Even though valerian is a large attractive plant with small white or pink flowers, its fragrance is not one of its major strong suits. Both the Greek doctor Dioscorides and the Roman doctor Galen complained about the smell of valerian in their writings. The only way to describe it is a cross between the odor of rotten cheese and dirty socks. In spite of its malodorous properties, valerian was hailed throughout the Middle Ages as and "all heal" herb. Held in great esteem by practitioners of the ages, valerian has been used for numerous disorders, mostly related to the nervous system.
History and Composition
Valerian Officinalis is native to Europe, North America, and the northern part of Asia. Altogether, the genus contains about 150 different species. These are widely distributed throughout the temperate zones. Both the root and the rhizome are highly prized for their healing properties. The major healing components found in the valerian root are valepotrits, valeranic acid, valeranone, valereal. These are all volatile oils that are found only in valerian. Other volatile oils in the root such as pineole, borneol, cineole, carophilene, and azulene are also commonly found in other herbs with healing properties. All of these oils exert anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and nerve-calming effects on the body. In addition, the root contains alkaloids that are known to relieve pain and relax the body. Other ingredients found in the root include rutin, beta sitosterol, salicylic acid, and choline.1
Valerian can be classified in many different therapeutic categories. It is one of the best nervine herbs for its efficacy in treating disorders of the nervous system and in calming the entire body. Other categories include anodyne (pain reliever), anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, antiemetic, carminative (tones, soothes, and stimulates the digestive and elimination systems), sedative, hypnotic, antihypertensive, and antibacterial.
The herb valerian is most effective in treating a wide range of stress conditions such as irritability, depression, fear, anxiety, nervous exhaustion, hysteria, delusions, and nervous tension. It is also indicated for patients who suffer from insomnia. Valerian not only eases the trouble of falling asleep but also improves the quality of sleep during the night.2
After taking valerian, a patient will wake up very rested and alert without the grogginess seen with some over-the-counter sleeping pills. As a pain reliever, the herb is useful for treating tension headaches, migraine headaches, arthritis, and sore muscles.
Valerian has also been found to be effective in a number of nerve disorders. The herb is useful for treating shingles, sciatica, neuralgia, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy. Symptoms suggestive of peripheral neuropathy such as numbness, tingling sensation, pain, and muscle weakness are effectively controlled with the use of valerian. It has also been used to treat attention deficit disorder in adults.
The herb has also found a role in treating a variety of nervous disorders in children. In one German study, an extract of valerian root was given to 120 children with a wide variety of behavioral disorders such as restlessness, sleep disorders, hyperactivity, learning disorders, bed wetting, anxiety, headache, and the habits of thumb sucking and nail biting. After three weeks of using valerian extract daily, 75 percent of the children showed marked improvement of their conditions without any toxicity or negative side effects.3
In ancient Rome, valerian was used to treat certain heart conditions. Through its positive action on the autonomic nervous system, the herb is effective in treating tachycardia by slowing down the heart at the same time gently increasing its force. It also is effective in regulating arrhythmias. Along with a stabilizing effect on the blood pressure, valerian is an anti- thrombotic that can be used to prevent the formation of blood clots.4
This stabilizing effect is also seen on the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. Valerian calms the stomach while encouraging the release of digestive enzymes and reducing the pain and discomfort of ulcers. In the colon, the herb alleviates cramps, gas, and diarrhea, and has a soothing effect on the bowel with colitis. Valerian has also proved helpful in the treatment of asthma.
Unlike other sedatives and drugs, valerian has none of the side effects or dependency risk that these have. In addition there is no synergistic effect when the herb is taken with alcohol. It can also be taken safely along with other prescription drugs. Valerian is used extensively in Europe where it is accepted by orthodox medicine. It is found in many over-the- counter preparations used to treat a variety of nervous disorders. As more practitioners discover the benefits of valerian, its use will increase in the United States as well.
1. Pedersen, M. Nutritional Herbology. Bountiful, UT: Pedersen Publishing,1987, p. 248.
2. Leathwood, P.D., Chauffard, F. Aqueous extract of valerian improves sleep quality in man. Pharmacol Biochem Behavior 17:65-71, 1982.
3. Klich, R, Gladbach, B. Verhaltensstoerungen im kindesalter und deren therapie. MedizinischeWelt 26(25):1252-1254, 1975.
4. Mowrey, D.B. Herbal Tonic Therapies. New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing, 1993, pp154-155
Martin Ravitzky is a holistic practitioner and health educator in New York City. To order reprints of this article, write to or call: Karen Ballen, Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 1651 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10128-3649.