By Heather Irvine
Herbalists Narrative: Garden heliotrope is the first of the fanciful common names I learned for Valerian, implying it occurs in gardens and reaches for the sun. I didn’t know what garden heliotrope was either, but behind us at the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine, even as it was getting dark, we could see a mass of inch thick stalks towering over us topped with white clusters of small flowers at around four feet tall, I guessed up to seven from my memory of gardens, but then again, I’m short and figured it was probably more like 4-6 feet, depending on their position in the patch. The white flowers had a little bit of a pink glow, the way many white plants do at dusk, but this was a permanent feature. Some are white only and others blush. The leaves were a wild mess of divided flat to slightly bent blades somewhat like the top of a bunch of celery. Although you can find slightly smaller plants scattered between other species in the wild, you don’t really see past a bunch of Valerian like this. Also the patch smells something like water in the summer, like the aromatic, yet slightly sweet, yet dilute bitter flavor of ordinary water warmed in a garden hose. I have many associations with Valerian, like biting into a gritty but soft, mineral soil additive, while tasting a wet, soft slice of fresh root dug from the ground. Wet soil and rinsing it from the root is a constant association I have with Valerian.
Botanical Family: Formerly Valerianaceae. It has since been classified as a member of the Caprifoliacea, joining Elderberry and the Viburnums.
Common Names: Garden Heliotrope, Vandal Root
Origin & Range: Native to Europe and Western Asia
Related Species: Four main species are in the literature for medicinal uses, the three others are; Valeriana wallichii (Indian Valerian), Native to India, Himalayas; Valeriana edulis (Tobacco Root, Edible Valerian); Valeriana sitchenis (Pacific Valerian).
Additionally there around two dozen localized species in the US and Canada as listed on the USDA Plants Database, https://plants.usda.gov/ . This is also a good resource to compare the geographical range of the species above and the adapted range of Valeriana officinalis.
Etymology: The latin derivation, valere, meaning “to be strong” or brave, or “to be well”.
Taste & Odor: Unanimously they tell me it’s terrible and I know this, but it is pleasant and comforting to me. It has helped me many times. I am told there are other outliers who enjoy it also, however, fetid cheese, smelly socks, and valproic acid, are terms describing impressions of Valerian. Valproic acid, is a component and this is a type of butyric acid, a group of small molecules with fragrance properties that are both aromatic and off smelling. Butyric, named, after rancid butter, is one way to remember it, not that you need to know that to understand Valerian. It is Valproic acid, a type of butyric acid which Valerian possesses.
To me tincture of fresh Valerian root is the world’s most earthy sedative wine. Truly. There is so much more going on besides just the earthy and fetid scent, there are other aromatic components also, as we will see. When I say that something tastes “medicinal” it is the warming taste and scent, often likened to bitter almond, which medicinal viburnums such as Crampbark or Black Cherry possess also.
The Herbalist, 1918, by Clarence Meyer, republished by David C. Meyer described it:
“The taste of the root I warm, camphoraceous, slightly bitter, somewhat acrid, and nauseous.”
Botanical & Identification: The particular arrangement of each inflorescence, or cluster of small flowers is a cyme, with a central stem bearing a single terminal flower that develops first. The next flowers develop as terminal buds of the lateral stems of the previous. In this genus the inflorescence is vaguely a half sphere composite of smaller flowers, though not totally regular in arrangement and the pedicels, stems to the individual flowers, do not all originate from one point. This cyme originates with one of these small flowers, the base of its stem begets two more eventually creating the cyme. The inflorescences, are slightly asymmetrical, bearing neither radial or lateral symmetry. The individual flowers are five petaled in a tubular corolla.
Have you dug up Valerian root and noticed how each root is hugged by two smaller plants most every year, the duplication of flowers is analogous to this pattern.
The leaves are opposite, on long footstalks, and fused slightly at the stem. In their pairs, the stalks that support flowers are typically oppositely around the stalk also. Those leaves are called pinnate and there are from seven to ten pairs of leaflets on each. The leaves are also coarsely serrated. The stems are hollow and also have obvious venation, parallel with the stem.
A couple of other characteristics, only one stalk comes up per root. If you see more, you know have multiple plants. By the way, it is easy to propagate Valerian by gently teasing these apart.
Habitat: Valerian thrives in wet soil, but also meanders in some highland meadows, making a home in the wetter crevasses and patches. In the Northeast wild Valerian is seen scattered among other weeds near roadsides where there is moisture and partial shade. It seems to be a little bit smaller and I’m not sure if this is another species or smaller due to its habitat.
Growth & Harvesting: It is actually pretty worth growing and harvesting for a few reasons.
1) Valerian is an often used herb. Customers find it effective and will refill their Valerian. You can probably sell it to other herbalists if you have a surplus.
2) Valerian is superior as a fresh preparation. If you share this information with people who ask you about it you might convert them to customers of your Valerian, whether they had good or just so-so results using another brands.
