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Valerian is an ancient remedy used in modern times for overexcitement and sleeplessness

Valerian

Valeriana officinalis Caprifoliaceae

Valerian's name is derived from the Latin valere which means ‘to be strong, powerful, healthy’, and valerian was traditionally most valued as a tonic, especially in convalescence.

  • How does it feel?

    Valerian root samples have different organoleptic qualities depending on whether it is fresh or dried and the species used.  Taking a tea or extract made with Valeriana officinalis one notices first the strong earthy almost animal odour (sometimes likened to sweaty shoes!) which is often found to excite cats. This carries over to the first taste, soon supplanted by a distinctive low bitterness, an astringent woody quality, a little spicy heat and finally a slightly camphor-like aftertaste.

    The complexity of these tastes reflect the action and reputation of the whole remedy.

  • What can I use it for?

    Valerian is primarily used to encourage a healthy sleeping pattern. It can be tried in any condition dominated by tension and anxiety. It can relax tense muscles and may be used for tension headaches, intestinal cramps and palpitations associated with tension in the chest and diaphragm.

    It is a common treatment for pain associated with menstruation. It is also said that the anxiety and sleeping difficulties due to premenstrual symptoms can be helped.

    For some people however the tonic reputation of valerian can translate into a stimulating effect. If you feel anything like this stop the valerian and start it again to be sure.

  • Into the heart of Valerian

    Valerian presents a fascinating paradox. It is both one of the most established remedies in modern medicine, including as a prescription medicine in Europe, yet its mechanism of action is still unknown.

    Today it is generally viewed primarily as a mild sedative, but in antiquity, it had a much more rounded application, including a reputation as a general tonic.

  • Traditional uses

    Valerian root has been used as a sedative in Europe since the 16th Century and was a prescription medicine as such in the 19th and early 20th centuries across much of the world. In the Middle Ages it was valued in the treatment of epilepsy, which may be considered the origin of its further use as an antispasmodic. In the 20th century, valerian became known as a ‘nervine’, implying that it could calm, while also acting as a tonic to nourish and improve the function of the nervous system. Recommended uses included sleeplessness, nervous unrest, stress, and occasionally neuralgia and epilepsy.

    Paradoxically, in early Graeco-Roman times the view was that valerian had “warming” or metabolic stimulating features, used as a diuretic, digestive remedy, menstrual stimulant and expectorant, and it was also used directly to cleanse and heal wounds and infections. Other species of valerian have been used similarly in native North American medicine and in Asia. Early European tradition combined valerian’s reputation as a stimulant and tonic with its use in depression and despondency and low unresolved fever conditions.

  • What practitioners say

    Although valerian is one of the obvious remedies that one considers in dealing with anxiety symptoms, sleep difficulties and visceral spasm. There may be advantages in seeing it as it was traditionally, as a restorative healing remedy, particularly suited to debility and fatigue, perhaps as an important part of a convalescent regime.

    There have been occasions in which patients have reported stimulation of various forms after taking treatments that included valerian and relief after the valerian was discontinued. The practitioner may find assured-quality skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), hops (Humulus lupulus), motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), and passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) useful substitutes or companions.

    Nerves: Indicated for insomnia, panic attacks and lack of concentration. It can also be considered in the treatment of mild depression.

    Cardiovascular: Its relaxing qualities may help palpitations, tightness in the chest and high blood pressure.

    Digestion: As a warming carminative it is useful for erratic digestion, bloating and constipation. It soothes all spasms in the intestines and prevents the impact of stress on the gut, helping to reduce irritable bowel syndrome as well.

  • Research

    The evidence for the benefits of valerian in sleep is positive though not conclusive. One extensive literature search in 2006 identified 16 eligible studies involving a total of 1093 patients. Most studies had significant design problems, and the doses, preparations, and length of treatment varied considerably. Although the evidence suggested that valerian might improve sleep quality without producing side effects the authors called for future studies with more standardised doses and outcome measures. There are similar conclusions in later reviews of the evidence. There is clinical trial evidence of benefits in other sleep-related disorders such as restless leg syndrome.

    At moderate doses valerian is not a sedative. No impairment of motor skills was seen in healthy subjects taking a single 1600mg dose. There is evidence among healthy subjects suffering anxiety that valerian root extract can affect EEG brain activity, and brain cortical excitation.

    In kidney dialysis patients cognitive functions tend to be disturbed. In a double-blind cross-over study cognitive performance among 39 patients on haemodialysis, the accompanying often disturbed cognitive functions significantly improved while they were on valerian compared with placebo, although in this study there were no changes in EEG traces.

    The mechanism of action of valerian has not been fully elucidated. Some laboratory studies suggest that valerenic acid may affect gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. However more than 150 constituents have been identified, and none appear to be solely responsible for valerian’s effects, suggesting many of them may act synergistically.

    There is a good clinical trial indicating benefit over two months for hot flushes (‘flashes’) post menopause.

  • Did you know?

    Valerian contains a volatile component of the essential oil found in catnip. This is why cats love the smell of valerian. This plant also attracts rats and one story describes the Pied Piper using both his pipes and valerian to draw rats away from Hamelin.

Additional information

  • Safety

    Valerian is well tolerated with few reported side effects. Some people find that it is slightly stimulating rather than relaxing.

  • Dosage

    3g a day of dried root or equivalent preparation.

  • Constituents

    • Iridoids valepotriates – including valtrate, isovaltrate, didrovaltrate, and acevaltrate
    • Essential oil monoterpenes borneol, bornyl acetate
    • Sesquiterpenes beta-bisabolene, valerenal
    • Cyclopentane sesquiterpenes valerenic acid and derivatives
    • Amino acids, including appreciable quantities of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
    • Lignans
Valerian illustration
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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