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Put Insomnia to Bed with Valerian Root

Valerian is a flowering perennial in the honeysuckle family native to Europe and Asia. Its name is taken from the Latin word valere, which means healthy and strong. Also known as and all-heal, setwall and garden heliotrope, valerian is readily recognized by its clusters of sweetly-scented pink or white flowers. The root, however, the medicinal part of the plant, has an odor reminiscent of well-worn socks, earning the herb the nickname "phu." While butterflies flock to the flowers, be warned that cats are inexplicably compelled to roll around in the unearthed stinky roots as though it were catnip.

Valerian has been used for centuries to promote restful sleep and to reduce anxiety. The early physicians Hippocrates and Galen both wrote of the virtues of the herb, recommending it to treat insomnia. The 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper suggested that "the root boiled with liquorice, raisons and aniseed is good for those troubled with cough. Also, it is of special value against the plague, the decoction thereof being drunk and the root smelled. The green herb being bruised and applied to the head taketh away pain and pricking thereof."

The plant contains several active constituents, including various alkaloids, sesquiterpenes and flavanones. The sedative effects of the root are attributed to the presence of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an amino acid that serves as a neurotransmitter that reduces neuronal excitability that contributes to feelings of anxiety. Because GABA has a calming effect on the brain, it is used to counter pain and stimulate appetite, as well as to help regulate sleep. Studies have shown that valerian root extracts effectively and safely improve sleep in post-operative patients, postmenopausal women, anxiety sufferers and those who live with chronic pain. Unlike pharmaceutical medications, however, valerian does not produce grogginess upon awakening.


Effect of valerian on sleep quality in postmenopausal women: a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial.

Taavoni S, Ekbatani N, Kashaniyan M, Haghani H. Menopause. 2011 Sep;18(9):951-5. doi:

10.1097/gme.0b013e31820e9acf. PMID: 21775910 Clinical Trial.

Critical evaluation of the effect of valerian extract on sleep structure and sleep quality.

Donath F, Quispe S, Diefenbach K, Maurer A, Fietze I, Roots I. Pharmacopsychiatry. 2000 Mar;33(2):47-53.

doi: 10.1055/s-2000-7972. PMID: 10761819 Clinical Trial.

Treating primary insomnia - the efficacy of valerian and hops.

Salter S, Brownie S. Aust Fam Physician. 2010 Jun;39(6):433-7. PMID: 20628685 Review.


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