Many people are familiar with sleep aids as more than nine million people rely on them to get regular shuteye. However, side effects of prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids are frustrating at best, and can cause life-altering symptoms like all-day drowsiness, reduced sex drive, and more.
Natural sleep aids often provide the desired relief without the excess side effects or risks for dependence. Valerian root is an herbal supplement that has been used for thousands of years.
Not strictly a sleep aid, it has other health benefits that make it a go-to for any natural medicine cabinet. Let’s explore the benefits, cautions, and how to take it.
Valerian Root Basics
Officially known as Valeriana officinalis, valerian root is an herbal plant that is brewed into tea or encapsulated as a supplement. It has been used for thousands of years to address sleep problems, promote relaxation, and to tone down anxiety.
It is native to certain parts of Europe and Asia, but is now grown in many places around the world, including China and the United States.
Valerian as an herb has a strong, earthy taste that most would not consider pleasant, which is why it’s usually mixed with other herbs (like lavender) in a tea, or why it is encapsulated for taking as a supplement.
Research doesn’t thoroughly prove valerian’s efficacy as a sleep aid, showing no difference in the actual sleep quality of those who take it versus those who don’t, but participants in studies reported better sleep quality when taking it versus using a placebo.
6 Amazing and Little-Known Health Benefits of Valerian Root
While most commonly known as a sleep aid, valerian also has several other proven health benefits. Ranging from anxiety relief to addressing symptoms of menopause, there are numerous reasons why valerian might be beneficial.
Lowers Blood Pressure
Blood pressure can be a genetic problem or it can be influenced by poor sleep, stress, anxiety, and even dietary factors. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, so finding ways to lower this to healthy levels is essential for overall wellness.
Valerian root can help to reduce blood pressure levels thanks to the calming effect that it exerts on the body. Valerian helps to tone down the anxiety-building neurotransmitters in the brain which could lead to stress-induced blood pressure problems.
By doing this, it better helps the body regulate systemic blood pressure levels and provides a breather.
Addresses PMS and Period Problems
Period pain and other symptoms associated with a monthly cycle can be hard to manage for many women, and common methods don’t always work or simply mask the symptoms (like taking pain killers for cramps).
Valerian is a little-known remedy that can help to address numerous aspects of female reproductive health.
Because valerian helps to relax muscles and calm the body, it’s effective for toning down uterine cramping, too, thanks to its antispasmodic properties.
In order to reap these benefits, valerian needs to be taken regularly, not just in the moment that cramps develop. It can also promote more restful and pain-free sleep during PMS, which is often disrupted from the pain of cramping.
Studies show that valerian not only improves physical pain associated with periods as well as PMS, but it also helps to improve overall physical, emotional, and mental symptoms associated with PMS.(source)
Regularly taking valerian root can even reduce the need for taking pain relievers during menstrual cycles.
Promotes Relaxation, Calm, and Focus
While valerian is known as a sleep aid, it doesn’t necessarily lead to sedative effects. In fact, it has the ability to promote general relaxation and calm in the brain, which leads to more improved focus under pressure.
Studies show that valerian root can take the edge off of anxious feelings and stress during tense situations. (source)
When paired with lemon balm, another herb known for improving calm and focus, valerian helps to increase acuity during challenging mental tests or exams. (source) It has even been shown to improve focus in children with ADHD.
Relieves Menopause Symptoms
Not only is menopause a major adjustment in many ways, it comes with a host of unpleasant and life-altering symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, depression, and anxiety, to name a few.
Research shows that valerian root may actually help to decrease several of these symptoms, particularly when it comes to hot flash severity and frequency.
One study showed that the severity of hot flashes was reduced by 47 percent and the frequency at which they occurred decreased by 39 percent. (source)
Another study found that regular supplementation with valerian root resulted in 80 percent of participants having less severe hot flashes, and nearly 50 percent having fewer all together.
This happened after two months of regular supplementation. (source)
Improves Sleep Problems and Insomnia
Valerian is most known for being a sleep aid and for helping to address insomnia. While it isn’t strictly a sedative, it helps to relax the brain and promote sleep thanks to the presence of a chemical known as linarin.
Linarin increases GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that inhibits excitatory effects — basically it works against the neurotransmitters that spark anxiety, stress, and problems relaxing.
Valerian primarily works by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep, which is how it’s effective against insomnia. It can also help to moderately improve sleep quality.
While some might feel a little drowsy in the morning after taking valerian, overall it has a lower percentage of this side effect than standard prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids.
Some studies report improves sleep in as many as 89 percent of participants. (source) It can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep by as many as 17 minutes, although other research does not show it to be as effective as prescription sleep aids.
