Valerian is a flowering plant native to Europe and parts of Asia. It blooms in summer, and its pink and sometimes white flowers have a sweet scent.
Though it has been used historically for non-medical purposes, (including being worn as a perfume and sewn into the wedding clothes of new husbands to ward off jealous elves), this attractive plant also attracted the attention of ancient Greeks and Romans. They were the first to discover the potential of valerian root as a treatment for insomnia.
Due to its relaxing properties, valerian is used by some people in the modern day not only for the treatment of insomnia but also as a treatment for anxiety. This article will discuss the known properties of valerian root, its availability and the forms it is sold in, and the overall safety of valerian as an anxiety treatment.
Questionable Anxiety Treatments
Tests of the efficacy of valerian root for this purpose have proven inconclusive, which could indicate that it may just be a placebo, or simply that too few tests have been performed. For these reasons, you may want to consider an alternative treatment.
What's In Valerian Root?
The value of valerian root comes from oil within the root. The oil is known for its pungent scent which smells much worse than the flower itself — some have compared the odor to stinky cheese, and others to dirty feet. Yet, apart from its foul odor, valerian root may do some potentially useful things in our brains.
It has been suggested that valerian root has special chemical properties that are useful in the treatment of anxiety, some of which may actually mimic some of the effects of long accepted anxiety treatments.
Valerian root contains specific acids that have been named after the plant itself as valerenic acids, may translate into GABA or gamma-aminobutyric acid. GABA is a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that is responsible for regulating and specifically for inhibiting the activity of the brain's neurons.
Extra GABA in your system promotes relaxation and lowers stress levels. For this reason, valerian root is known as a sedative. This effect is supposed to be very similar to benzodiazepines, which are sedative drugs commonly prescribed for depression and sometimes prescribed for anxiety, also trigger GABA receptors in the brain.
Availability and Forms of Valerian Root
Valerian root is sold as a nutritional supplement in the United States. Since the passing of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994, valerian and many other supplements can be sold regardless of the regulations usually imposed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Valerian root can be sold both in the form of capsules containing root extract and in the form of tea.
Valerian Root Safety
There are many species of the valerian plant. The species that has gotten the most attention from the medical community is called Valeriana officinalis, and is currently believed to contain the most active compounds. Other species of valerian have not been as closely studied and should be avoided.
It should be noted that valerian root is thought to take 2 or more weeks of regular treatment to begin having positive effects. For this reason, excess valerian should not be taken if positive effects do not appear immediately. It is a more extended period, not a higher dose, which is likely to help.
Valerian is thought, overall, to be a comparatively safe medication, unless you are allergic to valerian, in which case it can cause including skin rash/hives and trouble breathing.
Possible side effects are mainly related to its functionality as a sleep aid, and include:
As with benzodiazepines, or any sedative substance, driving motor vehicles and operating heavy machinery should be avoided after taking valerian. It should not be taken in combination with any other depressants. Long-term use in males has been correlated with withdrawal symptoms similar to those of benzodiazepine withdrawal, including heart problems and delirium. It is also believed that valerian may have the potential to cause hepatotoxicity (damage to the liver).
People with preexisting liver problems and pregnant or nursing women should avoid valerian root, and as with any supplement, you should consult your doctor and/or therapist before taking valerian.
So Does Valerian Work?
Valerian root is an herbal supplement that may have an effect on your anxiety. But whether or not it does is questionable. Like most herbs, little research has been conducted, and the research that has been completed tends to be very poor.
That's why, while it's something you can consider, it's not something you should depend on. The truth is that even herbal medicines are still medicines - they have their own side effects and risks (contrary to the belief that "natural" means "safe"), and no medicine of any kind can genuinely cure anxiety. They can only numb it temporarily. Always discuss with your doctor before taking supplements or alternative medicines.