When Hippocrates had a headache, it's possible he enjoyed a nice steaming cup of valerian root tea. The ancient Greek physician was one of the first to describe the therapeutic benefits of valerian root.
Since the early days in Greece and Rome, people sought the benefits of valerian for everything from head discomfort to heart health, nervousness, feminine issues, and the blues. Valerian brings some unique mythological history as well. People once used it to keep away troublesome elves — stay away Dobby! — and folklore experts believe it helped the Pied Piper lure rats away from town.
What Is Valerian?
Garden valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is also known as garden heliotrope, Tagar (in Ayurvedic medicine), cut-finger, and all-heal — funny names for a potent plant! The species originally grew in Asia and Europe, but it now grows throughout North America, as well. Its scientific name derives from the Latin "valere," which means to be strong or healthy.
Fair warning! Valerian is a powerful herb but also has a pungent odor.
People use the root and rhizomes of the long-stalked flowering plant for various ailments, but especially for anxiety and insomnia.
While valerian's small pinkish-white flowers have a sweet smell, valerian oil has a pungent scent, described humorously by some as "dirty feet." Despite any scent, people love it — valerian is the most commonly sold herbal remedy for sleep in both Europe and the United States.
The Top 10 Active Compounds in Valerian
The active components and compounds of this healing herb haven't all been identified — and those that have been isolated and tested don't seem to be solely responsible for the herb's benefits. It's likely the plant's various phytochemicals work together as a team.
Here is a list of some of the beneficial compounds that valerian root contains.
- Valerenic acids
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
- Isovaleric acids
8 Valerian Root Benefits & Uses
Since valerian root has been used for centuries, you may have heard of some of its more traditional uses. However, valerian has a variety of other unique benefits, from keeping skin healthy to boosting brain sharpness. Read on to learn more.
1. Helps You Sleep
The most commonly touted benefit of valerian is that it works as a sleep aid, kicking insomnia and restlessness to the side and helping us get some much-needed rest at bedtime. Although clinical evidence is limited, we've seen some promising studies.
Did you know valerian supplements may promote a normal sleep schedule?
Another group of men showed better ease in falling asleep and better sleep quality after taking an aqueous valerian root extract. Night awakenings, dream recall, and sleepwalking incidence weren't affected.
Although scientists are still actively studying it, valerian appears to affect sleep by increasing levels of serotonin and noradrenaline.
2. Relieves Daily Worry & Occasional Anxiety
At best, anxiety is annoying, slowing you down and making you feel nervous about, well, pretty much anything. At worst, it's completely crippling. For centuries, traditional healers have used valerian to ease daily worry and anxiety.
Wow! Valerian root may be your go-to natural remedy for anxiety!
In one study, rats received a solution of valerian extracts before going through a maze — compared to a control group, the rats that took valerian were much less anxious while finding their way through.
In one clinical trial with people, women undergoing a painful and stressful medical procedure similarly felt better after taking valerian. Ninety minutes after taking a valerian supplement (valeric acid) they felt significantly less anxious.
3. Supports Heart Health
If you want a healthy heart long into your golden years, you may find some benefit in taking a valerian supplement (though, of course, it's no substitute for actual medical care).
A review of several animal studies found that valerian essential oil promoted normal blood pressure, heart rate, and blood lipid levels — which is how much fat circulates in your bloodstream. Cellular and lab studies in animals found that related valerian species (but not V. officinalis) helped to relax blood vessels.
4. Helps During Your Menstrual Cycle
When facing premenstrual syndrome, women often experience symptoms such as irritability, breast tenderness, sensitive mood or mood swings, and anxiety. In findings that will undoubtedly make women happy, valerian supplements not only help physical discomfort but also emotional symptoms.[8, 9]
Women with PMS, it's time to relax! Valerian is here to help.
Researchers have found that valerian root has antispasmodic properties — meaning it helps relax muscles — which helps relax the uterine contractions that can bring discomfort and cramping.
