Difficulties with getting to sleep are among the most prevalent health and wellness issues of our age; it is thought that about a third of Britons will suffer from insomnia at some point in their lives. It is unsurprising, then, that any remedies supposedly helping to tackle sleeplessness attract considerable attention – and one of those is valerian root.
What is valerian root?
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a perennial flowering plant that is native to Asia and Europe, but also now grown in the United States, China and other parts of the world. The use of the plant’s root in traditional medicine dates back thousands of years.
How does valerian root allow you to sleep more easily?
This nutrient-rich herb consists of various compounds – such as valerenic acid, isovaleric acid and numerous antioxidants – that have been linked to reduced anxiety and improved sleep.
Much of the conversation about valerian root’s usefulness for promoting restful sleep has centred on how it interacts with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is an important chemical messenger for helping to regulate the brain and nervous system’s nerve impulses.
Past studies have indicated an association between low GABA levels and such effects as stress, anxiety and low-quality sleep.
Not only has research found that valerenic acid prevents GABA from breaking down in the brain – thereby helping to bring feelings of calmness and tranquillity – but it is also thought that the antioxidants linarin and hesperidin, which are also present in valerian root, may have sedative and sleep-improving effects.
Does other research back up valerian root as having sleep-enhancing properties?
A variety of studies have been undertaken down the years to test valerian root’s credentials for promoting sleep.
The American National Institutes of Health (NIH), for instance, has previously described a study that demonstrated significant improvements in sleep among 128 healthy volunteers who took 400mg of valerian root extract, compared to the placebo. Participants indicated that they needed less time to fall asleep, experienced better-quality sleep, and did not suffer as much from middle-of-the-night awakenings.
The same agency also cited a clinical trial that entailed 121 people with insomnia taking 600mg of dried valerian root. It found that after 28 days’ treatment, the participants experienced reduced insomnia symptoms compared to the placebo.
While studies investigating how valerian impacts sleep have largely focused on adults, some research has also shown potential benefits for children. One small eight-week study focused on developmentally delayed children with sleep disorders, and discovered that valerian enabled participants to doze off sooner, sleep for longer, and experience better-quality sleep.
Other factors to be mindful of before taking valerian root
Valerian root is a natural supplement, and considered safe at recommended doses. Nonetheless, some common side effects have been observed for it, including nausea, cramps and daytime drowsiness – signalling why someone who has taken valerian should not drive, operate machinery or undertake any other task that requires alertness.
Nor should valerian root be taken by pregnant or nursing women, or children younger than three years of age. In addition, valerian root should never be combined with any other sedative medication, antidepressants, sleep aids or alcohol.
The above caveats notwithstanding, the evidence of the aforementioned studies suggests that valerian root merits close consideration by those who may otherwise often struggle to sleep. Great results are even likelier to be achieved when one follows the NHS’s broader guidance for the self-treatment of insomnia.
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