In herbal medicine, valerian has long been used to treat sleep problems (such as insomnia). An herb native to Europe and Asia, valerian is typically taken in capsule or tincture form (sometimes in formulas that also contain herbs like hops and lemon balm). Although scientists have yet to confirm that valerian can effectively treat insomnia, some studies show that valerian may promote sounder sleep.
The Science Behind Valerian and Sleep
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) classifies valerian as "possibly effective" for inability to sleep. Indeed, a 2006 report from the American Journal of Medicine concluded that "valerian might improve sleep quality without producing side effects." The report's authors analyzed 16 clinical trials with a total of 1,093 patients, noting that valerian doses and length of treatment varied considerably from study to study.
In a more recent review (published in the journal Sleep Medicine in 2010), researchers looked at 18 clinical trials on the effectiveness of valerian in treatment of insomnia. They found that valerian may help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, but note that more research is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn about valerian's effectiveness as an insomnia treatment.
How Might Valerian Help You Sleep Better?
Researchers have yet to confirm how or why valerian might help improve sleep. However, findings from lab tests and animal research indicate that valerian may act as a sedative, possibly by boosting brain levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid.
Should You Take Valerian for Better Sleep?
Although valerian is generally considered safe when taken for short periods of time (such as four to six weeks), it may cause certain side effects (including headaches, upset stomach, and next-day grogginess). To date, little is known about the safety of long-term use of valerian. What's more, valerian may produce harmful effects when taken in combination with alcohol and/or sedative medications (including Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin).
According to the NIH, it may be necessary to use valerian continuously (for several days or even weeks) before experiencing any noticeable improvement in sleep. If you're considering the use of valerian for treatment of a sleep disorder (or any chronic health problem), consult your physician before starting your supplement regimen.
Bent S, Padula A, Moore D, Patterson M, Mehling W. "Valerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis." Am J Med. 2006 Dec;119(12):1005-12.
Fernández-San-Martín MI, Masa-Font R, Palacios-Soler L, Sancho-Gómez P, Calbó-Caldentey C, Flores-Mateo G. Effectiveness of Valerian on insomnia: a meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials." Sleep Med. 2010 Jun;11(6):505-11.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Valerian [NCCAM Herbs at a Glance]". NCCAM Publication No. D272. Created May 2006. Updated July 2010.
National Institutes of Health. "Valerian: MedlinePlus Supplements". December 2010.
Office of Dietary Supplements. "Valerian". January 2008.