Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a plant used as a supplement for calmness and sedation. Valerian products are usually available in extracts or teas. The roots have traditionally been brewed for tea or eaten for their relaxation purposes and for their ability to improve sleep quality.
Valerian is thought to enhance the signaling of one of the main sedative neurotransmitters, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
Valerenic acid has been identified as its main bioactive (found in the essential oil of the root); other components include lignans, sequesterpenes and flavonoids.
Valerian is also being studied for its potential antioxidant, cytoprotective and neuroprotective effects. It may also have some anticancer properties.
Limited studies show valerian may help improve quality of sleep. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 10 percent adults have chronic insomnia. Symptoms include daytime fatigue, inability to concentrate, poor memory and mood disturbance (1).
Researchers of a recent study evaluated the effects of valerian extract taken nightly on the improvement of sleep quality in postmenopausal women experiencing insomnia. Participants consisted of 100 postmenopausal women aged 50 to 60 years. Each group received either 530 mg of concentrated valerian extract or a placebo twice a day for 4 weeks.
A statistically significant change was reported in the quality of sleep of the intervention group in comparison with the placebo group (2).
In an issue of The American Journal of Medicine, a systematic review of randomized, placebo-controlled trials of valerian for improving sleep quality was presented. While the available evidence suggests that valerian might improve sleep quality without producing side effects, most studies had significant methodologic problems, and the valerian doses, preparations and length of treatment varied considerably (3).
Further research is needed to confirm valerian’s true effects on sleep.
Valerian may help treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Thirty-one adult outpatients diagnosed with OCD were randomly assigned to receive either capsule of valerian extract (765 mg/day) or placebo (30 mg/day) for 8 weeks.
The results showed significant difference between the extract and placebo in the end of treatment, with the extract having some anti-obsessive and compulsive effects (4).
Valerian may have some cancer-fighting benefits. Early studies show that valerian has possible anticancer effects against human ovarian cancer cells in vitro and in vivo. Derivatives in valerian may also have moderate cytotoxicity against lung, prostate, colon and liver cancer cell lines (5).
In a study published in Current Cancer Drug Targets, researchers found that treatment with IVHD-valtrate, an active valerian derivative, inhibited the growth and spread of the ovarian cancer cell lines in a concentration-dependent manner. These preclinical results indicated IVHD-valtrate is a potential therapeutic agent for ovarian cancer (6).
In another study, chlorovaltrates (active derivatives) in valerian have shown moderate cytotoxicity against lung, prostate, colon and liver cancer cell lines (7).
No clinical trials on these effects have been conducted. Further in-depth research and trial studies are needed to understand the role of valerian in treating cancer.
Valerian may help treat menstrual pain. The International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, reported that valerian seems to be effective in alleviating dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps), possibly due to its antispasmodic effects.
In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, 100 students were randomly assigned to receive valerian (255 mg) or placebo 3 times daily for 3 days beginning at the onset of menstruation, for 2 consecutive menstrual cycles.
After the intervention, the pain severity was significantly reduced in both groups, but the extent of the reduction was larger in the valerian group (8).
Valerian has been shown to have antioxidant activity. Lipid peroxidation is a complex chain reaction process due to the oxygen-free radicals mediated attack of cell membrane lipids resulting in cell damage and dysfunction. Lipid peroxidation plays a role in the development of several diseases and conditions — inflammation, atherosclerosis, diabetes, ageing, neurodegenerative diseases and cancer (9).
In a rat study, researchers found that the ethanolic extract of valerian was effective in modulating lipid peroxidation induced by different pro-oxidant agents — quinolinic acid, 3-nitropropionic acid, sodium nitroprusside and iron sulfate (10).
Valerian has a cytoprotective effect. Cytoprotection is a process by which chemical compounds provide protection to cells against harmful agents. In a study published in Neurochemical Research, scientist evaluated the potential cytoprotective effects of aqueous extract of valerian on an in vitro experimental model of Parkinson disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative, progressive disorder that affects nerve cells in deep parts of the brain called the basal ganglia and the substantia nigra.
Three different concentrations of valerian extract were used (0.049, 0.098 and 0.195 mg/mL). These extracts brought about an increase in cell viability. These results indicate neuroprotective activity of the extract and the possibility of further investigating this plant as a cytoprotective drug for Parkinson’s disease (11).
Valerian generally appears to be safe. There have been some reports of headache, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal complaints, daytime sedation, impaired alertness, irritability, dizziness, sweating and heart palpitations (12).
Valerian may increase the effects of other sleep aids. It also increases the sedative effect of depressants, such as alcohol, benzodiazepines and narcotics. Valerian can interfere with some prescription medications and it should not be taken by those with liver or pancreatic disease.
Because dosages in studies involving valerian varied and some studies were small or not rigorous, it is not clear what dose is most effective or for how long it should be taken (13).
Valerian is a plant used as a supplement for its calming and sedative effects. It is thought to enhance the signaling of one of the main sedative neurotransmitters, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). It has also been shown to have antioxidant, cytoprotective and neuroprotective properties.
While it has traditionally been used to help improve sleep quality, there have been mixed results and many of the studies performed to date have been too small to draw firm conclusions.
Modern research has also shown valerian’s potential to treat symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, menstrual pain and certain types of cancer.
However, these early findings, while promising, need to supported by further investigation in large-scale, placebo-controlled studies.
It appears to be generally safe, although there have been reports of gastrointestinal complaints, daytime sedation, impaired alertness, irritability, dizziness, sweating and heart palpitations. It should not be taken by those with liver or pancreatic disease.