Valerian is an herbal remedy derived from the dried roots of the valerian plant, Valeriana officinalis . The plant belongs to the Valerianaceae family. It has been used for over a thousand years as a mild sedative and hypnotic (a preparation that brings on sleep). Valerian is native to Europe and parts of Asia; it has since been introduced in the United States, placed under cultivation and now growing in the wild, as well. It is often cultivated for its pinkish white or lavender flowers as well as for its medicinal uses. The name "valerian" is thought to derive from the Latin verb valere , which means "to be well." It is also sometimes said to derive from Valeria, the province of the Roman Empire where the plant may have originated.
According to one marketing research firm, valerian is the fastest-growing herbal remedy in the United States; its sales more than doubled between 2000 and 2001.
Valerian is most commonly used to relieve mild cases of anxiety and insomnia . It was given during World War I to soldiers suffering from battle shock. It has also been recommended for the relief of menstrual cramps and as a carminative, or preparation that relieves gas in the stomach and intestines. Lotions made with valerian extract are said to soothe skin rashes and swollen joints.
The valerian plant prefers the damp lime-rich soil near streams or rivers, where it may grow as tall as 5 ft(1.5 m). It can, however, be grown in drier soil at higher elevations, where it may grow only 2 ft (.67 m) tall. Some herbalists consider the drier-climate variety of valerian to have greater medicinal potency.
The parts of the plant that are used for medicinal purposes are the roots and rhizomes (horizontal underground stems), which are typically yellowish-brown in color. The roots and rhizomes are harvested in the autumn of the plant's second year. They can be freeze-dried and used to prepare tablets or capsules containing the ground herb. Juice can be pressed from the fresh root, or the root may be mixed with alcohol to become a fluid extract or tincture of valerian. When valerian is used to relieve tension or induce sleep, it is frequently combined with either passionflower ( Passiflora incarnata ), lemon balm ( Melissa officinalis ) or skullcap ( Scutellaria laterifolia ). Because valerian tea has a somewhat bitter taste, flavorings are often added, including peppermint or fruit flavor, to make a more pleasant-tasting drink.
Although not all the compounds in valerian that have medicinal value have been identified, two compounds in its essential oil—valerenic acid and bornyl— appear to be the most important. Like most prescription tranquilizers, valerian appears to affect a neurotransmitter (GABA) in the central nervous system.
There is some disagreement among researchers about the efficacy of valerian as a tranquilizer and aid to sleep. While a team of Swiss researchers found a valerian/lemon balm combination to be significantly more effective than a placebo in inducing sleep, another group in the United States concluded that valerian is overrated as a sedative. Further research may help to settle the question, but multiple studies that are currently available are inconclusive. It appears to have mild sedative properties.
Experts in herbal preparations recommend that valerian products should be standardized to contain 0.8% valerenic or valeric acid.
Adults may use the following amounts of valerian to reduce nervousness or relieve menstrual cramps:
- 2–3 g dried root in tea, up to several times daily
- 1/4–1/2 tsp (1–3 mL) valerian tincture, up to several times daily
- 1/4 tsp (1–2 mL) fluid extract
- 150–300 mg valerian extract, standardized to contain0.8% valerenic acid
To relieve insomnia, one of the above dosages may be taken 30–45 min before bedtime. It may take one to two weeks of regular use before the herbal preparation takes effect.
When giving valerian to children, recommended adult dosages should be adjusted in proportion to the child's weight. Most dosages of herbal products are calculated for an adult weighing 150 lb (70 kg). A child weighing 75 lb (35 kg) should therefore receive 1/2 the adult dose.
Persons who take valerian should consult an experienced herbalist about dosage and about reliable sources of the herb. Because herbal preparations are not regulated by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration, consumers cannot be certain of the freshness and potency of commercial herbal products. In July 2001, an independent laboratory published the results of its tests of 17 valerian products; only nine contained the amount of valerian that their labels claimed. Of the remaining eight products, four contained only half the amount of valerian that they should have, and the other four contained none at all.
Although valerian has a good reputation for safety when used as directed, it should not be used in high doses or taken continuously for longer than two to three weeks.
Some people taking valerian may experience a paradoxical effect; that is, they may feel agitated or jittery instead of relaxed or sleepy. This side effect is not dangerous, but it should be reported to the patient's health care provider. If the dosage is too high, an individual could experience longer sleep than usual, and wake up not feeling well-rested.
Prolonged use of valerian results in tolerance, and increasing the dose may have serious side effects. According to some researchers, long-term use of valerian may cause psychological depression, damage to the liver, or damage to the central nervous system.
High short-term doses of valerian have been reported to cause headaches, muscle spasms, dizziness, digestive upsets, insomnia, and confusion.
Although valerian has been regarded as a relatively safe herb because few interactions with prescription medications have been reported, newer research indicates that it should be used cautiously following surgery. Like St. John's wort , valerian can interact with anesthetics and other medications given to patients after surgery. Because valerian has a mild sedative effect, it should not be taken together with alcoholic beverages, benzodiazepines, barbiturates , or antihistamines. Some components of valerian are metabolized in the liver. This herb has the potential to interact with liver metabolizaed prescription medicines.
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