Valerian: A Natural Herbal Sleep Aid? Unpacking the Research and Claims


Valerian, scientifically known as Valeriana officinalis, is a traditional herbal remedy with a rich history. For ages, it’s been widely used to help alleviate symptoms of insomnia, anxiety, and nervous restlessness. Its effects are known to be gentle yet effective, making it a favorite for many seeking natural treatments.

What is Valerian?

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a herbal remedy that belongs to the Valerianaceae family. It’s native to Europe and Asia but is also naturally found in North America. While the Valerian genus comprises over 250 species, Valeriana officinalis is the most commonly used in the U.S. and Europe.

Valerian flowers | Image: Pixabay

Valerian is often cultivated for ornamental purposes in gardens, but it also thrives wild in damp meadows. It boasts a straight, hollow stem topped with umbrella-like clusters. Its deep green leaves have sharp tips and are fuzzy underneath. The plant flowers in June, producing small, sweet-smelling blooms in shades of white, pale purple, or pink.

Valerian root | Image: Pixabay

The root of the Valerian plant is a light gray-brown and is virtually odorless when fresh. However, when dried, it gives off a strong scent, reminiscent of a damp rag that’s been left out for too long or, as some say, like a stinky unwashed sock. It’s quite the distinctive smell!

To mask its aroma, Valerian is often combined with other calming herbs such as Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), Hops (Humulus lupulus), Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), and Kava (Piper methysticum).

Valerian supplements sold over-the-counter are derived from its roots, rhizomes (underground stems), and stolons. The dried roots can be brewed into teas or tinctures, while the dried powders and extracts are encapsulated or pressed into tablets.

Health benefits of Valerian

Since the times of ancient Greece and Rome, valerian has been employed as a medicinal herb. Historically, it was used to address ailments like insomnia, migraines, fatigue, and stomach cramps.

During World War II, the British turned to it for relief from the stress of air raids. Today, valerian is promoted as a remedy for a range of issues, including insomnia, anxiety, depression, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), menopausal symptoms, headaches, epileptic seizures, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, there’s insufficient scientific evidence to support its use for these conditions.

Post-air raid London during WWII
(Image: Imperial War Museum / Wikimedia

The precise mechanism of how valerian works remains a bit of a mystery to scientists. However, it’s widely believed that it increases the amount of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain.

GABA plays a role in regulating nerve cells and has calming effects, particularly on anxiety. Medications like Xanax (alprazolam) and Valium (diazepam) also function by enhancing GABA levels in the brain. Researchers theorize that valerian may produce similar calming effects, albeit milder.

Researches on Valerian and sleep disorders

Valerian is best known to the general public for its potential in improving sleep disturbances, leading scientists to conduct numerous clinical studies on the subject.

In a systematic review of scientific literature, nine randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trials on valerian and sleep disorders were identified and evaluated to determine its effectiveness in treating insomnia. While all nine trials had their limitations, three of them achieved top scores, each receiving a 5 out of 5.

In the first study, 128 volunteers were administered either a 400mg valerian water extract, a commercial preparation containing 60mg valerian and 30mg hops, or a placebo. Results suggested that compared to the placebo, the valerian extract showed statistically significant subjective improvements in the time it took to fall asleep, sleep quality, and the number of nighttime awakenings.

However, since participants weren’t required to have insomnia, the study’s results can’t conclusively determine the clinical significance of using valerian to treat insomnia. Additionally, the study had a dropout rate of 22.9%, which may have influenced the findings.

Image: Cottonbro Studio

In the second study, eight individuals with mild insomnia (typically having difficulty falling asleep) were evaluated to discern the effects of valerian on sleep latency. A 450mg dose of valerian extract reduced the average time taken to fall asleep from about 16 minutes to 9 minutes, mimicking the action of prescription benzodiazepines, which are used as sedatives or tranquilizers. A 900mg dose of valerian, though increasing the sleep benefits, left participants feeling more drowsy the next morning.

While statistically significant, this reduction of 7 minutes in sleep latency and the improvement in subjective sleep scores might not be clinically relevant. The small sample size also makes it challenging to generalize the results to a broader population.

The third study explored the long-term effects on 121 individuals with documented non-organic insomnia. After 28 days, the group given a 600mg dose of valerian extract displayed reduced symptoms of insomnia compared to the placebo group. The improvement difference between valerian and the placebo widened between the 14th and 28th-day assessments.

