Herb of the Month – Valeriana Officinalis

🌸 Need a good night’s sleep? This month’s herb of the month is Valerian, or Valeriana officinalis.

🌸 Valerian is a herbaceous perennial plant, originating in Europe and Asia and naturalized in North America. The part of the herb used medicinally is the dried root, which has a distinctive odour often likened to smelly socks… Not very appealing to humans, but well loved by cats!

🌸 The herb has a long and fascinating history of traditional use, having been used as a medicine since at least ancient Greek and Roman times. During the middle ages in Europe, valerian was seen as a strengthening remedy, useful for the treatment of a very broad range of symptoms and conditions, including headaches, heart palpitations, digestive issues, menstrual difficulties, and epilepsy. Culpepper later (writing in 1653) described valerian as having “special virtue” against the plague.

🌸 By the 19th and 20th centuries, valerian had become widely valued as a nervous tonic. It was once referred to as “the Valium of the 19th century”, and was used to treat victims of shellshock during WW1. Mrs Grieve, writing in her famous Modern Herbal, refers to its use by the civilian population during the war years: “when air-raids were a serious strain on the overwrought nerves of civilian men and women, Valerian…proved wonderfully efficacious.”

🌸 Valerian contains hundreds of phytochemical constituents, including valepotriates (iridoids), monoterpenes from essential oil, and cyclopentane sesquiterpenoids, including valerenic acid. Some studies indicate that valerenic acid may influence the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), however, there is no scientific consensus on valerian’s mechanisms of action. Various of the herb’s constituents have been demonstrated to exert sedative effects in animals, and valerian extracts with low valerenic acid content have still been found to exert a sedative effect. It’s therefore most likely that multiple of the herb’s constituents are acting synergistically.

🌸 Today, valerian continues to be used primarily as a sedative for the nervous system, for sleep issues and insomnia, stress, nervous tension and anxiety, and as an antispasmodic, to relieve muscular tension. Interestingly, despite its popularity as a remedy for poor sleep, evidence from clinical studies of valerian for the treatment of insomnia in humans has been inconclusive. However, this has primarily been due to poor study design (small sample sizes, high withdrawal rates, etc.). and the variable quality of the herbal extracts being studied.

🌸 For a small proportion of people, valerian can exert the opposite effect from that intended and can be quite stimulating. Perhaps this suggests that the ancient use of valerian as a strengthening remedy (rather than as a sedative) should be revisited by modern herbalists (the herb’s name is derived from the Latin valere, meaning to make strong, after all)!