Valerian root has been used medicinally to treat sleep problems since Ancient Greek and Roman times. Insomnia, difficulties falling asleep, and/or staying asleep, and early morning waking are common health problems thought to affect one in three people. i
Valerian extract is believed to help reduce nervous anxiety by increasing levels of a calming brain chemical called gamma-Aminobutyric (GABA).ii It is also said to have a mild sedative action. The theory is that it calms the brain so sleep comes naturally.
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. Licensed THR products have had the quality of ingredients assessed and have been in traditional use for at least 30 years.
There's some evidence valerian can improve your 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. iii
Another study of menopausal women found that 30 per cent of women who took valerian supplements reported improvements in sleep quality compared to four percent in a placebo group. iv
5HTP and magnesium
A feel-good natural brain chemical, 5-HTP- or 5-hydroxytryptophan to give it its full name - is made in the body from the dietary amino acid tryptophan, found in high-protein foods. 5-HTP is also available as a supplement, made from the seeds of an African plant called Griffonia simplicifolia.
It's useful for sleep problems because the body uses it to make serotonin, the so-called happiness hormone and a precursor to melatonin, the hormone produced as darkness falls which tells the body it's time to sleep. One study revealed taking 5-HTP to be effective in helping people to fall asleep quicker and have a less interrupted and deeper night's sleep than those in a placebo group.v vi
Magnesium reduced mental and physical stress in one study, and the authors said it may help prevent sleep disorders. vii
Relaxation techniques for brain health
Try and clear your brain before bedtime to zone out from the stresses of the day.
• Concentrate on your breathing: Breathe in deeply through your nose and out through your mouth, keeping your shoulders down and relaxed and placing your hand on your abdomen feeling the rise and fall of the breath. Count to five as you breathe in and five as you breathe out.
• Listen or watch a guided meditation exercise: These are available on CDs or as podcasts or You Tube videos.
• Do a pre-bed digital detox: If you're lying in bed checking out eBay and Twitter and then wondering why you can't sleep, try a strict digital detox in the hour before you go to bed. Don't look at your phone or tablet, and keep them out of your bedroom.
• Transport yourself to somewhere chilled: The mental health charity Mind recommends visualising yourself in a favourite place where you feel relaxed and happy. viii Conjure up all the details - including the sounds and smells - and immerse yourself in the experience to help yourself escape a stressful day.
• Try progressive muscle relaxation exercises: The tensing and relaxation of different muscle groups is described by the Royal College of Psychiatrists as a complementary therapy sometimes used to reduce agitation and arousal. ix Try tensing the muscles in your toes for five seconds and then relax for 30 seconds and repeat. Then repeat this for other muscles groups, gradually working up through your legs to your neck and then back down again. x
• Ask your GP about autogenic training: Some hospitals offer courses where you can learn a meditative-style technique called autogenic training. xi This involves being taught to switch into a calm and relaxed state whenever you want, by following a series of simple mental exercises, and using visualisation and body awareness.