What you need to know about this centuries-old sleep aid
Supplements for better-quality sleep are in high demand. “Consumers are looking for supplements that can help promote restful and restorative sleep,” says Erin Stokes, ND, medical director at MegaFood, which markets Dream Release sleep formula and other supplements. She quotes a National Institutes of Health figure of 60 million Americans per year who report frequent insomnia or extended bouts of it. Likewise, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in February 2016 that more than one in three Americans was sleeping less than the recommended seven hours per night. “Sleeping less than seven hoursâ¦is associated with an increased risk of developing chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and frequent mental distress,” CDC’s report explained.
The health and safety consequences of too little sleep seem to be pretty well publicized to and understood by Americans, which is why it comes as no surprise that supplement makers are increasingly marketing various “natural” alternatives to over-the-counter and prescription sleep drugs. These supplements contain ingredients ranging from minerals to amino acids to herbs to hormones, including magnesium, GABA, L-theanine, L-tryptophan, chamomile, hops, lemon balm, melatonin, and the subject of this slideshow, valerian root. Valerian-containing sleep supplements are available as capsules, tablets, gummies, melt-aways, and liquids targeted at nearly all demographics: adults, children, and athletes.
While melatonin supplements appear to be leading the sleep-supplement pack, this slideshow takes a closer look at valerian, which has been used in traditional medicine for centuries and appears in many current-day sleep-supplement formulations.
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Valerian Root: An Overview
Commonly known as valerian, all-heal, and garden heliotrope , Valeriana officinalis is a perennial flowering plant native to Europe and Asia that also grows in North America. The roots and rhizomes (underground stems) are used for supplements and teas. “Valerian’s use to support healthy sleep patterns and calm nervousness dates back to ancient Greece and Rome,” says MegaFood’s Stokes. The plant is even mentioned in the writings of the ancient Greek “father of modern medicine,” Hippocrates.
Valerian has “a long history of use in adults,” Stokes explains, and its contemporary uses include those for anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, and menopause.
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How Safe Is Valerian?
Studies suggest that valerian is generally safe for use by most healthy adults for short periods of time. A 2007 systematic clinical review of valerian as a sleep aid in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews concluded that valerian is an “apparently safe herb, with few reported side effects. These products are unlikely to cause harm other than perhaps delaying individuals from seeking [more] effective treatment for insomnia symptoms,” the authors wrote.(1) “Healthcare providers should advise patients of potential herb-drug interactions,” they added, citing “additive sedation” and “possible alteration of drug metabolism” as possible issues.
An editorial published in the journal Menopause in 2011 contended that valerian is also “safer than other sleeping pills. It does not impair morning reaction times, concentration, or coordination. Its most notable adverse effect is occasional mild headaches.”(2)
No information is available regarding the long-term safety of valerian, NIH states on its website, or its safety in children younger than three years old, pregnant women, or nursing mothers.
1. Taibi DM et al., “A systemic review of valerian as a sleep aid: Safe but not effective,” Sleep Medicine Reviews, vol. 11, no. 3 (June 2007): 209-230
2. Regestein QR, “Is there anything special about valerian?” Menopause: The Journal of the North American Menopause Society, vol. 18, no. 9 (September 2011): 937-939
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How Effective Is Valerian?
“Valerian has been shown to improve sleep in people with sleep problems,” states Michael Grandner, PhD, assistant professor of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Medicine, and director, Sleep & Health Research Program, University of Arizona College of Medicine. “However,” he cautions, “it has not been shown to be sufficiently effective to be used as a treatment for insomnia.”
Indeed, the plant’s effectiveness as a sleep aid is described in some literature, including the 2007 Sleep Medicine Reviews piece, as “inconclusive.” Most studies, the authors wrote, “found no significant differences between valerian and placebo either in healthy individuals or in persons with general sleep disturbance or insomnia.” On the other hand, “It remains possible that valerian may be a useful, mild treatment for sleep disturbance, but current evidence does not support its use, and research is needed to determine which products and doses of valerian might be efficacious,” the authors allowed.
“Researchers generally report that valerian relieves insomnia no more than a placebo does or that it poses only a weak therapeutic effect,” wrote Quentin R. Regestein, MD, author of the previously mentioned Menopause editorial. “But,” Regestein pointed out, “people who have insomnia chose it disproportionately over alternative drugs. This leaves prescribers in a dilemma between experts who say that valerian does little or nothing and valerian users who apparently feel that it effectively relieves their insomnia better than other drugs do.”
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The Science behind Valerian
A 1999 piece from the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology analyzed the active compounds in valerian and explained the mechanisms by which they work.(3) “The major constituents include the monoterpene bornyl acetate and the sesquiterpene valerenic acid, in addition to other types of sesquiterpenes,” the author wrote. “Some of these have been shown to have a direct action on the amygdaloid body of the brain, and valerenic acid has been shown to inhibit enzyme-induced breakdown of GABA in the brain, resulting in sedation. “The non-volatile monoterpenes known as valepotriates,” the author continued, “were first isolated in 1966 and contribute to the overall activity by possessing sedative activity based on the [central nervous system], although the mode of action is not clearly known.”
Aqueous extracts of valerian root have also been found to contain “appreciable amounts of GABA,” the author added, as well as a lignan known as hydroxypinoresinol, which is able to bind to benzodiazepine receptors. “It has been noted that different extracts have slightly different effects, i.e., crude extracts made with water alone or with alcohol tend to be sleep-inducing and sedative, whilst those made with dilute alcohol, containing a high level of valepotriates, have a tranquilizing action, i.e., they reduce anxiety without causing drowsiness.”
3. Houghton PJ, “The scientific basis for the reputed activity of valerian,” Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, vol. 51, no. 5 (May 1999): 505-512
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