Today, valerian is used as a dietary supplement primarily to ease insomnia. In the UK, it’s available as Valerian SleepAid, a Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) remedy to aid sleep problems caused by mild anxiety and relieve sleep disturbance. Licensed THR products have had the quality of ingredients assessed and have been in traditional use for at least 30 years.
Dr Sarah Brewer says: ‘If anxious thoughts mean you are having trouble getting to sleep or cause a disturbed night’s rest, valerian in the form of Valerian SleepAid THR could help.’
What does valerian do?
Nobody is exactly sure of the precise mechanism for how valerian works, but it is believed valerian extracts help to reduce nervous anxiety by increasing levels of a calming brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric (GABA). It is also said to have a mild sedative action. The theory is that it calms the brain so sleep comes naturally.
Sleeplessness is also commonly linked with anxiety. A 2013 survey from the UK Sleep Council revealed 47 per cent of Britons are kept awake by worry.
There’s some evidence valerian can improve sleep quality. An overview of 18 studies found people taking valerian were 37 per cent more likely to say their sleep quality had improved compared to those taking a placebo. The researchers concluded valerian could be effective in terms of a subjective improvement in insomnia without the side effects associated with conventional sleeping pills.
Prescription sleeping pills, including benzodiazepines, are potentially addictive and can also cause unpleasant side effects such as daytime grogginess.
One study also found valerian improved sleep quality in post-menopausal women aged 50 to 60; a common time for sleep disturbance because of menopause symptoms including hot flushes, anxiety and night sweats.
Restless legs syndrome
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition of the nervous system that causes an overwhelming urge to move the legs. The symptoms tend to be worse at night and disrupt sleep. A trial involving 37 people with RLS, gave either 800mg of valerian extract or a placebo for eight weeks. Those receiving the valerian showed significant improvement in symptoms and felt less tired during the day compared to the placebo group – resulting in an improved quality of life.
Getting valerian from your diet
There are no food sources of valerian, although you can drink valerian tea. The easiest way to take it is in capsule, tincture or herbal supplement form.
Valerian seems generally safe for use by healthy adults. Few side effects have been reported; those that have are mild and include headaches, dizziness, itching and digestive problems. However, because valerian could have a sedative, sleep-inducing effect it should not be taken with alcohol, sedatives, or before driving.
There is no official recommended dosage for valerian, but to help you sleep take two 300mg tablets, half an hour before bed. Avoid taking any more than this as high doses at night have been associated with a hangover-like effect in the morning.