However, some other studies didn’t paint as rosy a picture. The difficulty in deciphering these studies stems from their small sample sizes, the use of different quantities and sources of valerian, measuring different outcomes, or not accounting for biases due to high dropout rates. Overall, these trials present an inconclusive picture of valerian’s sleep-inducing efficacy.

Additionally, two small-scale studies suggest that valerian might offer relief from menopausal symptoms, but the evidence isn’t substantial enough to conclude. There’s also insufficient data to definitively state whether valerian aids in addressing anxiety, depression, PMS, menstrual cramps, stress, or other ailments.

Side effects of Valerian

Most folks experience no adverse reactions when taking valerian at recommended dosages. The most common side effects include headaches, dizziness, upset stomach, and drowsiness. Given its potential to cause sleepiness, it’s advisable to avoid driving or operating heavy machinery after consumption.

Valerian isn’t recommended for pregnant or nursing women and children under the age of three, as potential risks to fetuses, infants, or children haven’t been assessed.

Valerian may amplify the effects of other medications. When combined with other sleep aids, such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, or central nervous system depressants, the therapeutic outcomes might be enhanced, but side effects can also compound. Valerian might also interact with other dietary supplements like St. John’s Wort, Kava, and melatonin.

Things to know before taking Valerian supplements

Before you decide to take valerian supplements for insomnia, here are some things to consider:

  1. Medication might not be your best option: Start by adjusting your sleep habits first. Avoid caffeine in the evening, maintain a regular sleep schedule, engage in routine exercise, and relax an hour or two before bedtime. Cognitive-behavioral therapy may address insomnia more effectively and safely than drugs or herbal supplements. For instance, replace worries about insomnia with positive thoughts. Or, there might be significant underlying issues, like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, that warrant a doctor’s visit.
  2. Be wary of misleading product claims: Don’t rely on product hype or marketing. Instead, look for reliable, science-backed information, like resources from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) or the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), both under the National Institutes of Health.
  3. Dosage is uncertain: Research suggests valerian appears most effective after being taken continuously for two weeks or more. However, the ideal dosage remains unclear due to varying amounts used in studies, and some were not rigorous enough. Most valerian root supplements contain about 300-600mg per serving, though some products may have 1000mg or even higher doses.
  4. Potential side effects: Although generally considered safe, valerian might lead to headaches, dizziness, gastrointestinal issues, or insomnia. It might not be safe if you’re pregnant or nursing. Its safety hasn’t been assessed for children under three. If you have liver disease, avoid valerian as many medications rely on the liver for breakdown, and valerian might slow this process.
  5. Possible drug interactions: Valerian might enhance the effects of other sleep aids. It also amplifies the sedative effects of depressants, such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and anesthetics. Valerian could interfere with some prescription drugs and might interact with other dietary supplements like St. John’s Wort.
  6. Herbal supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA: You can’t always be sure of what you’re getting or if it’s safe. Supplements containing valerian might be inconsistent and could include other ingredients. Remember, just because something is natural doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe.
  7. Talk to your doctor: If you’re considering taking valerian, discuss it with your physician first to ensure it doesn’t interfere with any other medications or supplements you’re on and to ascertain its safety given your health or medical conditions.

Top 8 Valerian supplement recommendations

Gaia Herbs Valerian Root

Gaia Herbs offers its Valerian Root supplement to support relaxation, particularly during stressful periods. If you’re seeking a restful night’s sleep, this supplement can help you find peace. Made with high-quality organic valerian root, it aims to ensure you wake up feeling refreshed.

Gaia Herbs Valerian Root - Natural Sleep Support for a Natural Calm to Help Relaxation to Prepare for Sleep - with Organic Valerian Root...
234 Reviews
Also at Gaia Herbs
Gaia Herbs Valerian Root 60 Vegan Liquid Phyto-Capsules

It’s purity-tested, vegan, gluten-free, and proudly made in North Carolina, USA. Since 1987, Gaia Herbs has been dedicated to connecting people, plants, and the planet through a holistic approach to well-being.

Herb Pharm Certified Organic Valerian Root Liquid Extract

Experience a restful night with Herb Pharm’s Certified Organic Valerian Root Liquid Extract, crafted to promote relaxation and deep sleep. This easy-to-absorb formula enhances the herb’s effects while pleasing your senses of taste and smell, deepening your connection to the herb.

Herb Pharm Certified Organic Valerian Root Liquid Extract for Relaxation and Restful Sleep, Organic Cane Alcohol, 4 Ounce
3,469 Reviews
Also at iHerb
Herb Pharm Certified Organic Valerian Root Liquid Extract

Sourced from the fresh rhizome and root of the Certified-Organic Valeriana officinalis plant, its authenticity is validated through thorough HPTLC fingerprinting and expert herb identification. Prioritizing purity, this extract is vegan, non-GMO, and gluten-free.

