CAM Type: Valerian root is a biologically based complementary and alternative medicine.

Common Names: Valerian Root, Valerian, Tobacco Root, Garden Heliotrope, All-heal

Introduction to Valerian:

Valerian is a hardy perennial flowering plant with sweet-smelling pink or white flowers. The name Valerian means “to be strong or healthy” in Latin, and this translation is generally regarded to refer to its medicinal use, though it is suggested that it also refers to the strong odor.

Valerian is native to Europe, South Africa, and parts of Asia and was introduced to North America. Ancient Greeks used the plant for a variety of medical disorders ranging from liver problems, digestive ailments, and urinary tract disorders to nausea and insomnia. Valerian has also been used for centuries for nervous conditions and has been traditionally used for sleeplessness, epilepsy, nervousness, hysteria and as a diuretic.

The herb was used in Germany for unruly children, as a coffee substitute by German women, and as a condiment in medieval times, and as a perfume in the 16th century. It has had many other uses across numerous cultures throughout the centuries.

Common Uses:

Valerian has often been used in complementary and alternative medicine for its sedative properties. It has been recommended for epilepsy but that has not been supported by modern research. Currently, the herb is mainly used as a remedy for insomnia.

Preparation Methods: The volatile oils in valerian are extremely pungent, somewhat like aged cheese or milk. Valerian is often prepared in tea form, and in doing so it should not be prepared with boiling water, as this may drive off the lighter oils. As well, valerian is commonly taken as a dietary supplement, often in tablet or capsule form.

Pharmacology and Mechanisms of Action:

Valerian has an affinity for GABAA receptors, likely due to the relatively high GABA content in valerian itself. The amount of GABA present in valerian extract is sufficient to induce release of GABA in synaptosomes and may also inhibit GABA reuptake.

Other believed mechanisms of action in valerian include inhibition of the catabolism of GABA by valerenolic acid and acetylvalerenolic acid and affinity for the 5-HTA receptor by another constituent of valerian, called hydroxypinoresinal.

Due to the herb’s historical use as an anti-convulsant, sedative, migraine treatment and pain reliever, most basic research has been focused on the interaction of valerian constituents with the GABA neurotransmitter. The findings of these studies remain inconclusive. Thus, the true mechanism of action of valerian remains unknown.


Valerian may be indicated for the relief of insomnia, stress-related anxiety, and nervous restlessness. It may also be used to ease stomach and menstrual cramps, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), some of the restlessness that accompanies attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and migraine symptoms. And, more rarely, it may be used to treat convulsions from a seizure disorder. In its most well-documented use, however, it is used as a calmant to help people sleep.

Safety, Side Effects and Warnings:

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) gives valerian a class 1 safety rating, indicating that it is a safe herb with a wide dosage range.

Some people, however, experience adverse reactions to valerian. Rather than feeling the calming or sleep-inducing effects, they suddenly feel nervous, anxious and restless after taking the herb and may experience heart palpitations.

There is also evidence that in some cases of long-term use, serious withdrawal symptoms may occur when it is stopped abruptly.

Pregnant or breastfeeding women should not use valerian. It should not be used while driving, operating heavy machinery or engaging in other activities which require one to be alert, due to its tranquilizing effects. Those with liver disease are also warned against taking valerian in combination with skullcap, another herb commonly used for anxiety.

Valerian should not be used if taking anesthesia, sedatives or anti-anxiety medications without first consulting a healthcare practitioner.

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