Valerian

The valerian herb has been utilized since ancient times as a cure for a wide variety of health conditions, which earned it the moniker of "all-heal". Scientific studies have corroborated valerian benefits for mood and sleep disorders, also showing its potential for other medicinal uses.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)All-heal, baldrian, cat's valerian, common valerian, garden heliotrope, garden valerian, hardy heliotrope, St. George's herb, summer heliotrope, valerian, vandal-root, and wild valerian.
  • TCM nameXie cao
  • Ayurvedic nameTagara
  • Scientific nameValeriana officinalis
  • Geographic distributionEurope and Asia
  • Plant typeHerb
  • Native regionEurope
  • Main producer(s)United States of America
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal
Valerian

Valerian, also known as all-heal, baldrian, cat's valerian, common valerian, and vandal root, among many other names, is one of the most popular medicinal herbs worldwide. Its pungent smell and soothing abilities have turned this Eastern Europe native into one of the household names of Western herbalism. Extensive scientific research on valerian properties has helped identify the origin and full scope of its sedative action, as well as other potential applications.

Valerian Medicinal Properties

Quick Facts (Medicinal Properties)
  • Medicinal actionAnxiolytic, Sedative
  • Key constituentsValerenic acid
  • Ways to useCapsules, Hot infusions/tisanes, Liquid extracts, Tincture
  • Medicinal rating(3) Reasonably useful plant
  • Safety rankingUse with caution
Valerian Benefits and Properties

Health Benefits of Valerian

Valerian health benefits are mainly anxiolytic and sedative, and have been reaped in medicinal forms for centuries. Modern research has proventhe usefulness of valerian for:

  • Treating insomnia. Studies have shown that valerian root compounds work on the brain and nervous system, promoting relaxation and inducing sleep.

  • Lowering anxiety. Valerian's sedative properties help relieve the symptoms of anxiety.

Valerian properties have has also proven effective for treating hot flashes during menopause and the herb has been suggested as an alternative treatment for women who are reluctant to receive hormone therapy.

Additionally, although further studies are necessary to fully understand its mechanisms of action, valerian root has been suggested to possess anti-inflammatory properties.

How It Works

The chemical composition of the valerian plant has been intensely studied, although much debate still exists about the mechanisms behind valerian medicinal properties. The main bioactive compounds found in Valeriana officinalis are alkaloids, iridoids, flavanones, and sesquiterpenes.

Valerenic acid is a sesquiterpene responsible for the peculiar smell of valerian herb and, in combination with its derivatives (mainly hydroxyvalerenic acid), is believed to be primarily responsible for the well-known sedative effects of the valerian root. Valerenic acid is thought to interact directly with receptors in the central nervous system (CNS) that handle the production of γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation and the onset of deep sleep.

Additionally, the iridoids and alkaloids present in the valerian root seem to inhibit inflammatory processes.

The valerian plant contains phytoestrogens, which have proven effective in the treatment of hot flashes during menopause.

Mild sedative properties can also be found in herbs like chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, linden, and passion flower.

Valerian Side Effects

Valerian root is likely safe for most people in medicinal forms. However, the consumption of valerian root may cause mild side effects, including headache, excitability, uneasiness, and insomnia in rare cases.

Cautions

  • Individuals scheduled for surgery should avoid consuming valerian root, since it may increase the sedative effect of anesthetics.

  • Because of its sedative properties, driving or operating heavy machinery after taking valerian root is not recommended.

  • Valerian may negatively interact with anxiolytic and sedative drugs. If taking prescription medication for anxiety or depression, medical advice is necessary before consuming any medicinal form of valerian.

  • Due to its potent sedative effects, valerian root should not be taken with St. John's wort, kava kava, L-Tryptophan, or alcohol.

  • While it is possibly safe for medicinal use, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult a trusted medical professional before consuming valerian in medicinal amounts.

How to Consume Valerian

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • Edible partsRoot
  • TastePungent
How to Use Valerian

The valerian flower possess a sweet, pleasant fragrance; however, the harvested parts are the roots, which have a strong scent that makes them mostly unsuitable for culinary purposes. Instead, the most effective way of obtaining valerian health benefits is in medicinal forms of consumption.

Natural Forms

  • Dried. The dried valerian root can be used into medicinal preparations, alone or mixed with similar herbs.

  • Infusion. Brewing valerian into a warm herbal tisane is a fairly popular method of consumption for treating insomnia and anxiety.

The dried valerian root is a popular alternative for catnip, since felines enjoy its pungent scent.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

  • Tincture. This is a concentrated preparation that needs to be diluted in warm water before being consumed, in order to reduce anxiety and induce sleep.

  • Capsules. Because of its strong smell, valerian root capsules are one of the most palatable ways of consuming the herb in order to reduce anxiety.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySupermarkets, Specialized health stores, Online herb stores

Natural Forms

Full-sized valerian plants and their seeds can be found at some garden stores and nurseries in spring and summer months, though the valerian plant is less than popular for ornamental growth. The dried roots, in bulk or tea bag forms, are readily available at specialized health food stores and through online retailers.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

Herbal supplements featuring valerian are widely available in health food stores, supermarkets, and online. Valerian tinctures must usually be sought through online retailers.

