Using Valerian To Help You Sleep

photo of brown valerian pillsAre you thinking about trying valerian to help you sleep, or to reduce anxiety?

Do you have a question about using it properly, the side effects or long-term safety?

As an insomniac myself, I’ve tested and written about several over the counter sleep aids that have valerian as the main ingredient.

Readers regularly ask questions about the specific sleep aids in the comments sections. But many of those questions are best answered by talking about valerian itself, rather than the particular brand.

So in this article, I’ll be taking a look at what the experts currently say about using valerian as a sleep aid.

And there’s been a lot of research into its effectiveness, with mixed results. So I’ll also be discussing some of the key research done over the years.

1. What is valerian root?

valerian plant

Valerian (Valeriana Officinalis) is a tall, flowering plant that’s native to Europe and parts of Asia. It was also naturalized to North America.

It’s the root of the plant that’s used as a herbal remedy. As a sleep aid, the root is available in many forms – as a whole piece of root, dried powder, pill or capsule, liquid extract, tincture, and in tea.

It has a strong and unpleasant taste, so some people prefer it in capsule form or disguised in tea with other ingredients. In my experience, sometimes even store-bought pills taste bad though!

Valerian is one of the most popular herbal remedies for sleep and anxiety problems. In a large survey in the United States, approximately 2 million adults said they had used valerian in the previous week.

2. What’s the correct dosage for sleep?

The question of the right valerian root dosage is a tricky one as there isn’t a standard answer. It’s classed as a herbal remedy or food supplement, and therefore not regulated to the same level as pharmaceutical sleep aids.

Even medical websites offer different advice about the range of dosages you can take.

According to drugs.com, the recommended dosage is 400 to 600 mg per day for 2 to 4 weeks, based on the quantities used in clinical trials.

Healthline has similar advice:

Take 300 to 600 milligrams (mg) of valerian root 30 minutes to 2 hours before bedtime. This is best for insomnia or sleep trouble. For tea, soak 2 to 3 grams of dried herbal valerian root in 1 cup of hot water for 10 to 15 minutes.

WebMD suggests a higher maximum dosage, recommending 400 to 900 mg of valerian extract before bedtime.

My advice would be to stick to the instructions on the information leaflet if you buy valerian. And not to exceed 600 mg without discussing it with a doctor first.

3. When to take it to help with sleep

For anxiety, valerian can be taken during the daytime or before bed, as per the manufacturer’s instructions. For sleep, the general advice is to take valerian between 30 minutes and two hours before bedtime.

4. How long can you take valerian for?

It’s usually advised that valerian can be taken for up to 28 days. A principal reason is that the majority of research studies (see below) only go up to 28 days. And those studies show that valerian is usually well tolerated for this length of time.

The long-term safety of valerian still isn’t known though. So if your sleep problems continue after 28 days, it’s best to speak to your doctor about it.

Some medical sites, such as the Mayoclinic, suggest that valerian has an accumulative effect, working best after 2 weeks of daily use.

Dr. Dick Middleton, chairman of the British Herbal Medical Association, also recommends that valerian is taken for 2 to 4 weeks to reap the benefits.

So that might only leave you a 2 week window to fully benefit from a sedative effect. Unless, of course, the placebo effect also plays a part.

5. Safety and possible side effects

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers valerian root as ‘generally recognized as safe’.

And researchers in Portugal, who analysed the data of trials spanning 10 years, concluded:

Valerian root is well tolerated and safe, with infrequent and benign side effects

But despite being infrequent, some people do experience side effects. According to the National Institutes of Health and drugs.com, possible side effects include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Itchy skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Upset stomach / diarrhea
  • The opposite effect – restlessness, excitement, insomnia
  • Daytime sleepiness (more common with larger doses)

6. Can you overdose on valerian root?

There’s very little information available about what might happen if you take more than the recommended dosage. A case report published in 1995 suggests that even a large dose has a low toxicity:

The patient presented with mild symptoms, all of which resolved within 24 h. Valerian overdose, at approximately 20 times the recommended therapeutic dose, appears to be benign.

Still, another important point to keep in mind is the potential to be intolerant or allergic to valerian. You should seek medical assistance if you experience the following symptoms:

  • Hives (swollen, red bumps or blisters on the skin)
  • Swelling in the face, lips, tongue, or throat.
  • Difficulty in breathing or chest pain.

