Materia Medica - Valerian
Valerian has been used as a medicinal plant since ancient Greek and Roman times. Valerian is well known for its sedative qualities and its ability to relax the central nervous system and the smooth muscle groups.
Latin Binomial: Valeriana spp., including V. officinalis
Common Name(s): Valerian, Garden Heliotrope, Tobacco Root
TCM Name: Xie Cao
Ayurvedic Name: Tagar
Family: Valerianaceae (classified in some systems as Caprifoliaceae, honeysuckle family)
Physical Description of the Plant:
Valerian is an erect perennial, growing to four or five feet with pinnate, divided leaves and clusters of small white or pink flowers, flowering from June to August. The root-stock is round and hollow, with hairs near the base and multiple long thin roots and short rhizomes. Only one stem usually grows from the root. The main stem then terminates in several flowering stems (the plant may not bloom during its first year). The leaves are made up of 6-8 pairs of lance-shaped segments and are attached to the stem by short sheaths.
Habitat: Valerian is native to the Americas, Asia, and Europe, and is found in all the New England states. Found in pastures, meadows, open woodland and along margins of streams, Valerian favors full sun and a humus rich soil with plentiful moisture. However, dry, stony soil yields roots higher in oils than moist and fertile soils..
Harvest and Collection: The roots are collected in the autumn from two-year-old plants. The root should be dried at not less than 105 degrees Fahrenheit before using.
Parts of the Plant Used: Root and rhizomes
Qualities: Valerian helps calm the nerves, relaxes the muscles, and increases blood flow to the heart. It can help improve concentration and memory during the day, while also helping one sleep more soundly at night.
- Sesquiterpenes (contained in the volatile oil): valerenic acid, hydroxyvalerenic acid and acetoxyvalerenic acid
- Isovaleric acid
- Alkaloids: actinidine, chatinine, shyanthine, valerianine, and valerine
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
- Iridoids, including valepotriates: isovaltrate and valtrate
- Flavanones: hesperidin, 6-methylapigenin, and linarin
- Acetic acid
- Ascorbic acid
- Caffeic acid
- Relaxing nervine
- nervous system tonic
- smooth muscle relaxant
- Stop Bleeding/Moves Blood/Alleviates Pain
- Tranquilizes: irregular menses, traumatic injury, lumbago, dyspepsia, neurathenia, pain due to blood stagnation.
- Calms Shen: anxiety, insomnia, palpations.
Indications: Anxiety, attention deficit disorder, headache, hypertension, hyperactivity, hysteria, insomnia, intestinal cramping, migraine, muscle pain, nervousness, neuralgia, premenstrual syndrome, restlessness, stress. The Chinese have also used the herb to heal injuries and treat menses, ease pain and stop bleeding.
- Do not use large doses for more than three weeks in a row. Small nightly doses are typically fine.
- Do not give to children under the age of three.
- Avoid during pregnancy, except in small doses.
- Use with caution if driving heavy machinery or doing any other activities that may require a quick reaction time after taking valerian.
- Avoid long term use of valerian in cases of depression.
- Large doses of valerian can cause depression, nausea, headache, and lethargy.
- Some people (about 25% of the population) experience a stimulating effect from valerian.
Drug Interactions: Not recommended if using antidepressants, benzodiazepines, kava, barbiturates or antihistamines as valerian has the potiential of increasing the effects of these drugs.
Tincture: 60-90 drops in a small amount of water, 1-2 times in the hour leading up to bed.
Infusion: 1-2 teaspoons per cup of water; or 1:1 fresh + dry strength liquid extract: 10-60 drops 1-4 times per day.
Combinations: can be combined with other calming herbs such as lemon balm, passionflower, skullcap, catnip, wild lettuce, hops and chamomile.
Energetics: Pungent, Bitter, Slightly Sweet, Aromatic, Spicy, Slightly Warming
Meridians: Liver, Heart
Folklore: The name of the herb, “Valerian,” derives from the Latin verb “valere,” meaning to be strong and powerful. The ancient Greek and Romans used it as a remedy for insomnia. The ancient Egyptians called it “all-heal.” Valerian flower extracts were used as a perfume in the 16th century.The seventeenth century astrological botanist Nicholas Culpeper thought the plant was "under the influence of Mercury, and therefore hath a warming faculty." Valerian also appears in Hindu legends, as in a story of a newly married man who plants valerian outside his home for his bride as a symbol of his safe return. Years pass by and the plant continues to flourish. At last, the man returns home and his wife welcomes him, knowing he was safe because the valerian had remained alive and beautiful. The herb has a long history of being used in Ayurvedic medicine in India as an herb to help calm and promote sleep.
