Valerian, also known as Valeriana officinalis, setwall, Valerianae radix, Baldrianwurzel, and phu, is a member of the Valerianaceae family, a perennial plant that grows up to 2 feet tall. It is native to Europe and Asia and has a distinctive odor that can be unpleasant. Valerian has been used historically since ancient Greece and Roman times for insomnia, anxiety, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, for epileptic seizures, hyperactivity and heart palpitations.
The active ingredients in valerian are volatile oils. A possible mechanism by which valerian may cause sedation is by increasing the amount of an inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). Valerian is believed to cause GABA to be released from brain nerve endings and also block its re-uptake, increasing it’s effects in the brain. Valerenic acid also inhibits an enzyme that destroys GABA. A class of drugs called benzodiazepines, which includes Xanax and Valium, also works by increasing the amount of GABA in the brain. Researchers think valerian may have a similar, but weaker effect. There have been a few double-blind randomized studies that support a decrease in insomnia symptoms when taken for over a month. Germany’s Commission E also has approved valerian as an effective mild sedative. The other historical uses of valerian have not been actively studied and therefore have not been proven to be effective.
Valerian supplements are made from its roots, underground and horizontal stems and these are dried and prepared as capsules, teas, tablets or tinctures. Valerian supplements should be taken as directed by the manufacturer. For insomnia, 600 mg of valerian is recommended 1 to 2 hours prior to bedtime; or for anxiety 200 mg 2 to 3 times per day. Valerian is generally considered safe although the most common side effects reported in clinical studies included headaches, dizziness, itching and gastrointestinal disturbances. Children and pregnant or nursing moms should not take valerian unless under the direct supervision of a physician. Individuals who drink alcohol or take barbiturates, benzodiazepines or anticonvulsants should be aware of the possibility of dangerous additive sedative effects with valerian.
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