Herbal Secrets Valerian Root Capsules

Experience the benefits of Herbal Secrets’ Valerian Root supplement, delivering a potent 500mg in each serving. Each bottle holds 120 easy-to-take veggie capsules. Prioritizing quality, this supplement is non-GMO, gluten-free, and has undergone third-party testing. Manufactured in line with GMP standards, it ensures top-notch quality.

Herbal Secrets Valerian Root 500mg 120 Veggie Capsules Supplement | Non-GMO | Gluten Free | Made in USA
908 Reviews
Also at iHerb
Herbal Secrets Valerian Root 500mg 120 Capsules

Proudly made in the USA, Herbal Secrets guarantees the highest purity and potency for their Valerian Root supplement.

Nature’s Answer Alcohol-Free Valerian Root

Nature’s Answer introduces its Alcohol-Free Valerian Root Fluid Extract, sourced from the Valeriana officinalis root. Each serving mirrors the benefits of 1,000 mg of the dried plant. Carefully crafted with alcohol, water, and natural extractants, the product preserves the extract’s holistic balance.

Nature's Answer Alcohol-Free Valerian Root, 2-Fluid Ounces
1,984 Reviews
Also at iHerb
Nature’s Answer Alcohol-Free Valerian Root, 1,000 mg, 2 fl oz

The Bio-Chelated Cold Extraction Process is used to eliminate alcohol and extraction materials, resulting in a super-concentrated formula designed for calmness and relaxation. Using Advanced Botanical Fingerprint Technology for authentication, Nature’s Answer ensures the utmost purity and quality in every bottle.

Nature’s Sunshine Valerian Root

Nature’s Sunshine presents its Valerian Root supplement, fortified with standardized valerenic acids known for their calming effects. Each capsule delivers a potent 410mg of valerian root, appreciated for its non-addictive nature, ensuring users rise without morning drowsiness.

Nature's Sunshine Valerian Root, 100 Capsules | Herbal Supplement Promotes Relaxation, Supports Sleep, and Delivers Natural Nervous System...
149 Reviews
Also at Nature’s Sunshine
Nature’s Sunshine Valerian Root, 100 Capsules

Valerian Root not only helps relax the central nervous system and reduce stress, promoting a restful sleep in adults, but also supports a healthy nervous system, fostering a sense of calm.

NOW Foods Valerian Root

NOW Foods presents a 500 mg vegan Valerian Root capsule, advised to take 2 capsules at bedtime when needed. Its standout qualities include certifications like Non-GMO, Soy Free, Vegan, and more.

NOW Supplements, Valerian Root (Valeriana officinalis) 500 mg, Herbal Supplement, 250 Veg Capsules
Also at iHerb
NOW Foods Valerian Root 500 mg 250 Veg Capsules

With an NPA A-rated GMP certification, the product guarantees top-tier manufacturing processes, from lab tests to final formulation. Made in the USA, NOW Foods has been a reliable, family-run company since 1968.

Swanson Valerian Root

For over 50 years, Swanson has been a trusted provider of science-backed health products. Manufactured in GMP-certified facilities and verified by independent labs, you can trust the quality of every supplement.

Swanson Valerian Root - Herbal Supplement - Relaxation and Sleep - 100 Capsules, 950mg per Serving
Also at iHerb
Swanson Valerian Root Supplement 950 mg / 475 mg

Swanson’s Valerian Root supplement offers a potent 950mg per capsule. If you need a reliable sleep aid, simply take one to two capsules an hour before bedtime.

Nature’s Way Valerian Root

Nature’s Way is dedicated to sourcing botanicals from the best regions, guaranteeing top quality in every product. Their Valerian Root supplement is Non-GMO Project Verified and exemplifies their commitment to quality.

Nature's Way Valerian Root - Traditional Sleep Support* - Valerian Root Capsules - Gluten Free & Vegan - 100 Capsules
1,460 Reviews
Nature’s Way Valerian Root Traditional Sleep Support

This gluten-free, vegan formula is free from salt, yeast, corn, wheat, soy, dairy, and artificial additives. With a deep belief in nature’s blueprint for health, Nature’s Way balances age-old traditions with modern health needs, consistently offering trustworthy products rooted in natural wellness.

Trusted Website U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health Open the link →

Fan Zhao

A smart and thrifty homemaker who loves baking.

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