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Valerian

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Updated November 13, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Valerian's Medicinal Uses:

Valerian supplementation is somewhat common for insomnia and anxiety, both of which can be problems for people with fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).

The herbal supplement is made from the roots of the Valeriana officinalis plant. It has been used medicinally for centuries. However, modern medical studies are divided on whether valerian is effective.

Some studies suggest valerian can help ease insomnia by helping you get to sleep faster, and that it can improve the quality of your sleep. The worse a person sleeps, the more effective valerian appears to be.

For anxiety, several studies suggest that valerian may alleviate symptoms. Some research has looked into its use for treating depression and symptoms of menopause as well.

However, many of the available valerian studies are considered too small or of poor design, so we don't have enough solid evidence to say for certain whether valerian is significantly effective for any medicinal use.

How Valerian Works:

Scientists haven't yet nailed down exactly how valerian works. They believe that it increases the activity of the brain neurotransmitter called gamma aminobytyric acid, or GABA. GABA's role is to calm the brain and therefore alleviate anxiety.

Valerian may work similarly to sedative drugs such as Valium (diazepam), but in a much weaker capacity.

Valerian for Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome:

Curiosity about valerian makes sense when you consider the symptoms and overlapping conditions of FMS and ME/CFS. Insomnia and poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression and intensified menopausal symptoms are all common in these conditions.

So far, though, we have almost no research on valerian's use specifically for these conditions. The exception is a small 1999 study out of Germany that indicated valerian-infused whirlpool baths may improve sleep and well-being in fibromyalgia.

Anecdotal evidence tends to be divided as to how valerian works against FMS and ME/CFS symptoms. Some people swear by it while others say it was ineffective or caused unpleasant side effects.

Valerian Dosage:

Valerian is available in multiple forms, including:

  • Liquid extracts and tinctures
  • Capsules and tables
  • Teas

Dosage varies, ranging from 4 mL in some teas to 600 mg of powdered extract. For insomnia, it's usually recommended to take it an hour or two before bedtime. For anxiety, it can be taken 3 or 4 times a day.

Valerian Side Effects & Risks:

Valerian is generally regarded as safe. However, it has been linked to numerous possible side effects, including:

  • Headache
  • Excitability
  • Uneasiness/restlessness/agitation/nervousness
  • Upset stomach
  • Dizziness and unsteadiness
  • Low body temperatures
  • Exaggerated sense of well-being
  • Concentration problems
  • Insomnia, when taken longer than 2-4 months
  • Hangover effect the next day

After long-term use of high doses, discontinuing valerian may cause withdrawal symptoms, such as confusion and rapid heartbeat.

Valerian use is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding due to a lack of data on safety and concerns over certain chemical components of the herb.

Some formulations of valerian with multiple other herbs have been linked to liver toxicity, but it's unknown what role, if any, valerian plays in this. Valerian may also hamper the way in which your liver processes some drugs. Be sure to check with your doctor and pharmacist about any negative interactions valerian may have with the drugs or other supplements you're taking, or any problems you may experience while taking it.

Also See:

Sources:

Ammer K, Melnizky P. Forsch komplemantarmed. 1999 Apr;6(2):80-5. Article in German. Abstract referenced. Medicinal baths for treatment of generalized fibromyalgia.

Nunes A, Sousa M. Acta medica portuguesa. 2011 Dec;24 Suppl 4:961-6. Article in Portuguese. Abstract referenced. Use of valerian in anxiety and sleep disorders: what is the best evidence?

Ramharter J, Mulzer J. Organic letters. 2009 Mar 5;11(5):1151-3. Total synthesis of valerienic acid, a potent GABAA receptor modulator.

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