Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/29/2021
If you struggle to fall asleep from time to time, you’re not alone. We stress about all types of things — from that promotion we’re chasing at work, to that petty argument we had with our significant other this morning, politics, planning our girlfriend’s surprise birthday party, taking Jameson for his yearly vet appointment and everything in between. Not that we’d personally know anything about this kind of stuff…
Anyway, the point is: life is stressful sometimes, and for whatever reason, there’s no better time for it to all sneak up on you than when you need to get to sleep. And no matter how tired you are, sometimes your body simply refuses to cooperate, and you spend half the night tossing and turning.
This is known as insomnia.
There are plenty of things you can do to help get a better night’s rest — from setting yourself up with a relaxing night time routine and exercising during the day, to taking prescription medications and more.
You can also try natural remedies. One of the most popular is valerian root. What is valerian root? Does it work? How should you take it? We’re diving deep into all of it so you have the best info possible before you decide whether valerian root is right for you.
Insomnia is defined by the National Institute of Health as difficulty falling or staying asleep, despite having the chance to do so. Insomnia is one of the most commonly reported sleep problems, with symptoms affecting about 30 percent of adults in some way or another.
Based on the results of an extensive study review, The National Sleep Foundation recommends the average adult get seven to nine hours sleep per night for good overall health and healthy daytime function. Teenagers, adolescents and children require more sleep, but none of the recommendations for any age group in the literature reviewed were less than seven hours.
Insomnia generally comes in two types: acute or chronic.
Acute insomnia is short-lived (lasting less than three months), and is typically caused by a significant event such as a stressful occurrence or major life change, and it often resolves itself without treatment. However, it can also become persistent and transform into chronic insomnia.
Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, occurs when you have trouble sleeping at least three nights per week for three months or longer. Chronic insomnia can lead to fatigue, difficulty concentrating, daytime sleepiness and even reduced performance in school or at work.
In fact, the results of a survey of healthcare plan prescribers indicate that an employee with insomnia loses an average of eight days of work performance each year. Assuming this is consistent across the entire country, that leads to a projected loss of over $63 billion in lost work performance each year due to insomnia.
There are a variety of factors that can affect the kind of rest you get, which means insomnia comes in all shapes and sizes. Chronic insomnia is often the result of stress, though it can also be linked to medical conditions, the use of certain drugs or poor dietary or sleep habits. It can even be attributed to eating too late in the day.
Insomnia can affect everything from your daytime wakefulness and ability to concentrate, to your mood, motivation and memory. Because insomnia symptoms have the potential to significantly impact daily life, many people turn to sleep aids.
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey conducted from 2005 through 2010, about four percent of American adults over age 20 reported using prescription sleep aids in the past month. For some insomniacs, these sleep aids are the most effective treatment available. But others aren’t looking to take a drug over the long-term.
If you’re looking for a natural alternative to prescription sleep aids, you might consider an herbal supplement like valerian root.
Valerian root has a long history of use as an herbal remedy and natural sleep aid.
Commonly known as valerian, Valeriana officinalis is an herb native to parts of Asia and Europe. The plant itself is a perennial member of the Valerianaceae family that has become naturalized in North America.
Its medicinal use derives from its root and dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. Historically, it has been used for its sedative properties to treat symptoms like trembling, nervousness, headaches, heart palpitations and as a sleep aid.
Valerian root contains a number of natural compounds which have been shown to promote sleep.
These compounds can be broken into two primary categories: valerenic acid and iridoids. Though the sedative effects of these two compounds are well-studied, it is not completely clear whether they are the only compounds responsible for the herb’s sleep-promoting effects.
Valerenic acid and its derivatives have demonstrated sedative properties in numerous animal studies. It is important to note, however, that valerian extracts containing very small amounts of these components still exhibit sedative properties, suggesting that other components may contribute to the herb’s sedative effects.
The sleep-promoting effects of valerian root have been shown in rats to be related to increasing levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a type of inhibitory neurotransmitter. However, it’s worth noting that additional research is needed to see if similar effects would occur in humans.
It’s hypothesized that the effects of consuming valerian root supplements are similar to those of benzodiazepine medications.
Benzodiazepines are a class of pharmaceutical drugs including brand names like Xanax®, Ativan® and Valium® that work on the central nervous system to treat a variety of medical conditions.
They act on the GABA receptors in the brain, reducing nerve sensitivity to create a calming effect. They are also some of the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States.
Some research has shown valerenic acid, a core component of valerian root, may inhibit the breakdown of GABA in the brain, resulting in feelings of tranquility.
The medicinal uses of Valeriana officinalis date back centuries. Its therapeutic uses were first described by Hippocrates, and one of its earliest uses as a treatment for insomnia was prescribed by Greek physician Galen in the 2nd century AD.
Though primarily studied for its potential sedative and sleep-promoting benefits, valerian root has been researched to determine whether it could have other health benefits, such as helping to ease anxiety in stressful situations. More research is needed to determine if valerian root can provide other health benefits.
Valerian root is sold in the U.S. as a dietary supplement. The FDA regulates dietary supplements differently than they do other foods and drugs, which means the parameters for approval are entirely different.
In clinical studies of valerian root, the most common adverse events reported by study participants include headaches, itching, dizziness and GI disturbance.
As is the case with any drug or supplement, you should exercise caution when using valerian root as a sleep aid. Women who are pregnant or nursing should not take valerian root without medical supervision, as not enough clinical research has been conducted on humans to evaluate potential risks.
You should also consult your healthcare provider before taking valerian root if you take medications or are managing a medical condition. It’s important to tell your healthcare provider about all medications and supplements you take.
When taking valerian, be aware of the possible increased sedative effects of alcohol or certain drugs like benzodiazepines. It is not yet clear whether the dependency issues commonly linked to benzodiazepine use are potentiated with valerian root.
For the promotion of sleep, the actual amount of valerian you consume will depend on the particular product you're using. Check the product’s label for information and dosage guidelines.
Valeriana officinalis is an herbal remedy with a long history of use in the treatment of insomnia. There is a growing body of evidence regarding its efficacy for promoting sleep.
Though there is evidence linking valerian root to sedative effects, there is a lack of well-designed clinical trials supporting its long-term efficacy and safety. Some of the most common issues with these studies include the following: small sample size, high rates of participant withdrawal, variation in dosage, and flawed statistical analyses.
If you choose to take valerian root as a sleep aid, make sure you do your research and inform your healthcare provider of your plans. Even natural substances like valerian can trigger side effects and interactions with other drugs and supplements, so be sure to err on the side of caution.