| What is it?
Valerian in herbal medicine is the root of a long lived plant that grows up to 1.5 meters tall in moist ground all over Europe right up to the Arctic Circle. Valerian only produces a short root but this in turn sends out plenty of ‘runners’. The roots and runners of Valerian are nearly odourless when fresh but after drying they develop the characteristic smell that tells you exactly what you are dealing with.
LEAF AND ROOTS
How has it been used?
Valerian's old name ‘All-heal’ gives you an indication of just how much regard this herb was held in from ancient times. The name 'Valerian' itself comes from the same origin of the Latin word for ‘valour’ as it was believed to markedly increase a person's strength and courage.
In English folklore the herb was believed to have aphrodisiac qualities and a young woman who carried a sprig of Valerian was said never to lack ardent lovers! It was also believed to possess the ability to increase psychic perception.
In the Middle Ages Valerian was widely used to treat epilepsy. The German abbess/herbalist St Hildegard of Bingen wrote warmly on Valerian for sleep in the 12th century and in the 16th century John Gerard wrote that 'no broth or medicine be worth anything if it did not contain Valerian' and recommended it for such problems as 'chest congestion, convulsions, bruises and falls'.
The influential early American herbalist Samuel Thompson called Valerian 'the best nervine tranquilizer known' and in modern times David Hoffman writes it is 'one of the most useful relaxing herbs'.
Valerian has been described as the perfect herbal tranquilizer and was used for this purpose in the First World War to treat soldiers suffering from shell-shock; likewise it was prized by Londoners during the Blitz in World War two. The
main use of Valerian in in recent times has focused on improving sleep but it is also widely used for nervousness, anxiety, cramps and headaches.
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Science on Valerian
Valerian has had a high amount of scientific research so we have some idea of exactly how it might be able to help. Substances in Valerian called valepotriates have been shown in experimental models to improve co-ordination, relax muscle tissue and decrease anxiety. Valerian has also been the subject of a number of high quality clinical studies. Some highlights of these are summarised below:
~ A randomized double-blind clinical trial showed the Valerian tablets (equivalent to 3gms dried herb) was as effective at treating insomnia as the powerful Valium type sedative Oxazepam (10mgs) but there were no morning after adverse effects with the Valerian as opposed to the Oxazepam (Dorn M: Forsch Komplementarmed Klass Naturheilkd 7(2):79-84,2000)
~ A single strong dose of Valerian was given to 20 test subjects with insomnia who were wired up to equipment to measure their brain-waves etc. (this test was also conducted in the randomized, double-blind and placebo-controlled method to get the cleanest results). It was shown that the Valerian decreased waking episodes, increased REM sleep, decreased the time it took to get to sleep, and decreased morning after sleepiness (Gerhard U, Linnenbrink N, Georghiadou C et al.Schweiz Rundsch Med Prax 1996;85(15):473-481)
~ A double-blind study showed that 2 weeks of treatment with Valerian and St Johns wort was more effective than 2 mgs Diazepam in patients with moderate anxiety and had much fewer side effects (Panijel M. Therapiewoche 1985;35(41):4659-4668)
~ A similar study, also randomized, controlled and double-blinded compared Valerian and St Johns wort against the antidepressant drug amityptyline and showed an 82% improvement rate in the herbal group after 6 weeks compared to 77% in the amityptyline group but without any of the side effects of dry mouth, drowsiness etc. from taking the drugs (Hiller KO, Rahlfs V. Forschende Komplementarmedizin 1995;2:123-132)
~ a combination of Valerian and Hops reduced noise-induced sleep disturbance in a randomized, double-blind study which showed the herbs were as effective as a benzodiazepine drug in patients with temporary sleep-onset and sleep interruption disorders (Schmitz M, Jackel M: Wien Med Wochenschr 148(13):291-298,1998)
~ The relaxing effects of Valerian were confirmed in a number of uncontrolled studies in Germany in the late 1960s and it was later shown in a randomized, placebo-controlled, double blind study that repeated doses of Valerian root did not have a negative effect on reaction time, alertness or concentration the morning after intake; measured at 3 grams each night for 2 weeks (Kuhlmann J et al: Pharmacopsychiatry 33(2):47-53,2000)
Safety of Valerian
Valerian is an extremely safe herb for people of all ages and is able to be taken during pregnancy or whilst breast-feeding with confidence. No 'morning-after' side-effects are expected though it must be noted that when people initially start paying back their 'sleep-debt' they almost always feel more tired overall as their bodies move from their previous edgy 'up' adrenalised state into one that is more relaxed and able to sustain a longer and happier life!