Still, given the reduction in side effects, it is overall tolerated better and seems to be preferred by many who require sleep aids. Valerian can also help to transition patients off of sleep aids on which they’ve become dependent. It can help to improve sleep and minimize withdrawal symptoms.
Sleep in and of itself isn’t the only important factor either, but the quality of sleep. Humans needs a balance between rapid eye movement sleep and deep sleep, and valerian can improve the quality of deep sleep and helps adults achieve it 36 percent faster.
Over the course of two weeks of supplementation with valerian, it can also improve the amount of deep sleep that individuals get each night.
Valerian should never be used in combination with other sleep aids and if any other medications are taken, relating to sleep quality or not, it’s important to check with your doctor to be sure you won’t be prone to interactions or additional side effects.
More research needs to be done to fully understand the sleep-boosting mechanisms of valerian root. Some doctors feel there is enough research to recommend it, while others do not.
Reduces Anxiety and Stress
Valerian isn’t primarily an anti-anxiety herb, but research shows some benefits for this when taken for other reasons, like insomnia or PMS.
It is particularly effective at reducing anxiety in those who have milder cases, or when it is paired with other anxiolytic herbs.
When it comes to stress, more research needs to be done, but preliminary studies show that valerian root taken for seven days before an extremely stressful mental situation (like a big test or exam, for example) can decrease the physical effects of stress like blood pressure, heart rate, and mental stress. (source)
Ultimately, valerian promotes decreased anxiety and stress because of its suppressing effect on excitatory neurotransmitters and its ability to boost GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
Most of the anxiety and stress reactions happen in the brain in response to neurotransmitter levels, and herbs like valerian root can exert a calming effect.
Because GABA levels can become elevated thanks to valerian, it not only reduces anxiety and stress, but improves feelings of calm, wellbeing, tranquility, and peace. (source)
Risks and Side Effects for Valerian Root (Plus Who Should Avoid)
While valerian root generally has few side effects, it isn’t safe for everyone.
Common side effects of taking valerian root can include headaches, stomach problems or nausea, and occasional dizziness. It might also lead to feeling drowsy in the mornings.
Occasionally people can have an opposite reaction to valerian, where instead of calm, it actually increases anxiety.
Valerian has not been tested as pregnancy safe and should not be taken when trying to conceive, during pregnancy, or while breastfeeding. While some studies shown valerian root as beneficial to children, never give children herbs or supplements unless approved by their pediatrician or doctor.
While valerian root is not known for withdrawal symptoms or dependency, some research has found that these can result when it is taken for a very long time consecutively, such as for years at a time.
Don’t take supplements this long unless directed by a doctor.
Valerian root can result in feelings of drowsiness and might affect response time, so it should not be taken before driving or operating any heavy machinery or equipment.
Valerian root interacts with alcohol and should not be taken at the same time. Valerian root also interacts with certain herbs, such as California poppy, catnip, hops, kava, tryptophan, melatonin, sage, and St. John’s wort.
Don’t take these herbs separately and if taking them in a combined supplement, make sure your doctor is aware of all the ingredients it contains.
Valerian root also interacts with certain prescription medications like anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants. Don’t take it with these and don’t stop taking medication to take valerian root instead, unless directed by your doctor to do so.
If you have liver or kidney problems, do not take valerian root as it can affect enzyme levels. If you have other diseases, disorders, or chronic issues, always ask your doctor whether valerian root is safe and helpful for your physical needs before starting the supplement.
While research shows that valerian root doesn’t alter DNA or change the way that chemotherapy works in cancer patients, don’t take this supplement if you have been diagnosed with cancer or are undergoing treatments unless directed by your oncologist.
If you’ve determined that valerian root is safe for you to take, you can purchase it from a health food store, practitioner, or online.
There are numerous companies and products. Choose a product from a reputable company who follows good manufacturing standards and that uses organic herbal extracts. The following are practitioner trusted brands:
Recommended dosages for products can vary wildly. An average dose of valerian root is 450 milligrams, typically taken one to two hours before bed.
If taking during the day time, doses should be split two or three times per day of between 150 and 300 milligrams each.
When supplementing valerian root during the day, take it with meals, but if taken at night, it does not need to be taken with food.
Valerian root is a natural sleep aid that also has benefits for anxiety, PMS, menopause, and mental focus. As with every supplement, there are upsides and downsides, and it’s not right for everyone.
If you start to supplement with valerian root, start small and work your way up to the recommended dose. Pay attention to side effects, like nausea or headaches, and discontinue if any present themselves.
Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.