In a study of 100 students, women taking valerian experienced less severe cramps; however, women taking the placebo (sugar pill) also had less severe cramps, but the valerian group showed a stronger effect.
Perhaps stronger evidence is a study in Iran that found taking valerian twice a day during the last seven days of a menstrual cycle not only helped physical symptoms but also helped ease mood swings and balance emotions associated with premenstrual syndrome. For more ideas, check out the top natural remedies for PMS symptoms.
5. Improves Focus & Concentration in Kids
Younger schoolchildren are naturally energetic and have trouble focusing, but when it begins to affect their daily lives more than normal, it can become a problem. In a study of 169 children under the age of 12, a combination of valerian root and lemon balm promoted their ability to focus after taking it for seven weeks.
Not only that, but valerian with lemon balm also calmed children down and reduced impulsiveness. Given valerian's history of helping with sleep, the researchers and parents also noticed a difference in the children's sleep and social behavior, as well. The jury is out whether valerian root has similar effects in adults.
6. May Help With Stress
Let's face it. We're all stressed. Between work, family, obligations, and finances, our lives are sometimes just a big ball of stressors. Everyone could use a break. Don't fear: valerian root is here to help.
Learning how to ease the stress in your life is crucial for your health; valerian may help.
Fifty-four volunteers signed up for a study to deliberately stress themselves out with a mental experiment (Who does that right? All in the name of research!). Researchers tracked participant's heart rate and blood pressure for seven days; some participants took kava kava supplements, some took valerian, and some took a placebo.
The results were encouraging. Those taking the kava and valerian not only had lower blood pressure during the stressful task, but they also reported feeling less stress subjectively. With the valerian group, even their heart rate normalized. For more ideas on reducing your stress, check out our stress management article.
7. Eases Menopausal Symptoms
Once women hit menopause, and even perimenopause, the years leading up to the cessation of menses, women experience many new and often uncomfortable symptoms: hot flashes, mood swings, cramps, plus heightened emotions.
Science shows valerian root is beneficial in reducing menopausal symptoms!
In two separate studies, women took valerian supplements daily to see its effect on hot flashes. In one of the studies, women took 255 mg valerian three times a day for eight weeks, and in the other, the women took 530 mg twice per day for a similar period.
In both studies, valerian didn't just make the hot flashes less intense compared to a placebo, it also helped reduce their frequency.[12, 13] The scientists concluded that valerian is a beneficial use for women who do not want to take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and seek natural solutions.
8. Boosts Brain Health
Scientists have researched valerian and its connection to brain health and cognitive activity — like the ability to solve problems, think on your toes, and remember details — and reported encouraging findings. Most of the research has been done with animals.
One study showed that after receiving valerian root extract for three weeks, aging mice were able to get through a maze easier. But what's super interesting is that these valerian-fed mice showed an increased tendency to explore and check out new objects. What's more, giving valerian helped promote normal levels of stress-causing hormones in the hippocampus region of the brain compared to mice without valerian.
Popular Forms of Valerian
Valerian comes in many forms, ranging from teas to capsules or tablets, and from liquid extracts and tinctures to essential oils.
You can take it as you would melatonin, a hormone made in the pineal gland that's commonly sold as a sleep aid. Tea and supplements are the two most popular preparations for valerian root.
Hot tea is comforting and relaxing, and with valerian tea, you have the extra benefit of a boost in sleepiness. Try this recipe. You can usually find dried valerian root at health food stores in the bulk section.
Relaxing Bedtime Valerian Tea Recipe
- 1 teaspoon dried valerian root
- 1 teaspoon dried chamomile tea
- 1 cup hot water
- Honey to taste
- Add valerian root and chamomile into a tea strainer.
- Pour boiling water over the valerian root and chamomile.
- Cover the cup and let it steep for 10 minutes to extract the therapeutic properties.
- Remove the tea strainer.
- Sweeten with honey if desired.
Valerian root powder is widely available as a nutritional supplement, and comes in capsules, tablets, or liquid extracts.
