valerian may increase their effects.
In addition, for a small percentage of the population, valerian root has a stimulating effect rather than a calming one. Herbalists generally do not recommend valerian root in those cases.
Should I use a tincture, tea or capsules?
There isn’t a “right” answer to this question. Alcohol-based extractions (tinctures) draw out a different a different phytonutrient profile than water-based extractions (teas), so it may take some experimentation to see what works best for you.
Especially when it comes to roots and berries, many of the beneficial compounds are better extracted by alcohol (or glycerin) than water. That’s probably why most of the valerian root preparations in the studies above are alcohol-based extracts, which are commonly known as tinctures.
There is one component of valerian root – glutamine – that is better extracted by water than alcohol. Glutamine is a building block used to make GABA. (There are several ways that valerian increases GABA signaling, this is just one of them.)
Teas can be made more quickly, but as mentioned above certain beneficial compounds are not easily extracted with water. You can increase the extraction rate by decocting them (making a long-simmered tea), but the finished product may not have as much of certain compounds as a tincture would. However, it will have higher levels of glutamine, which is a building block of GABA.
Some valerian root capsules contain an extract of one or two “active constituents” rather than the whole root. Since valerian root has several known active constituents (and probably more that we have not yet discovered), I prefer to tinctures and teas that extract a wider range of constituents from the plant.
Some capsules do incorporate the whole root, but when herbs are taken as a capsule the body needs considerably more time to break down and assimilate the nutrients. If digestion is weak, sometimes not all the therapeutic properties will be absorbed.
So what’s the best extraction approach with valerian root? As I mentioned above there are benefits to both tincture and tea forms, so I’ve included recipes for both.
How much valerian should I take? (Valerian root dosage)
According to renowned herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, valerian root “is a nonaddictive, non-habit-forming sedative, and it will not make you sleepy or groggy unless really large amounts are consumed. So don’t be afraid to take adequate amounts of valerian.
Begin with a low dosage and increase it until you feel its relaxing effects. You’ll know you’ve taken too much if you have a ‘rubberlike’ feeling in the muscles – as if they were too relaxed – or a feeling of heaviness. If that’s the case, cut back the [amount] so that you feel relaxed but alert.” (21)
When taken as a tincture, she recommends starting with 1/4 teaspoon, taking an additional dose after 30 minutes if needed.
One thing to keep in mind is that – at least in the book Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes For Vibrant Health – Rosemary uses the folk method for making tinctures. The folk method involves placing the herb in a clean jar and pouring in enough alcohol to completely cover the herb, whereas more precise methods involve weighing the herbs and measuring out the liquid by volume.
My reason for mentioning this is that the exact strength of a tincture made via the folk method can vary, so Rosemary’s suggestion is often considered a guideline rather than a strict rule. Kathi Kemper, M.D., recommends 1/2-1 teaspoon, taken up to three times daily. (22)
How long should I take valerian root? According to The Herbal Academy, ” Valerian should only be used for two to three weeks, followed by a break of the same duration. Continual use can cause depression and headaches in some people.” (1) However, according to the Mayo Clinic, “Valerian seems to be most effective after you take it regularly for two or more weeks.”
Is valerian root safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding?
According to the Botanical Safety Handbook: 2nd Edition, “Animal studies and human case reports have indicated no adverse effects of relatively high doses (2.8g/kg) of valerian in pregnancy (Cziezel et al. 1997; Tufix et al. 1994, Yao et al. 2003, 2007)
No information on the safety of valerian during lactation was identified in the scientific or traditional literature. While this review did not identify any concerns for use while nursing, safety has not been conclusively established.” (page 911)
What about children?
That said, one of the studies on focus mentioned above specifically looked at the benefits of valerian for school-age children, and valerian is generally considered safe for kids over 1 when used in age-appropriate amounts.
I like Herbs for Kids Super Calm, which incorporates valerian root with milder herbs and is specifically intended for children. They include dosage information based on age/weight on the bottle.
How To Make a Valerian Root Tincture
- 1 part dried valerian root (Valeriana officinalis – here’s where to find it) (I used 1/2 cup)
- 2 parts vodka (Preferably 100 proof, but 80 proof is okay. I used 1 cup)
- Fill your jar about halfway with valerian root. Pour vodka all the way to the top, then cover with a cap and shake well. If desired, write the start date on the jar using a sticky note, label, or piece of tape – it makes keeping track of how long it’s been steeping easier.
