Are you thinking about trying valerian to help you sleep or to reduce anxiety?
As an insomniac myself, I’ve tested and written about several over the counter sleep aids that have valerian as an ingredient.
Readers regularly ask questions about the specific sleep aids in the comments. But some of those questions are perhaps better 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 research done over the years.
What is valerian root?
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 taste that can be a little off-putting, so some people prefer it in capsule form or disguised in tea with other ingredients. In my experience, sometimes even store-bought pills taste strange 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.
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 dosage used in some clinical trials was 400 to 600 mg per day for 2 to 4 weeks .
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 to consult your doctor if you’re not sure if it’s right for you, or what dosage to take.
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.
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, again, 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.
Safety and possible side effects
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers valerian root as ‘generally recognized as safe’.
And researchers in Poland, 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:
- Itchy skin
- Dry mouth
- Upset stomach / diarrhea
- The opposite effect – restlessness, excitement, insomnia
- Daytime sleepiness (more common with larger doses)
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 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.
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:
- Women who are pregnant or nursing (it’s not known if it’s safe for baby, so it’s better to be cautious).
- Children under 3 years old shouldn’t be given valerian.
- If you have liver disease.
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.
- Recreational drugs.
Can I take valerian and melatonin at the same time?
Melatonin can also cause drowsiness, so it’s a good idea to consult your doctor before taking both at the same time.
Research evidence that valerian helps with sleep problems
During the last few decades, there have been various 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.
1. Research in Korea
In 2018, researchers in 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.
2. Research in Portugal
In 2011, researchers in Poland 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.
3. 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.
How do scientists think valerian works?
The exact mechanism of action isn’t fully understood. Research suggests 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.
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, another 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.
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!