It seems that every time you read a new article online you learn about some new herb or other with vaunted health benefits. If all the commotion is to be believed, then it would seem that there's a natural herbal remedy for pretty much every condition imaginable and for any number of different impressive-sounding health benefits. The problem is that not all of these herbs are made equal. While some are highly effective, others will only have very minor effects that aren't quite worth the asking price, and others still are in-fact nothing but 'snake oil'.
Let's take a look at where valerian root weighs in on this spectrum…
What Is Valerian Root?
Valerian root has been in use since the 2nd century, though its usage has changed over the years. At one point it was considered a treatment for stomach cramps (which is no longer thought to be effective). Today though, valerian root is most known for treating sleeping issues and for being used as a muscle relaxant. This means it can help you to get a more sound night's sleep, can help to combat stress, and can help to relax and ease the muscles if you are tense.
Studies seem to support claims that valerian root can improve sleep (1), though it is worth noting that studies so far have used relatively small sample sizes. Interestingly one study found that using a 600mg dose could decrease skeletal muscle tone, heart rate, blood pressure and more during slow-rate sleep.
How Does Valerian Root Work?
Studies have managed to identify a number of active compounds in valerian root, though no single compound has been suggested as the cause of the sleep-aid benefits. It is thought that the effects may be the result of multiple compounds acting together.
Among those potential constituents are valerenic acid and its derivatives which have been shown in animal studies to promote sleepiness (2). Nevertheless, other studies have shown that even without the valerenic acid content, valerian root extracts can still have a sedative effect demonstrating that this cannot be the sole explanation.
Valerian root also contains what are known as 'iridoids' including valepotriates. Studies suggest that these may also play a role in promoting sleep effects (3).
Some studies suggest that the various active compounds in valerian root are able to promote the production of GABA in the brain. GABA (or gamma aminobutryic acid), is a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep and is actually taken as a supplement form by some athletes in an attempt to increase sleep and trigger the production of more growth hormone. It appears that valerian root may increase the amount of GABA released from nerve endings, as well as preventing GABA from being re-absorbed by nerve cells thus increasing the amount of it available in the brain through two mechanisms (4).
Interestingly, valerian root also actually contains GABA in significant quantities, though it is unknown whether or not this GABA content is actually able to cross the blood-brain barrier and thus have any actual effect on our wakefulness (this also applies to GABA sold in other forms). The root also contains glutamine, which can be converted to GABA and may also possibly have a role.
Valerian root is not considered to have many side effects, though in some rare cases users may experience headaches, dizziness and possible gastrointestinal issues. It is also possible that valerian root could leave you feeling sleepy the next day when taking in large doses (5). In some rare instances it may also have interactions with other medications and thus it's always a good idea to check with your GP before beginning supplementing with it.
Does it Work? Should You Use It?
So valerian root… what's the verdict?
Well, while it's not possible to completely rule out the role of placebo and chance, the research does nevertheless suggest that valerian root has some beneficial effect on sleep and could be a useful aid if you struggle to get to sleep on your own. For those who don't like taking strong medications, this could be a good alternative to using melatonin and other sleep pills.
On the other hand, you shouldn't expect valerian root to change your life either. While it may have some beneficial effect, the effects found in studies have largely been small and more research still needs to be done. Consider this as a sleeping in the aid in the same way that a hot shower before bed is – it will have a positive influence, but it's not going to be as strong as actual medications and it's unlikely to cure chronic insomnia.
For athletes and others looking for a muscle relaxant that can potentially aid with recovery, it may also be useful. Again, there are other strategies you can use that will have more potent effects.
The root isn't too expensive, so the best course of action if you're interested is to give it a shot and make up your own mind. If it works for you and you feel it's worth the cost, then add it to your regime. Otherwise, there's no real harm done!