- Place the jar in a dark area that is relatively warm. (I keep mine in a kitchen cabinet.) Let the mixture steep for 3-5 more weeks. Shake occasionally.
- When it’s ready, strain the mixture through a cheesecloth, making sure to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Pour the liquid in a clean container and store in a cool, dark area.
Valerian Tea Recipe
Before you brew, one thing to know is that while very helpful for relaxation, valerian root is considered to have an unpleasant smell. I don’t mind it, but depending on your preferences this may not be your cup of tea.
- 2 teaspoons valerian root (Valeriana officinalis – here’s where to find it)
- 2 cups water
Bring water to a light simmer (not a boil) and add valerian root. Cover and simmer on low for 20-40 minutes, then allow to cool until it can be comfortably sipped. Strain and serve.
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This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Sources for this article:
1. The Herbal Academy (2014) Sheltering With Valerian. Retrieved from TheHerbalAcademy.com
2. Tibrewal, Nidhi et. al. Functional Identification of Valerena-1,10-diene Synthase, a Terpene Synthase Catalyzing a Unique Chemical Cascade in the Biosynthesis of Biologically Active Sesquiterpenes in Valeriana officinalis. Retrieved from Academia.edu
3. Sivasubramanian, Rama. Effect of Valerian Root Extracts (Valeriana Officinalis) On Acetaminophen Glucoronidation: In Vitro And In Vivo Studies. Retrieved from D-Scholarship.Pitt.edu
4. Leathwood, PD et. al. (1982) Aqueous extract of valerian root (Valeriana officinalis L.) improves sleep quality in man. Retrieved from this PubMed article
5. Donath, F et. al. (2000) Critical evaluation of the effect of valerian extract on sleep structure and sleep quality. Retrieved from this PubMed article.
7. Swanson, CJ et. al. (2005) Metabotropic glutamate receptors as novel targets for anxiety and stress disorders. Retrieved from this PubMed article.
8. Cavadas, C. et. al. (1995) In vitro study on the interaction of Valeriana officinalis L. extracts and their amino acids on GABAA receptor in rat brain. Retrieved from this PubMed article.
9. WebMD. GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid). Retrieved from this WebMD article.
10. Jockers, David. Is Your Brain Making Enough GABA? Retrieved from DrJockers.com.
11. Balemans, MG et. al. (1983) The influence of GABA on the synthesis of N-acetylserotonin, melatonin, O-acetyl-5-hydroxytryptophol and O-acetyl-5-methoxytryptophol in the pineal gland of the male Wistar rat. Retrieved from this PubMed article.
12. University of Bonn (2004) Relaxing with Lignan. Retrieved from Uni-Bonn.de.
13. Fernández, Sebastián et. al. (2004) Sedative and sleep-enhancing properties of linarin, a flavonoid-isolated from Valeriana officinalis. Retrieved from ScienceDirect.com.
14. Jung, HY et. al. (2015) Valerenic Acid Protects Against Physical and Psychological Stress by Reducing the Turnover of Serotonin and Norepinephrine in Mouse Hippocampus-Amygdala Region.. Retrieved from this PubMed article.
15. Nam, SM et. al. (2013) Valeriana officinalis extract and its main component, valerenic acid, ameliorate D-galactose-induced reductions in memory, cell proliferation, and neuroblast differentiation by reducing corticosterone levels and lipid peroxidation. Retrieved from this PubMed article.
16. Gromball, J. (2014) Hyperactivity, concentration difficulties and impulsiveness improve during seven weeks’ treatment with valerian root and lemon balm extracts in primary school children. Retrieved from this PubMed article.
17. Enna, SJ et. al. (2006) The role of GABA in the mediation and perception of pain. Retrieved from this PubMed article.
18. Occhiuto, F et. al. (2009) Relaxing effects of Valeriana officinalis extracts on isolated human non-pregnant uterine muscle. Retrieved from this PubMed article.
19. Jacobo-Herrera, NJ et. al. (2006) NF-kappaB modulators from Valeriana officinalis. Retrieved from this PubMed study.
20. Bauer, Brent. Valerian: A safe and effective herbal sleep aid? Retrieved from MayoClinic.org.
21. Gladstar, Rosemary. (2008) Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes For Vibrant Health
22. Kemper, Kathi. Valerian (Valeriana Officinalis) Retrieved from http://www.longwoodherbal.org/valerian/valerian.pdf
23. Examine. Valeriana Officinalis. Retrieved from Examine.com.