What is valerian root?
Valerian is a perennial flowering plant native to Europe and Asia. Also known as Valeriana officinalis, the rhizome root of this plant is often taken as an extract to promote sleep and relaxation. Valerian root has a number of sedative qualities, and is also taken orally to treat anxiety and psychological stress. Some of the active ingredients in valerian root function in a similar way to benzodiazepine drugs, which are often prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders.
Valerian has a long history as a herbal medicine, with records of its use stretching back to ancient Greece and Rome. The father of medicine himself, Hippocrates, described the therapeutic uses of valerian for the treatment of headaches, nervousness, trembling, and heart palpitations. During ancient Roman times, Galen prescribed it as a remedy for insomnia, with this plant also used over the centuries for convulsions, bruises, cough, and even the plague. Over the last few decades, valerian has become a popular ingredient in dietary supplements to reduce anxiety and promote sleep.
The importance of sleep and relaxation
Sleep is essential for every aspect of life. You need sleep to function physically, think clearly, and react appropriately to the world around you. Among other things, sleep helps to keep your immune system strong, your weight balanced, and your memory in tip-top shape. When you don't get enough sleep, either due to being too busy or a specific sleep disorder, every single aspect of your life is likely to suffer.
Sleep is defined by inhibited sensory and reduced muscle activity, with distinct sleep phases based on brain wave activity, eye movements, and physical sedation levels. In order to understand how valerian root helps to promote relaxation and sleep, it's important to understand the four stages of sleep and the difference between REM and non-REM sleep cycles.
The 4 stages of sleep
There are four distinct stages of sleep, with each stage defined by deeper levels of physical relaxation and changes in brain wave activity. The first three stages are known as non-REM (NREM) sleep, and the final stage is known as REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement. Valerian root helps with every stage of sleep, with its sedative qualities making it easier to relax and fall asleep in the first place, and its hypnotic qualities helping to maintain deep stage 3 and REM sleep.
- Stage 1 is the first and lightest stage of sleep, with this period distinguished by drowsy feelings, slow eye movements, and slowing brain wave activity.
- Stage 2 is defined by a slowing heart rate, lower body temperature, and sudden bursts of oscillatory brain activity mixed with K-complex EEG waveforms.
- Stage 3 involves deep sleep and very slow delta wave brain activity. It's rare for people to wake up during this stage, although sleepwalking and sleep talking may occur.
- Stage 4 or REM sleep is defined by vivid dreaming, fast eye movement, low muscle tone, and active brain waves. Getting enough REM sleep is essential for your general health and wellbeing.
Health benefits of valerian root
Valerian root has been used for centuries as a herbal remedy, with a number of modern studies helping to highlight its useful application. Along with its popular use as an anti-anxiety and sleeping aid, valerian root can also be taken for weight and hormonal related to sleep and anxiety.
Valerian root for healthy sleep
Valerian root has shown promise in the treatment of insomnia and the promotion of healthy sleep patterns. Insomnia is a prevalent issue in modern society, affecting roughly one-third of the adult population. In a systematic review
of randomised, placebo-controlled trials for valerian extract as a sleeping aid, the following conclusion was made: "The available evidence suggests that valerian might improve sleep quality without producing side effects."
According to another study,
which explored the impact of valerian root along with other herbal supplements, natural compounds can be beneficial in reducing insomnia. While it was hard to tell how responsible valerian was for the positive effects, "The group receiving the herbal compound showed a lower time of sleep onset compared to placebo group." This onset time corresponds to stage 1 and stage 2 sleep listed above, with the use of valerian root and other herbal supplements possibly reducing the need for sedative medications during this period.
Valerian root for anxiety
Valerian root has long been used in the treatment of anxiety, sometimes in combination with other herbal ingredients such as passionflower and St. John's wort. In one controlled trial
, valerian was taken with the drug propranolol in a valerian-propranolol combination and compared with a placebo. While the valerian root extract had no effect on physiologic arousal, it did significantly decrease the subjective feelings of somatic arousal often linked with anxiety.
In another randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, valerian was trialled with the benzodiazepine drug diazepam as an anti-anxiety formulation. According to the study
, participants experienced a reduction in the psychic factor of the Hamilton Anxiety Scale (HAMA) when they were given a combination of diazepam and valerian. Valerian root is considered safe by the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), and is generally believed to be gentler than benzodiazepines and other synthetic drugs often prescribed for anxiety.
Valerian root for weight loss, cravings, and bloating
The rise of sedentary lifestyles and bad dietary habits has contributed to obesity and other weight-related issues in modern society. While eating well and exercising regularly is the best way to manage your weight, some herbal medicines and nutritional supplements have shown promise in assisting with weight loss. When combined with a healthy diet and lifestyle, valerian root can help to manage weight-related issues that stem from sleep deprivation.
While weight loss might seem unrelated to valerian's common use as a sleeping aid and anti-anxiety supplement, according to research
, sleep deprivation is a common reason why so many people can’t lose weight. Lack of sleep slows down your metabolism and raises your level of cortisol, with this stress hormone responsible for food cravings and increased consumption of high-fat and high-sugar foods. Not only is cortisol tied to insulin resistance, a risk factor for both obesity and diabetes, but it's also associated with the release of serotonin, the feel-good hormone that helps you feel good and calm down.
Instead of relying on processed and fatty foods to help you feel good, valerian root can have a similar effect. Valerian root is thought to increase the levels of a chemical known as gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, which also contributes to a calming effect in the body. Valerian has also shown promise in helping with weight issues and bloating feelings related to premenstrual syndrome (PMS), with one study
saying, "Valerian root extract may reduce emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms of premenstrual syndrome."
Valerian root for hormone balance
Maintaining a healthy hormonal balance is important for general health and wellbeing. Some symptoms of hormonal imbalance can be debilitating, including bloating, fatigue, irritability, mood swings, and difficulty concentrating. Once again, the best thing you can do to get your hormones in balance is to maintain a healthy diet and get regular exercise. Certain dietary supplements can also prove beneficial, however, including vitamins, minerals, and herbs such as valerian root.
For women, hormones are often in short-term fluctuation during the premenstrual period, and long-term fluctuation during the menopausal period. Hormones often get out of balance during these times, with valerian root showing promise in hormonal regulation. In one study
that involved menopausal women, valerian root proved effective in treating menopausal hot flashes, making it a viable treatment alternative for women who are reluctant to receive hormone therapy.
Valerian root is a safe natural plant with a long history of use as a herbal medicine. Valerian extract is often used to reduce anxiety and promote sustainable sleeping patterns among healthy adults. This powerful herbal remedy can also be taken to help manage weight issues associated with poor sleeping patterns, and promote hormonal balance in the case of premenstrual stress or menopause.
Sleep is an essential and somewhat mysterious part of life. While scientists don't understand exactly why we need so much sleep, its restorative power is highly beneficial and known to keep us healthy and happy. Among other things, sleep helps to restore hormonal and immune systems, stabilise mood and cognitive functions, and rejuvenate the body and mind. When it comes to sleep, most people need seven or eight hours each night just to feel normal, with valerian root one of many herbal remedies that can lend a helping hand.
Stress and anxiety often lead to sleep deprivation, which is a very real problem in modern society. People who don't get enough sleep are likely to suffer physically and emotionally, which can lead to a vicious cycle of insomnia and exhaustion. Instead of getting caught up in this pattern, healthy lifestyle and diet changes can help to break the cycle. Valerian root is a safe natural compound often taken to promote relaxation and support healthy sleeping patterns. Along with its use as a sedative and anti-anxiety supplement, valerian root may also help with weight loss and hormone issues in certain conditions.