Valerian is an herb native to Europe and Asia, and now grows in most parts of the world. The name is believed to come from the Latin word "valere" meaning to be healthy or strong. The root of the plant is believed to contain its active constituents. Use of valerian as a sedative and anti-anxiety treatment has been reported for more than 2,000 years. For example, in the 2nd Century AD, Galen recommended valerian as a treatment for insomnia. Related species have been used in traditional Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Preparations for use on the skin have been used to treat sores and acne, and valerian by mouth has been used for other conditions such as digestive problems, flatulence (gas), congestive heart failure, urinary tract disorders, and angina.
Valerian extracts became popular in the United States and Europe in the mid-1800s, and continued to be used by both physicians and the lay public until it was widely replaced by prescription sedative drugs. Valerian remains popular in North America, Europe, and Japan and is widely used to treat insomnia and anxiety. Although the active ingredients in valerian are not known, preparations are often standardized to the content of valerenic acid.
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These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
Several studies in adults suggest that valerian improves the quality of sleep and reduces the time to fall asleep (sleep latency), for up to four to six weeks. Ongoing nightly use may be more effective than single-dose use, with increasing effects over four weeks. Better effects have been found in poor sleepers. However, most studies have not used scientific ways of measuring sleep improvements, such as sleep pattern data in a sleep laboratory.
Several studies of valerian have reported benefits in reducing non-specific anxiety symptoms. Valerian has also been given in combination with other herbs, such as passionflower and St. John's wort to treat anxiety. However, most studies have been small and poorly designed. More research is needed before a recommendation can be made.
Although valerian has not been studied specifically as a sedative, evidence from studies conducted for other purposes suggests that valerian may not have significant sedative effects when used at recommended doses. Therefore, even though valerian could be helpful as a sleep aid, it does not appear to cause sedation.