Insomnia is a complaint I hear about from many patients in today’s fast-paced world. At the end of a crazy day at work, or a busy day of parenting, it can be hard to settle in for restful sleep at the end of it all. Some patients say that they lay in bed for hours at a time; every glance at the clock serving as an anxiety-provoking reminder that morning draws nearer.
Sound familiar? You’ve already maximized your sleep hygiene (if not, read this post) and you want to avoid long-term reliance on pharmaceuticals. Or, perhaps you’ve already tried over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids without effect, or bothersome side effects. Where do you turn to next?
Luckily, mother nature has just the remedy for you. Here’s a practical guide to harnessing the herbal powers of Valerian root for the slumber you’re seeking.
The Medicinal Properties of Valerian Root and Its Use in Insomnia
“It controls distress… and produces quiet, permitting sleep and rest.” – Finley Ellingwood, M.D. (1919)
Valerian root has been used throughout the centuries for its sleep-inducing and anxiety-relieving properties. Now, it’s making a comeback — with good reason.
Valerian naturally increases GABA (a brain hormone) activity in the central nervous system, helping bring on sleep and reduce anxiety. Evidence from medical studies tells us that Valerian is best at reducing sleep latency (helping you fall asleep faster) and, in some cases, improving sleep quality.
There are no head-to-head comparisons with the newest pharmaceuticals for insomnia; however, studies comparing Valerian’s efficacy to benzodiazepines (examples from this class include Valium and Ativan) found it to be just as effective for sleep. Plus, Valerian is well-tolerated by most with little potential for side effects. Benzodiazepines, on the other hand, have multiple side effects such as drowsiness, impaired performance the following morning, a risk of addiction, and even dementia.
Although a single dose can be effective, many advocate that Valerian works best after several weeks of regular use. Some herbalists also advise taking a break for a few days every few weeks with long-term use of any herb, so this may be a strategy you also employ. See what works best for you.
Can Valerian Help With Anxiety, Too?
It is one of the best of calmatives for that collective condition termed “nervousness”. – Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D. (1922)
Upon reviewing the available evidence, medicine’s data-crunching machine, the Cochrane Collaboration, concluded that the limited data that existed from small studies conducted were insufficient to make a claim about Valerian’s effects on anxiety.
However, one interesting study that looked at healthy individuals put in a stressful situation did note a decrease in physiologic parameters such as blood pressure, heart rate and perceived levels of stress.
Bottom line: if you suffer from anxiety and you’re looking for something to combat insomnia, this herb may be a good fit. Otherwise, you can probably find an herbal remedy better tailored to your needs.
How do I translate this evidence to my own medicine cabinet?
If you’re like me and wanting to go back to your “roots” — you can consider growing, drying and grinding your own herbs to make teas and tinctures. But, feel free to skip any steps you’d like, depending your time, energy and interest. Dried Valerian root can be ordered from a reputable source, buying local where possible. I prefer Valerian as an infusion, steeping and drinking as a nice evening tea. Try my recipe below. Valerian definitely has a pungent aroma on its own, but I find this mixture tastes earthy and rather lovely once brewed.
Pre-made tinctures and capsules can be more palatable to some, and likely more feasible if you’re using it several times daily for anxiety. It can be tricky to convert between grams of dried herb to milligrams of extract to tinctures, so be sure to follow the directions on the bottle/box or consult a practitioner familiar with prescribing herbal remedies.
Valerian’s safety effects aren’t known in pregnancy or breastfeeding women, so best to avoid it in these circumstances. Use caution when combining with other sedatives or psychiatric medications. Studies show no potentiation effect with alcohol, but everyone is different, so listen to your body.
Side effects are rare, but can include headache, stomach upset and vivid dreams. Overall, it’s a well-tolerated herb.