While capsules are probably the most common supplement form, extracts help concentrate the nutrients from the root in a potent and powerful way. They're beneficial for people who do not like swallowing capsules. Avoid alcohol-based extracts, as they are harsh on your system.
Valerian Root Side Effects & Precautions
In general, valerian is safe. The U.S. National Institutes of Health reported that "few adverse events attributable to valerian have been reported for clinical study participants." They add that the side effects that are reported include headaches, dizziness, itchy skin, and gastrointestinal disturbances — but similar effects are also reported for the placebo (a sugar pill) so these are not necessarily attributed to valerian.
Valerian can increase sleepiness, which in most cases is a desired effect, but if you take it for other reasons, be cautious if you need to stay alert on a job or while driving. It can also increase drowsiness the following day. However, a second study found no change in next-day sleepiness when people took up to 900 mg of valerian.
According to the NIH, pregnant women, kids under three years old, and breastfeeding mothers should avoid taking valerian because the risks have not yet been studied. People who take barbiturates or other sedative drugs should avoid valerian, as it will exacerbate the effects.
Always remember to check with your healthcare provider if you're taking any medications to see if there are any possible interactions.
Points to Remember
Historically, traditional healers used valerian root for sleep and anxiety issues, but today, science has started to uncover its many benefits.
Its many phytochemical components include powerful phytoestrogens, flavanones, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) that work together to create a calmer, more relaxed body and mind. This relaxation effect can help with various aspects whether premenstrual or menopausal symptoms, concentration, daily stress and anxiety, and more.
Valerian root has an excellent safety record, but if you are taking other medications, particularly those with a sedative or relaxing effect, use caution when taking valerian.
Have you tried valerian and if so, for what purpose? Does it help you sleep? Does it help you relax? Tell us more in the comments!
- Bent S, et al. Valerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Med. 2006 Dec;119(12):1005-1012.
- Valerian Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health. Updated 15 Mar 2013. Accessed 8 Mar 2019.
- Chen H-W, et al. Chemical components and cardiovascular activities of Valeriana spp. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015;2015:947619.
- Taavoni S, et al. Effect of valerian on sleep quality in postmenopausal women: a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial. Menopause. 2011 Sep;18(9):951-955.
- Leathwood PD, et al. Aqueous extract of valerian root (Valeriana officinalis L.) improves sleep quality in man. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1982 Jul;17(1):65-71.
- Gharib M, et al. The effect of valeric on anxiety severity in women undergoing hysterosalpingography. Glob J Health Sci. 2015 May;7(3):358-363.
- Murphy K, et al. Valeriana officinalis root extracts have potent anxiolytic effects in laboratory rats. Phytomedicine. 2010 Jul;17(8-9):674-678.
- Mirabi P, et al. Effects of valerian on the severity and systemic manifestations of dysmenorrhea. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2011 Dec;115(3):285-288.
- Moghadam ZB. The effect of valerian root extract on the severity of pre menstrual syndrome symptoms. J Tradit Complement Med. 2016 Jul;6(3):309-315.
- Gromball J, et al. Hyperactivity, concentration difficulties and impulsiveness improve during seven weeks' treatment with valerian root and lemon balm extracts in primary school children. Phytomedicine. 2014 Jul-Aug;21(8-9):1098-1103.
- Cropley M, et al. Effect of kava and valerian on human physiological and psychological responses to mental stress assessed under laboratory conditions. Phytother Res. 2002 Feb;16(1):23-27.
- Jenabi E, et al. The effect of valerian on the severity and frequency of hot flashes: A triple-blind randomized clinical trial. Women Health. 2018 Mar;58(3):297-304.
- Mirabi P, Mojab F. The effects of valerian root on hot flashes in menopausal women. Iran J Pharm Res. 2013 Winter;12(1):217–222.
- Nam SM, et al. Valeriana officinalis extract and its main component, valerenic acid, ameliorate D-galactose-induced reductions in memory, cell proliferation, and neuroblast differentiation by reducing corticosterone levels and lipid peroxidation. Exp Gerontol. 2013 Nov;48(11):1369-1377.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.