No herb suits everyone and for a small percentage of people Valerian will be felt to be stimulating rather than relaxing or it may cause a particular type of frontal headache. When this does happen it is almost invariably because the constitution is already too hot and the pronounced warming qualities of Valerian tip things over the edge. The traditional addition of Hops to Valerian at the same time largely counterbalances this potentiality but some individuals will show a strong sensitivity to Valerian regardless and for them the use of herbs such as Skullcap or Kava will be much more agreeable and effective.
I love Valerian and it is nearly always the first place I go to for help when someone cannot sleep. People often come to see me with complex and multiple problems but if at some point in the mix they say they are not sleeping well then right then and there I always put sleep to the top of the list. Once a person starts sleeping better when they haven't been you always see the healing force of nature in action at is greatest. The mind and body does much of its healing in sleep.
When you give Valerian to someone who is tightly wound you can usually see them palpably ‘uncoil’ after a while. The effects of such a reversal of tension can be profound on a person's health; improved sleep, better mood, better self-healing.
Valerian also has some mild cleansing properties and people often notice they urinate more than usual or have a period of coughing up some old stuff in their lungs.
The right therapeutic dose of Valerian is the one that palpably works. I mostly use teas and tinctures in my work but in this case I am fond of using a concentrated extract of Valerian in capsule form that allows me to give some very strong doses indeed, especially helpful for some of my more dedicated insomniacs!
In some cases just two tablets are ample to take before retiring but if I want to make doubly sure I will get the patient to take 2 tablets about an hour before they go to bed and then another two just before they turn in.
This 'pulse-dosing' method causes a very high level of the valepotriates etc. to be in circulation through the blood stream throughout the night and it particularly effective at helping people who have a long habit of frequent waking and restless sleep. It often starts working from the first night though, as is always the case with herbs, the longer you take them the better they work.
If you who are reading this are studying herbal medicine or just have your own good reasons to want to know this plant ally much more deeply then I warmly encourage you to take a dose of Valerian in tea or tincture and then, with a quiet and attentive mind, observe for yourself how it makes you feel. I do not think you will at first feel Valerian very much in your head. although that might come later, rather it firstly works at helping to relax the deeper subconscious tension that we hold in our bodies. Observe how it affects your breathing and your heart rate and how it goes into the core of your body and lingers there! This ancient way of 'experiential' learning can do more to help you truly understand the 'action' of the plant than any amount of academic study, but you will have to try for yourself to see what I mean!
Valerian combines perfectly with Hops for insomnia, with St John's wort and Skullcap for moodiness and fatigue and with Cramp bark for excess physical tension.
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Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Valerian is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B.
There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person does less for another -- why is this?
The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are more hot or cool and at the same time more dry or damp; more info about this here.
There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Valerian can particularly offer its benefits when a relaxing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing' - something that is discussed here and shown in a chart here.
Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898
In properly selected cases Valerian relieves irritability and pain, and favours rest and sleep. In such cases it is frequently useful in hemicrania and other forms of nervous headache.
Other cases requiring Valerian are those evidencing enfeebled cerebral circulation; there is despondency and marked mental depression.
Its chief value is in chorea, with enfeebled cerebral circulation. Valerian is one of many agents which have been used for the relief of epilepsy and the fluid extract has been found to possess all the medicinal virtues of the root.
Valerian & the Pied Piper
The famous story of the Pied Piper comes from a German town called Hamelin where it was plagued by an army of rats in the 13th century. The story goes that they had tried every other avenue to no success and so the town elders were willing to take on the contract of a flute player (the Pied Piper) when he promised he could rid their town of rats.
When he was successful at charming away the rats by leading them away with his flute the elders refused to pay him on his return whereupon he performed the same charm on the children and led them all away too!
What the English versions of this story miss out is that in the original version the Pied Piper gave the rats (and then later the children) extracts of Valerian root. Valerian was understood to have hypnotic properties for cats, rats and children and in using it he was able to put them under his spell (check out how cats react to dried Valerian root if you want to see some harmless herbal magic in action!)
does that flower in his toes look familiar?
Please understand that I cannot personally advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in my clinic but ideas
on how you might find a good herbalist in your area are here.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!
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