Valerian is a perennial plant that may be best known for its unusual and unpleasant odor. It is commonly used as a medicinal herb. According to information published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website the therapeutic use of valerian dates back to the era of Hippocrates, the father of western medicine. The roots and stems of valerian are made into tinctures and teas and the dried leaves and flowers are ground into powder for capsules.
The NIH reports that valerian "improves the quality of sleep and reduces the time to fall asleep." The effect of valerian increases with use. First time users may not find valerian helpful for insomnia, but may get the desired effects with continued use. It is thought that valerian causes drowsiness by effecting the amount of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) released by and returned to the brain's synaptosomes.
Valerian may be useful in treating anxiety disorders, especially when combined with other herbal medications such as St. John's wort and passionflower. However, more studies are needed to produce conclusive scientific evidence for using valerian as a treatment for anxiety disorders.
General Treatments and Safety
Though modern scientific support indicates only limited use of valerian, its centuries-long place in folk and herbal medicine lead many people to treat headache, menstrual pain, amenorrhea, digestive problems, high blood pressure, muscle spasm and depression with the herb. Valerian is generally safe when used as recommended, but can cause stomach upset, dizziness and headache. Some people who have used valerian for an extended time report withdrawal symptoms that include confusion, rapid heartbeat and the feeling of having a hangover. Valerian should not be used by pregnant or nursing women or by children. It may interact with other medications, such as antidepressants and should not be used with alcohol.