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Integrative Therapies for Anxiety - Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

Scott Olson, ND

The roots of the Valerian plant are used for medicine. The herb was held in such high esteem throughout the Middle Ages that it was given the name "all heal". Historical writings on Valerian suggest that it has been used for calming and soothing from at least the time of Hippocrates (460-377 BC). Gardeners know this herb as garden heliotrope.

The active constituents in Valerian appear to be valerenic acid and valerenal. These compounds have sedative (calming and relaxing) effects because they interact with the neurotransmitter GABA. As mentioned previously, GABA seems to produce an upbeat mood, positive self-image, sense of calm/contentment, and sound sleep. Valerian allows GABA to exert its effects on the nervous system for a longer period of time before being broken down. In addition, valerenic acid and valerenal have central myorelaxant effects (muscle relaxant), and anticonvulsant properties (reduces muscle spasms).

Valerian has demonstrated mixed results in research studies. Clinical trials have supported its use as a sedative and a sleep aid. However, the only well-designed study in humans failed to demonstrate that Valerian was more effective for treating anxiety than a placebo (a non-active substance) or the prescription anti-anxiety medication diazepam. Based on these research findings and historical uses of the herb, Valerian is recommended for people who get nervous or have trouble falling asleep because of thoughts running through their head.

Safety and Dosing

Valerian is considered safe when taken as directed. However, the herb has more side-effects (see box) than Chamomile or Passion Flower, because of its stronger sedating properties, the chief of which is morning drowsiness (also called a "hangover effect"). There is also a small sub-set of people who, when taking Valerian, experience the opposite effects. Instead of feeling relaxed and calm after taking the herb, they feel awake and agitated, as if they have used caffeine.

Side Effects of Valerian

 

  • Headache
  • Mild stomach upset
  • Morning drowsiness
  • Tachycardia (fast heart rate)
  • Withdrawal symptoms

 

Valerian can interfere with other anti-anxiety medications, and should not be taken with these types of prescriptions. For example, valerenic acid prolongs the effects of pentobarbitone (a common anti-anxiety prescription medication). It is also assumed that Valerian can prolong the effects of barbiturates (sleep aids or sedatives), benzodiazepines (another class of anti-anxiety medicines) and alcohol. You should never drive or operate heavy machinery when taking Valerian.

There is always a potential for an allergic reaction to any medication, if you experience any itching, swelling, difficulty breathing, increased heart rate or any other symptom that worries you, stop using Valerian immediately.