Valerian (valeriana officinalis)
Photo © Steven Foster
History and Traditional Use
In Ancient Greek medicine, Galen prescribed valerian for insomnia.1 It was called "phu" by Dioscorides and Galen because of the aversion to its offensive odor. Valerian has been used traditionally to prevent spasms and intestinal gas, to stimulate the action of the stomach, and as a sedative.2 It has been used, usually in tea form, for fatigue, insomnia, migraine, hysteria, stomach cramps with vomiting, and for other nervous complaints. It has also been used externally to treat sores and pimples.2
Modern Medicinal Use
Valerian is an excellent herb to use, in combination with other herbs, or used alone. The active constituents are the volatile oil (isovalerianic/enic acid) and valepotriates. Valerian depresses the central nervous system, similar to GABA (which occurs naturally in the brain and inhibits nerve impulse transmission.) There are no cons to taking valerian other than if you use it other than in a capsule it can smell up your house as a tea. Or if you have cats they may rub up and down your leg (they like it, similar to catnip) while you are drinking you tea, causing you to stumble and fall, spilling hot liquid all over yourself. For Valerian to be effective you must take it in sufficient quantities to work e.g. 1-2 tsp. of the tincture (alcohol extract) before bed, or 6-10 capsules of the dried plant. Onset is typically 1 hour. You may awaken a little muddleheaded, which is quickly relieved as soon as you move about. For a daily dose, 5 ml (1 tsp.) of the tincture 3 times a day between meals is the standard dose.
About 20% of the population respond to Valerian as a stimulant, so if you take it and have insomnia or buzzed out, try hops, chamomile, passionflower, skullcap or Avena, which are all excellent herbs to relieve stress, anxiety and insomnia.
1 Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J, editors. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Austin (TX): American Botanical Council; Newton (MA): Integrative Medicine Communications; 2000.
2 Leung AY., Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley-Interscience; 1996.
3 Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, Gruenwald J, Hall T, Riggins CW, Rister RS, editors. Klein S, Rister RS, translators. The Complete German Commission E Monographs&emdash;Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin (TX): American Botanical Council; Boston: Integrative Medicine Communication; 1998.
4 Blumenthal M, Hall T, Goldberg A, Kunz T, Dinda K, Brinckmann J, et al, editors. The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs. Austin (TX): American Botanical Council; 2003.
5 Cropley M, Cave Z, Ellis J, Middleton RW. Effect of kava and valerian on human Physiological and psychological responses to mental stress assessed under laboratory conditions. Phytotherapy Research 2002;16:23-7.
6 Lawless J. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Dorset (UK): Element Books; 1995.
Disclaimer: These pages are presented solely as a source of INFORMATION and ENTERTAINMENT and to provide stern warnings against use where appropriate. No claims are made for the efficacy of any herb nor for any historical herbal treatment. In no way can the information provided here take the place of the standard, legal, medical practice of any country. Additionally, some of these plants are extremely toxic and should be used only by licensed professionals who have the means to process them properly into appropriate pharmaceuticals. One final note: many plants were used for a wide range of illnesses in the past, but be aware that many of the historical uses have proven to be ineffective for the problems to which they were applied.