7. Who shouldn’t take valerian

If you’re not sure about taking valerian, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor first. That said, there are some situations in which it’s generally advised not to take valerian:

  • If you’re pregnant or nursing (it’s not known if it’s safe for the fetus or infant, so it’s better to be cautious).
  • Children under 3 years old shouldn’t be given valerian.
  • If you have liver disease.

8. Drug interactions

There’s a risk of an additive effect if you take other medications or substances that can cause sedation at the same time as valerian.

If you’re taking any of the following medications, it’s better to get your doctor’s approval before taking valerian:

  • Benzodiazepines, such as Ativan, Halcion, Valium and Xanax.
  • Barbiturates or central nervous system depressants, such as Luminal, morphine, and Diprivan.
  • Drugs changed and broken down by the liver, such as Mevacor, Nizoral, Sporanox, Allegra, and Halcion.
  • Other sedatives, analgesics or sleeping pills.
  • Alcohol
  • Recreational drugs.

9. Can I take valerian and melatonin at the same time?

Melatonin can also cause drowsiness, so it’s better not to mix melatonin and valerian without talking to your doctor first.

10. Is there research evidence that valerian helps with sleep problems?

During the last few decades, there have been a large number of research studies looking at the sedative effects of valerian.

I’ve read many of the published studies, discovering some that prove it works, others that say it doesn’t, and some that found it worked, but so did a placebo!

The current situation appears to be that the evidence is inconclusive, and more research is both warranted and needed. As the National Institutes of Health valerian fact sheet states:

Evidence from clinical studies of the efficacy of valerian in treating sleep disorders such as insomnia is inconclusive.

So what is that evidence exactly? There are 3 particularly useful studies in which researchers analyzed the available data from individual clinical trials.

I think their conclusions are especially helpful, as they only included studies they assessed as being of higher quality.

A) Research in Korea

In 2018, researchers in South Korea reviewed 79 studies investigating plant-derived extracts. They found a total of 21 plants had been tested, and valerian was the most common. However, they found conflicting results, and summarized:

There was limited evidence with inconclusive results regarding the effects of single plant-derived natural products on sleep, warranting further studies.

B) Research in Portugal

In 2011, researchers in Portugal looked at valerian studies published in English, Spanish, French or Portuguese spanning 10 years. They found:

The evidence is insufficient regarding the efficacy of valerian in the treatment of anxiety disorders…The evidence in insomnia is limited by the contradictory results of studies reviewed and their methodological problems, although it seems to have some effect in mild to moderate insomnia.

C) Research in the United States

In 2006, researchers at the University of California looked at 16 studies involving a total of 1093 patients. They found 6 studies with evidence of improvements to sleep, and concluded:

This systematic review suggests that valerian may improve sleep quality, but methodologic problems of the included studies limit the ability to draw firm conclusions.

They also suspected that more studies have been done that didn’t show a positive effect for valerian, and were simply never published.

If you’re interested in reading more about the individual studies, each of the 3 above do reference the clinical trials they discuss.

It’s interesting, and a shame, that the study authors all found significant flaws in the research. Hopefully, in the future, scientists will take note of their criticisms and design experiments which satisfy the high standards expected to demonstrate that a sleep aid really works.

11. How do scientists think valerian works?

The exact mechanism of action isn’t fully understood. Research suggest that valerian root extract might contain gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is also found in the brain.

GABA is thought to act as a natural nerve calming agent. Some drugs, such as Valium and Xanax, also work by increasing GABA activity in the brain.

However, the National Institute of Health suggests that it could in fact be the result of multiple constituents, rather than just one compound.

12. My personal experience

A lot of the evidence that valerian can help with insomnia is anecdotal. It’s been used since medieval times in Europe, and has an extensive history in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine too.

My personal experience has been that it might have a mild sedative effect. I’ve tried several over the counter sleep aids containing valerian (Kalms, Sominex and Nytol). I’ve also prepared my own, and drunk it in tea form.

But I’ve never been quite sure if it’s the valerian, other ingredient in some cases, or a placebo effect. Personally, I would like to think it works, as I’d prefer to take a natural remedy than a pharmaceutical sleep aid.

But at the end of the day, I’d also prefer not to take any sleep aids at all, other than the occasional relaxing cup of herbal tea before bed.