During World War I and II, the herb was used in many European hospitals and clinics to treat the stress caused by the ongoing air raids and bombings. Like catnip, valerian attracts cats. The volatile oils that form the active ingredients are extremely pungent and are said to smell somewhat like well-matured cheese or old socks. Some like the smell and others do not.
Flower Essence: Valerian Flower Essence works through the energetic circuits that regulate heat in the body to cool excessive fire on the emotional, mental and physical levels. Unresolved anger and other buried negative emotions can lead to hot flashes, sweats, headaches, anxiousness, high blood pressure, temperature swings, mental agitation and more. Use Valerian Flower Essence to transmute the fire blocking your body/mind from reorienting to a higher emotional state. In addition, it regulates body temperature when the weather is very hot or when you experience internal temperature fluctuations due to cellular change during your spiritual growth process.
Applications: Valerian is used for restlessness, hysteria, emotional stress, pain, insomnia, anxiety, nervous palpitations, nervous irritation, cardiovascular arrhythmias, attention deficit and hyperactivity syndromes, gastrointestinal cramping, menstrual cramps, and backaches. Valerian is the most commonly used nonprescription sedative used in Europe today.
Valerian Root Tincture
- 1 part dried valerian root (Valeriana officinalis – (Ex: 1/2 cup)
- 2 parts vodka (Preferably 100 proof, but 80 proof is okay. Ex: 1 cup)
- Fill your jar about halfway with valerian root. Pour vodka all the way to the top, then cover with a cap and shake well. Write the start date on the jar using a sticky note, label, or piece of tape – it makes keeping track of how long it’s been steeping easier.
- Place the jar in a dark area that is relatively warm, such as in a kitchen cabinet. Let the mixture steep for 3 or more weeks. Shake occasionally.
- When it’s ready, strain the mixture through a cheesecloth, making sure to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Pour the liquid in a clean container and store in a cool, dark area.
Valerian Tea Recipe
Before you brew, one thing to know is that valerian root is considered to have an unpleasant smell.
- 2 teaspoons valerian root
- 2 cups water
Bring water to a light simmer (not a boil) and add valerian root. Cover and simmer on low for 20-40 minutes, then allow to cool until it can be comfortably sipped. Strain and serve.
Because of valerian's historical use as a sedative, antiseptic, anticonvulsant, migraine treatment, and pain reliever, most basic science research has been directed at the interaction of valerian constituents with the GABA receptor. Many studies remain inconclusive and all require clinical validation. The mechanism of action of valerian in general, and as a mild sedative in particular, has not been fully elucidated. However, some of the GABA-analogs, particularly valerenic acids as components of the essential oil along with other semivolatile sesquiterpenoids, generally are believed to have some affinity for the GABAA receptor, a class of receptors on which benzodiazepines are known to act. Valeric acid, which is responsible for the typical odor of mostly older valerian roots, does not have any sedative properties. Valeric acid is related to valproic acid, a widely prescribed anticonvulsant; valproic acid is a derivative of valeric acid.
Valerian also contains isovaltrate, which has been shown to be an inverse agonist for adenosine A1 receptor sites. This action likely does not contribute to the herb's possible sedative effects, which would be expected from an agonist, rather than an inverse agonist, at this particular binding site. Hydrophilic extractions of the herb commonly sold over the counter, however, probably do not contain significant amounts of isovaltrate. Valerenic acid in valerian stimulates serotonin receptors as a partial agonist, including 5-HT5A which is implicated in the sleep-wake cycle.
At least two double-blind studies have demonstrated that valerian extract can significantly reduce the amount of time it takes people to fall asleep without changing the normal stages of sleep. Documented research has noted a mild hypnotic action in both normal sleepers and insomniacs, indicated by a beneficial effect on sleep latency, wake time after sleep, frequency of waking, nocturnal motor activity, inner restlessness, and tension and quality of sleep. Sleepiness and dream recall the morning after were unaffected. The valepotriates have a regulatory effect on the autonomic nervous system; research suggests that they have a calming effect on agitated people but are also a stimulant in cases of fatigue.