| Originally Published: May 5, 2000
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What do you know about the new alternative herb called "valerian"?

Dear Reader,

Valerian has actually been used as a mild tranquilizer and sleep aid for over 1,000 years, mainly in Europe. It's derived from the dried rhizome (root-like portion) and roots of the Valeriana officinalis plant, a tall perennial herb. One of its constituents, a volatile oil, has a distinct aroma. Many other elements are included in the dried root tincture and tea forms. Although numerous studies of the herb have been conducted, valerian's exact calming mechanism remains unknown.

In Germany, herbal remedies are studied to a greater extent than they are in other countries, including the United States. The German Commission E issues approval for certain preparations manufactured there. Valerian is among their approved remedies for unrest and anxiety-produced sleep disturbances. Preparation recommendations include that the rhizome and root should be fresh or recently, carefully dried. Valerian may also be used externally as a calming bath, but this method is less effective than when taken in as a capsule, tablet, tincture, or tea.

Valerian is generally believed to be safe. However, consider the following before trying it:

  • If sleep disturbances are caused by more significant anxieties, sleep aids may not be the solution. Working out the problem(s) associated with the anxiety may be a more successful long-term treatment route.
  • Interactions with prescription and over-the-counter medications, other herbal preparations, recreational drugs, or alcohol are largely unknown and could result in negative effects.
  • Due to valerian's sedating effect, do not take it if you're going to drive or operate heavy machinery.
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women, people with impaired liver functioning, and children are advised against taking valerian.
  • Discontinue use if valerian is not effective for you.
  • Some side effects from taking too much valerian at once or from long-term use include:

  • blurry eyesight
  • irregular heart rhythm
  • excitability
  • headache
  • allergic or hypersensitivity reactions
  • sleeplessness
  • nausea

If you decide to try valerian to help induce sleep, take it about 30 - 60 minutes before you hit the sack. When selecting it, look for one that contains standardized valerian extract and follow the instructions on the label. However, since herbal supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it's difficult to be certain of the potency of any herbal preparation manufactured and sold in the U.S.

For reliable herbal information, take a look at Varro Tyler's books, The Honest Herbal and Herbs of Choice.