3) Valerian is easy to grow. Seed it or put out starts or root crowns and you almost definitely will have plants to go on the following year, as long as you put them in reasonably moist or rich soil. The inactive edge of a compost pile would work or some waste area of the garden as long as it is not bone dry. If you out of time to harvest it or don’t need it all in one year, it will still be there when you need it. The one caveat is that it is tall and fills in thickly over time so may block light from other garden plants.
The drawback is that it takes a year at least to harvest plants grown from seed or at least a half a year for transplants. The roots will be small at this point but you can make a little tincture.
Plants can sometimes be found at garden centers since it is an old fashioned garden plant.
Energetics: Warm, moving, slightly drying
Warming implies increasing blood flow in this case.
Moving is related to the aromatic components.
Drying is a less obvious, for this plant, probably assigned to it for its use as an expectorant.
Nervine: A wonderful and vague term that describe benefits to the nervous system. The particular nervine qualities of Valerian will be described further along.
Antidepressant: This is a historic and somewhat current use, specifics will be described.
Hypnotic: In the case of Valerian, producing sleep, removing impediments to crossing the threshold to sleep.
Hypotensive: As an antispasmodic, it also is used to lower blood pressure, by relaxing the smooth muscles lining the blood vessels, in effect opening the vessel to allow more blood to flow from the core of the body outward and increasing the overall volume for the blood to travel in, thereby decreasing pressure. This is how it can both lower blood pressure and also promote circulation at the same time. This action is convenient when we use it as a sedative.
Sedative: I believe that in part its general relaxant and hypotensive actions aid sleep. Valerian is also believed to have effects that depress the central nervous system to improve sleep. I could site empirical evidence, that is observations, or decades of research. An interesting note about its use as a sedative, it is said to be, not strong enough to suppress REM sleep phases, an ideal quality, as REM is a stage in which brain chemistry is restored to normal, and the hardest stage of sleep to reach and attain enough time in. Principles and Practices of Phytotherapy states that it condenses non-REM sleep time, implying that you may actually get more REM per hour in bed, while using Valerian. Some of the sleep drugs as well as herbs have an opposite effect.
Antispasmodic: In this case for smooth muscle or skeletal muscle, ticks and twitches. People who really enjoy the Viburnums, Cramp Bark and Black Haw for their use against painful spasming or alternately for blood pressure lowering may really like Valerian also.
Carminative: A lot of actions kind of hug another action, being very related in activity. Carminative describes a medicine, typically herbs and spices, that warm, move and relax the stomach and potentially the lower GI tract. As an antispasmodic, relaxant and aromatic, valerian may also help promote better digestion, by relaxing tension, allowing blood to flow to the organs of the GI tract, and overall slowing one down a bit. I highly associate the carminative action with being effective against cramping or spasming in the stomach also or just feelings of being off, in ones stomach, gassy, tense, uneasy, or hard to pinpoint vague queasy or distracting feelings in the GI tract. Valerian isn’t my first choice, because of the potential sedative effects, and so many already live tired as their normal, but I have to say it can relax the stomach in a therapeutic way. Some herbalists even use it for children who are uninterested in eating, due to nervous excitement and in this case it is used a half an hour before mealtime.
Emmenagogue: This term describes therapeutics that encourage onset of a delayed menstrual cycle, often accompanied by feelings of uncomfortable fullness or cramping in the lower abdomen, general tension, mental and physical.
By relaxing the body, and allowing circulation to move to secondary areas, it may encourage these secondary functions to commence when we are stressed, depleted, or overwrought. Even being too cold can delay a menstrual period. Valerian might be a good part of a warming, moving, relaxing formula in this case, particularly for promoting sleep or easing pain or worry.
Dose and Use:
2-6 ml tincture of 1:1 - 1:5 tincture or equivalent dose
3 and up to 9 grams of herb – though somewhat hard to obtain
topically; compresses, oils infused with the root, or essential oil diluted
o Valerenic Acid and Valeranone -antispasmodics
o Valeranone - sedative
o Isovaleric Acid
o Valepotriates – sedative, antispasmodic, potentially anticonvulsant
· Volatile Oils
The valepotriates, a group specific to Valerian, were historically credited with the sedative, spasmolytic and anticonvulsant activity. However, water extract, which retain nearly none of these constituents have also been shown to have sedative effects, improving sleep in humans.
Studies that followed shortly after showed that neither the valepotriates or the major essential oils affected the central nervous system, but Valerian was still promoting sleep. Relaxation of smooth muscles and possible effects on certain centers of the central nervous system, but a combination of constituents was resolved to be the answer, at least temporarily.
These particular sources were cited in Christopher Hobbs, LAC, Stress and Natural Healing.
Specific Indications (Modern):
Valerian is specifically indicated for worriers, particularly when they are plagued by a busy mind, linear thoughts or circles of thoughts and emotions playing over throughout the night. Those who go over and over what they could have, would have, should have said that day as a repost to some minor perceived slight. This I learned from 7Song also and immediately knew what he was talking about, as a (sometimes) Valerian person.
As a young herb student this was the one herb I had used for myself, for teenage insomnia. We also learned that someone who finds that life’s problems or regrets make them hyper instead of catatonic is also a candidate for Valerian use. At the time I first used it I was having heart palpitations at night, something I outgrew, but by the way, and really lengthy insomnia. Most of the time a teen or adolescent steps up to my tincture table I am already predicting talking about Valerian, and most of the times this is exactly what happens.
