The valerian plant can help the more than 35% of adults that report getting less than the recommended seven hours of sleep
The valerian (Valeriana officinalis) plant and its root have been a mainstay of traditional herbal medicine in both Europe and Asia for thousands of years. While the flowers of the valerian plant were used for perfume, its root was considered to have strong medicinal properties, particularly as a sedative and pain reliever, particularly for headaches.
In fact, a paper published earlier this year in the Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine showed strong evidence for the value of valerian root in treating tension headaches.1 However, there has been another area of research focusing on using valerian root to improve sleep, particularly in conjunction with stress and anxiety. This use for valerian root is particularly intriguing, given the high prevalence of sleep issues among Americans.
Valerian plant sleep stats
Estimates are that as many as 50-70 million American adults have some type of sleep disorder.2,3 Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, affecting approximately 30% of adults, with 10% of these cases meeting the criteria for chronic insomnia.
According to the American Sleep Association, more than 35% of adults report getting less than the recommended seven hours of sleep, during a typical 24-hour period. Furthermore, 48% of adults report snoring at night, which often leads to inadequate sleep.3
Valerenic acid, one of the main active ingredients in valerian root, is thought to reduce anxiety and promote sleep by modulating gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, which help regulate mood.4
Low GABA receptor levels are often related to both acute and chronic stress, anxiety, and poor sleep. Research into the properties of valerenic acid have shown that it can inhibit the breakdown of GABA levels in the brain, which can reduce anxiety and improve the quality of sleep.4
What does the research show?
There is a large body of research regarding the use of valerian root for various sleep issues. However, most of this literature comes in the form of either single-subject or small-group case studies, making it difficult to determine if the reported results actually represent clinically useful data for larger studies, or are just anecdotal. However, two papers used a type of methodology, known as a meta-analysis, to strengthen the findings of these smaller articles by looking for similar patterns.5,6
The first meta-analysis paper, published in the journal Sleep Medicine in 2010, studied the effect of valerian root on insomnia, using a variety of objective and subjective scales. The researchers found that valerian root showed qualitative, subjective improvement for insomnia, but further research was needed to show quantitative, objective improvement.5
The second paper, from the journal Acta Medica Portuguesa in 2011 (full article in Portuguese), examined the effectiveness of valerian root in treating anxiety and sleep disorders. Although the researchers did not feel there was enough evidence to find the valerian plant effective in treating anxiety, they did find evidence of its effectiveness in treating mild to moderate insomnia. Furthermore, the valerian root was well-tolerated with few adverse side effects.6
Given the high prevalence of insomnia and other sleep issues in the general population, you should not be surprised if your patients approach you to ask about nonpharmaceutical alternatives to help them sleep. Valerian root has proven to be an excellent choice, with good tolerance and no harmful side effects.
- Azizi H, Shojaii A, Hashem-Dabaghian F, et al. Effects of Valeriana officinalis (Valerian) on tension-type headache: A randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trial. Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine. 2020;10(3):297-304.
- Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Colten HR, Altevogt BM, editors. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2006.
- American Sleep Association. Sleep and sleep disorder statistics. Accessed Sept.20, 2020.
- Becker A, Felgentreff F, Schröder H, et al. The anxiolytic effects of a Valerian extract is based on valerenic acid. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2014;14:267.
- Fernández-San-Martín MI, Masa-Font R, Palacios-Soler L, et al. Effectiveness of Valerian on insomnia: A meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials. Sleep Medicine. 2010 Jun;11(6):505-11.
- Nunes A, Sousa M. Utilização da valeriana nas perturbações de ansiedade e do sono: qual a melhor evidência? [Use of valerian in anxiety and sleep disorders: What is the best evidence?]. Acta Medica Portuguesa. 2011 Dec;24 Suppl 4:961-6. Portuguese. Epub 2011 Dec 31.