What is Valerian?
Other names: All-heal, Amantilla, Setwall, Setewale, Capon's Tail, Valeriana officinalis
Valerian is a plant native to Europe and Asia. It grows to up to four feet high and has trumpet-shaped flowers. The roots are used medicinally. Although the fresh root is relatively odorless, the dried root has a strong odor that many find unpleasant.
Valerian is believed to have been used since at least the time of ancient Greece and Rome. It was used as a folk remedy for a variety of conditions such as sleeping problems, digestive complaints, nervousness, trembling, tension headaches and heart palpitations. Valerian's popularity waned with the introduction of prescription sleep medication.
There is no consensus on what the active constituents of valerian are. It's possible that valerian's activity may result from a combination of compounds rather than any one. Valerian appears to increase the body's available supply of the neurotransmitter gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), possibly by increasing its production, decreasing its absorption or slowing its breakdown.
Valerian can be found in capsule, tea, tablet or liquid extract forms in most health food stores, some drugstores and online.
Why Do People Use Valerian?
The use of valerian is supported by some evidence from clinical studies. The problem with many of the studies, however, is they've generally been small, used different amounts of valerian for varying lengths of time, or had problems with the study design, making it impossible to form a conclusion about the effectiveness of valerian.
Valerian appears to be less effective than prescription sleep medication. One possible advantage of valerian, however, is that it may not have as much of a "hangover" effect on mental or physical functioning the following day. Also, people taking sleeping pills sometimes have a temporary worsening of insomnia when they are discontinued, an effect that hasn't been reported with valerian.
Valerian is also used for anxiety, although there's insufficient evidence that it's effective.
Side Effects and Safety Concerns
Pregnant or nursing women and children should not use valerian.
People taking medications for insomnia or anxiety, such as benzodiazepines, should not combine these medications with valerian.
Side effects of valerian may include headache, dizziness, itchiness, upset stomach, drowsiness during the daytime, dry mouth and vivid.dreams.
Rarely, liver damage has been associated with the use of valerian. It's not certain whether the cause of the liver damage was due to valerian itself or to contaminants in the product. Until we know more, people should use valerian only under the supervision of a qualified health care practitioner and those with liver disease should avoid it. Although liver damage doesn't always produce noticeable symptoms, if excessive tiredness, intense itching, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, pain or discomfort in the upper right side of the abdomen, or a yellowing of the whites of the eyes or skin occurs, see your doctor immediately.
Valerian may cause excessive sleepiness or daytime drowsiness if combined with other drugs that cause drowsiness, such as the benzodiazepines Ativan (lorazepam) or Valium (diazepam), some antidepressants, narcotics such as codeine, and barbituates such as phenobarbitol, or with over-the-counter sleep and cold products containing diphenhydramine and doxylamine.
It may also cause excessive sleepiness if taken with herbs thought to have a sedative effect, such as hops, catnip and kava.
Valerian is broken down in the liver. Theoretically, it could interfere with the effectiveness of medications that are broken down by the same liver enzymes, such as:
- allergy medications like Allegra (fexofenadine)
- cholesterol medication such as Mevacor (lovastatin)
- antifungal drugs such as Sporanox (itraconazole) and Nizoral (ketoconazole)
- cancer medications such as Camptosar (irinotecan), Etopophos, Vepesid (etoposide), Gleevec (STI571), Taxol (paclitaxel), Velbe (vinblastine) or Oncovin (vincristine)
Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J, eds.: Valerian root. In: Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Newton, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications, 2000: 394-400.