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Valerian root is often referred to as “nature’s Valium.” In fact, this herb has been used since ancient times to promote tranquility and improve sleep.
Although it has received a lot of positive attention, questions have also been raised about its effectiveness and safety.
This article outlines the benefits of valerian, explores concerns about its safety and provides guidance on how to take it to get the best results.
What Is Valerian Root?
Valeriana officinalis, commonly known as valerian, is an herb native to Asia and Europe. It is now also grown in the US, China and other countries.
Flowers from the valerian plant were used to make perfume centuries ago, and the root portion has been used in traditional medicine for at least 2,000 years.
Unlike its delicately scented flowers, valerian root has a very strong, earthy odor due to the volatile oils and other compounds responsible for its sedative effects.
Interestingly, the name “valerian” is derived from the Latin verb valere, which means “to be strong” or “to be healthy.”
Valerian root extract is available as a supplement in capsule or liquid form. It can also be consumed as a tea.
Summary: Valerian is an herb native to Asia and Europe. Its root has been used to promote relaxation and sleep since ancient times.
How Does It Work?
Valerian Flower, Supplements and Liquid
Valerian root contains a number of compounds that may promote sleep and reduce anxiety.
These include valerenic acid, isovaleric acid and a variety of antioxidants.
Valerian has received attention for its interaction with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger that helps regulate nerve impulses in your brain and nervous system.
Researchers have shown that low GABA levels related to acute and chronic stress are linked to anxiety and low-quality sleep (1, 2, 3).
Valerenic acid has been found to inhibit the breakdown of GABA in the brain, resulting in feelings of calmness and tranquility. This is the same way anti-anxiety medications like Valium and Xanax work (4, 5, 6).
Valerian root also contains the antioxidants hesperidin and linarin, which appear to have sedative and sleep-enhancing properties (7).
Many of these compounds may inhibit excessive activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes fear and strong emotional responses to stress (5, 8).
One study found that treating mice with valerian improved their response to physical and psychological stress by maintaining levels of serotonin, a brain chemical involved in mood regulation (9).
Moreover, researchers have shown that isovaleric acid may prevent sudden or involuntary muscle contractions similar to valproic acid, a medication used to treat epilepsy (10, 11).
Summary: Valerian contains a number of compounds that may help promote calmness by reducing GABA breakdown, improving stress response and maintaining adequate levels of mood-stabilizing brain chemicals.