VALERIAN ROOT TEA BAGS ARE THE MOST EASILY FOUND AND LESS PROCESSED VERSION OF THE HERB.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsRoots
  • Light requirementsFull sun, Partial shade
  • SoilMedium (loam)
  • Soil pH6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic), 6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral)
  • Growing habitatSwamps and marshlands
  • USDA Plant Hardiness Zones3a (From −40 °C (−40 °F) to −37.2 °C (−35 °F)), 3b (From −37.2 °C (−35 °F) to −34.4 °C (−30 °F)), 4a (From −34.4 °C (−30 °F) to −31.7 °C (−25 °F)), 4b (From −31.7 °C (−25 °F) to −28.9 °C (−20 °F)), 5a (From −28.9 °C (−20 °F) to −26.1 °C (−15 °F)), 5b (From −26.1 °C (−15 °F) to −23.3 °C (−10 °F)), 6a (From −23.3 °C (−10 °F) to −20.6 °C (−5 °F)), 6b (From −20.6 °C (−5 °F) to −17.8 °C (0 °F)), 7a (From −17.8 °C (0 °F) to −15 °C (5 °F)), 7b (From −15 °C (5 °F) to −12.2 °C (10 °F)), 8a (From −12.2 °C (10 °F) to −9.4 °C (15 °F)), 8b (From −9.4 °C (15 °F) to −6.7 °C (20 °F)), 9a (From −6.7 °C (20 °F) to −3.9 °C (25 °F)), 9b (From −3.9 °C (25 °F) to −1.1 °C (30 °F))
  • Propagation techniquesCuttings
  • Potential diseasesRoot rot

Valerian is an herbaceous perennial, a hardy plant that can be grown in a variety of conditions. Although it is commonly found growing naturally in swamps and marshlands, it prefers tempered climates and requires some basic care in order to thrive.

Growing Guidelines

  • The valerian plant does well in most types of soil. However, it thrives best in rich, heavy loam soils with plenty of water.

  • While valerian plants can be grown from seeds, its cultivation is best done through cuttings, planted fully-grown after the last frost of winter. 

  • Under right conditions, germination usually takes place within three months, before temperatures reach55 - 86°F (12 - 30°C), under plenty of natural sunlight.

  • If growing valerian from seeds, these should be planted one to two feet (30 to 60 cm) apart.

  • Placing manure on the soil before valerian is planted is the best way to ensure this herb will thrive.

  • It is important to weed around the valerian plant as it is growing.

  • Valerian is typically harvested in autumn, during September or October.

  • Valerian blossoms should be clipped if planning to harvest the roots for medicinal purposes, in order for the nutrients to be concentrated at a single point.

Additional Information

Plant Biology

The valerian plant (Valeriana officinalis) grows up to four feet (1.2 m) tall and features divided pinnate leaves. When naturally occurring or allowed in cultivation, the valerian flower have a surprisingly sweet scent and are often pale-white, ivory-white, or slightly pink in hue, although they can be peach colored with pink tips. The highest concentrations of active ingredients, however, can be found in the valerian roots, which are known by its distinctive smell.

  • Classification

    Valerian is the best-known member of the Valerianaceae family, which covers 350 species of herbaceous plants that are known for giving off a strong scent.

  • Varieties and Subspecies of Valerian

    Valeriana officinalis is divided into three subspecies: ssp. officinalis, ssp. sambucifolia, and ssp. tenuifolia. Other members of the genus may be commonly confused, but only V. officinalis, better known as baldrian, common valerian, garden valerian, or vandal root, is consumed for medicinal purposes on a large scale. Western valerian (V. occidentalis) is thought to have similar abilities, though there is insufficient research to support this claim. Alpine valerian (V. celtica) was previously used in western Asia to scent perfumes, but it is not meant for ingestion. Native to North America, Sitka valerian (V. sitchensis) is similarly inedible, despite its widespread growth as a ground cover plant.

Historical Information

Archeological findings has traced the history of valerian back to the Bronze Age. According to written records, valerian has been used medicinally since the time of ancient Greece and Rome.

Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician, described valerian medicinal properties and Galen later described it as a cure for insomnia. Despite falling out of favor in the 19th century, valerian consumption was revived during World War II, as it was used to calm soldiers in high-stress situations.

Valerian was used medicinally in many different cultures, including the Anglo-Saxons and the ancient Arabs.

Popular Beliefs

In medieval Sweden, the valerian plant was sometimes placed in wedding gowns to ward of the envy of elves.

Economic Data

Thanks to significant global interest in valerian supplements the herb now is cultivated at large-scale in its native regions and abroad. Recent data is not widely available, but United Nations statistics from 1998 valued valerian trading in the United States at 8 million USD , with exponential growth predicted in the coming years.

The United States leads the global production of valerian, followed by Germany, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria.

Other Uses of Valerian

  • Cat's relaxant. The valerian herb can be used as an alternative to catnip (Nepeta cataria) for cats.

  • Vermin trap. Some reports list attracting rats as one of the possible uses for valerian, as the roots make good bait for traps in areas of infestation.

  • Antifungal agent. Valerian root can also be used to control the growth of many types of slime molds, since it has the ability of absorbing invasive fungi to forestall their spread.

Bibliography


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