Your experience

Have you taken valerian to help you sleep better? What form did you take it in, and do you think it helped? Let me know in the comments below!

valerian tea freshly prepared with the flower

14 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I just recently started taking Spring Valley Valerian Root, dosage three capsules 400 mg. But I’m also taking 10 mg time release melatonin. I still wake up after 3 to 4 hrs sleep. The past two nights I got up and took two more valerian and went back to sleep within 30 mins. Is it ok to take more valerian during the night? I am getting more sleep than I was before starting the Valerian.

    • Hi Carolyn
      Thanks for your comment. Usually, it’s advised not to take more sleep aids late in the night. Valerian might be one you could get away with taking more of if really needed, but I wouldn’t want to say either way if you should or not. I’d discuss this with your doctor, or ask the manufacturer for their advice.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hi,
    When I took Valerian it didn’t help me sleep really but as the article you wrote suggests it does seem to have an accumulative effect, it just made me very lethargic even 3 days after stopping it, of course we are all a bit different. Unfortunately my insomnia is so bad I have to take Zolpidem pretty much each night to fall asleep otherwise I toss and turn until 6am or not sleep at all. Zolpidem doesn’t keep me asleep all night due to it’s short half life. I would prefer Temazepam because it’s supposed to keep you asleep all night but my GP would rather keep me on Zolpidem and not a Benzo. Am I addicted to Zolpidem? Possibly but I’m also addicted to sleep and sleep deprivation must surely be worse than getting chemical induced sleep.

  • I had an awful sneezing fit, seconds after taking it, and then felt bunged up with a cold.. This reaction went, just as soon as it had come on.. I then preceded to experience a fast heartbeat.. I was trying it, as a sedative.. I don’t think so.. I know it helps a lot of people though. Cathy..

    • Hi Cathy
      Thanks for your comment. That doesn’t sound good – I guess it’s just not one for you. I’d mention the reaction you had to your doctor when you see them. They can advise you on whether it might be an intolerance/allergy to valerian, and whether you should avoid it or not in the future.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I have taken Valerian in tea form with peppermint, lemongrass, chamomile, and blue cornflowers (at least that’s what it says on the tea label). 15-30 mins. after drinking, my eyes would feel heavy and there’s no stopping. I stayed asleep until morning, and if I happen to wake up I could easily go back to sleep. I usually just get 5 hrs of sleep every day but with this tea, I usually ended up w an 8-hr of sleep, the downside is I kept on yawning during the day, maybe because I overslept. I also feel relax and my mind calm. Probably placebo but whatever, I’m still glad.

    • Hi Nel
      Thanks for your comment. It’s great that you’ve found a tea which helps you sleep so well. I’m not sure why it would make you yawn more though. Yawning is commonly seen as a way to cool the brain. We normally do it more when tired because tiredness impairs the body thermostat, so to speak.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • On the third night, I took three capsules (300 mg) as before. I was up all night constantly going to the toilet. Next day I found out it is a diuretic used to lose weight through loss of liquid. The last thing I need! Never again.

    • Hi Peter
      Thanks for your comment. I don’t know a lot about the association between valerian and weight loss, though I have seen some articles about it. I didn’t personally have an issue with it though.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Kalms gave me tachchycardia. Not supposed to take on an empty stomach i think it says. I had some toast and it cleared up but was pretty scary. Haven’t taken it since. A friend had similar experience.

    • Hi KM
      Thanks for your comment. I hadn’t seen the advice about taking them on an empty stomach or not. Where did you read that instruction?
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I have been suffering from Peripheral Neuropathy in my feet and legs for some years which causes considerable discomfort and pain at night. I have also experienced Sleep issues for most of my adult life, both getting to sleep and staying asleep for extended periods of time. I have tried several over the counter products and had tried Valerian previously. When I did use it previously I stopped as I found it caused me to have vivid dreams which were often unpleasant. I have, however, recently begun to take it again every night for the past 10 days. I have found it to be very helpful in allowing me to fall asleep quickly. I still dream most nights but not in an unpleasant way. When I awake I am able to fall back asleep and feel fine the next day. I’m hoping a month of regular use will help me to develop an improved sleep pattern. I am only taking 200mg per evening 2 hours before bed. I would recommend you give it a try as it is definitely helping me.

    • Hi Kim
      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experience. It’s useful to hear from a reader who has had a positive experience with valerian. If you have time at the end of the month to give a little update on how your sleep was, it would be great to hear from you again.
      Regards
      Ethan

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