According to the American Sleep Disorders Association, one in three adults in America are deprived of a good night's rest on a regular basis. While all of us are occasionally affected by brief periods of restlessness, more than 35 million Americans wrestle with chronic insomnia. If the late-night movie or counting endless sheep hasn't invited the sandman, valerian may offer some respite.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a tall leafy perennial easily identified by an unusual aroma that pervades when the plant's roots are exposed. The offending culprit is isovalerianic acid, and is found concentrated in the plant's rootstock. Galen and Dioscorides appropriately named this herb "phu" since the root exudes an odor reminiscent of well-worn socks!
Taking the plants rather offensive aroma in stride, early European physicians considered it a panacea eventually gave it the nickname of "all-heal." Valerian has enjoyed a long reputation as a remedy to ease migraine, intestinal and menstrual cramps, hysteria, and various "nervous disorders." The herb has been used as a sleeping aid and mild tranquilizer for more than 1,000 years, long before the advent of barbiturates in the early 1900's. In England, valerian was often prescribed to help the population contend with the air raids of World War II.
Since the 1970s, hyperactive and learning-disabled children of Germany have been treated with valerian with positive results. One study involved 120 such children who showed improved concentration and less anxiety after taking doses of valerian for only a few weeks. In terms of its sedative efficacy, valerian has been compared to diazepam (Valium), and L-tryptophan, an amino acid similar to serotonin (one of the brain's neurotransmitters with a sedating effect). It was once prescribed for sleep disorders, but has been permanently banned from American markets due to an incidence of contamination with fatal results. Other familiar and commonly prescribed members of the benzodiazepine family include chlordiazepoxide (Librium), alprazolam (Xanax), and lorazapam (Ativan). However, the reliance upon any of these drugs as a relaxant or sleeping aide involves a high level of risk. Leading physician and author Andrew Weil, M.D. states that "...doctors who prescribe them and most patients who take them do not understand their effects or appreciate their dangers. Benzodiazepine addiction is one of the most difficult forms of drug dependence to treat." Valerian is a safe, non-habit forming alternative.
Unlike most barbiturates, valerian usually doesn't produce anxiety and/or morning grogginess upon waking. In fact, Michael Murray, N.D., co-author of the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, reports that "valerian actually reduces morning grogginess." The active agents found in the root of valerian, valepotriates and valeric acid, have a demonstrated ability to balance the central nervous system and to relieve temporary insomnia with satisfactory results. In a double-blind study involving 128 patients, valerian root extract provided the group with an improved quality of sleep, with less time required to fall asleep, and without periods of restlessness.
Valerian extract is standardized to contain 0.8% valerenic acids. Most health/natural stores carry preparations made from valerian, the usual dosage being 150-300 mg 45 minutes to one hour before retiring. Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy at Perdue University, suggests trying a commercial blend of valerian, hops, chamomile, oats, passionflower and balm. A tea made from the dried root calls for one to two grams of plant material and, if you recall the analogy to foul smelling socks, a healthy dose of courage!
Tips for Better Sleep
Consult your physician if you suffer from chronic insomnia to rule out conditions such as hypoglycemia.
Regular exercise, yoga, meditation, or a simple warm bath, can all alleviate stress and muscle tension, the primary cause of insomnia.
Eating a plain baked potato or a piece of bread shortly before bedtime can trigger the brain to release more sedative neurotransmitters.
Limit your consumption of alcohol, caffeine and chocolate. Many diet pills and cold medications contain ephedrine and/or phenylpropanolamine (PPA), powerful stimulants that can interfere with normal sleep.
Don't use any sleeping aid for an extended period of time. Instead, learn techniques to reduce stress.