If you want to put it way simpler, it is helpful for lengthy insomnia, recommended for people who have a hard time falling asleep, which lasts a long time. It can additionally be beneficial in reducing nighttime waking, but falling asleep sooner is its number one use.
I find, and it more or less has been taught to me, that Valerian opens up the peripheral circulation a bit, a gentle vasodilator, allowing more blood and therefore warmth to flow into the hands, feet, legs, neck, and even head, allowing your mind to work better. Sleep, though rest, is an activity that requires a healthy functioning of the brain.
If, when you are tired you are cold, pale, drooling and tense, or cranky, but zoned out, Valerian might be for you.
If you experience any kind of twitches or tics as a result of stress or fatigue I’d suggest trying Valerian also.
A little caveat, of our common herbs, or perhaps because it is one of the most often used, we see a good number of people have the opposite of the desired reaction from Valerian. Some sources say as many as 4 in 10 may have an adverse effect from Valerian, anxious may become more anxious. Because of this, we often suggest that someone try it for the first time during the day, and we also recommend this to parents before administering it to children.
Though the youth often do well with Valerian, especially adolescents and teens, it is chancy to use with the remarkably anxious.
If someone is quivering with excitement or spacy and its personality, not fatigue or they seem to have a really sensitive and ‘far out’ psyche, I go for grounding herbs that are more neutral and less famous for side effects. This was passed from my teaches and confirmed by numerous personal experience as a product seller and practitioner. People report what they have tried and how it went when seeking advice about herbal medicine.
Here is a specific indication about when not to use it, the severely depleted, whether very thin, or adrenally depleted, seem to be the most vulnerable to Valerian’s paradoxical effects.
Traditional Uses & Eclectic Specific Indications:
It may come as a surprise that Valerian was once used as a cure-all, supposedly before it was ever used as a sleep aid specifically. Perhaps for the way it relaxes and promotes circulation.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, for headaches and mental depression. I have included a bit more about my take on its use with respect to these challenges in the recorded monograph.
There is traditional and modern use of this herb for migraine headaches, by the way. I would say this is useful in cases where possibly blood vessels to the head and neck are restricted from dehydration, over stimulation, caffeine or other substances.
In Victorian times it was used as a common medicine for anxiety, insomnia, hysteria, the vague physical and mental manifestations of being female, and also it was prescribed for epilepsy.
People often ask about an association between Valerian and Valium. No real association, though these often were associated because of similar use and similar name. There is not really any chemical similarity.
I always love the specific indications from the Eclectics. These were physicians who used whatever remedy, drug or plant according to what they witnessed did the best for their patients. They also used very specific terms to describe when to use what remedy.
For Valerian, specific indications include: “Cerebral anemia, hysteria, hemicrania”.
This particular source, The Eclectic Materia, Medica, Pharmacology and Therapuetics by Harvey Wickes Felter, MD, as shared by student John Scudder in 1922, goes on to specify further:
“All with mental depression and despondency; mild spasmodic movements”…
“To act well it should be given when the brain circulation is feeble and there is mental depression and despondency”…
“In mental depression, due to worry or imaginary wrongs, valerian is an admirable drug.”
“Owing to its volatile oil it is a good carminative in flatulence, with nervous unrest, and relieves the disagreeable sense of fullness felt after a meal by causing a rifting of gas.”
“The oil and the ammoniated tincture are useful agents in fainting and nervous palpitations of the heart.”
I looked at the Eclectic references last after collecting my notes for valerian. I started with personal experience, notes from other teachers and extrapolations from research.
It’s really amazing how even with less knowledge of the specific pharmacology of the plant constituents, the Eclectics really say it all in a few sentences, and more specifically than most other sources, this based on limited knowledge of the chemistry, but mostly founded on observations from personal use and observing patients.
Several of the Eclectic resources were compiled by students after their teachers passed. Finley Ellingwood, MD, a professor of Chemistry at Bennett Medical College and John Uri Lloyd Ph. M. Ph.D. LL.D. a president of the American Pharmaceutical Association and a professor of Chemistry and Pharmacy are credited for this information in the American Materia Medica Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy.
“Valerian is not a narcotic. It’s influence upon the nervous system is best obtained when the circulation of those centers is inactive and feeble, especially when there is paleness of the face and the skin is cool. It is directly indicated in hysterical conditions of whatever character with feebleness; with nervous excitement, and morbid vigilance, in hysterical epilepsy, and in nervous headaches with some pallor. It is excellent in the hysteria and nervous disturbances incident to menopause. It’s general soothing effect in all cases is desirable. It controls distress and imaginary pain and produces quiet, permitting sleep and rest.”
“It is applicable in the nervousness of depression because of its gentle stimulating influence, and in these cases its influence is heightened by combining it with stimulants.”
“In conditions where the nervousness in induced by hyperactivity – actual increased nerve force- or where there is organic disease, it is not the remedy.”
Preparation & Dosage: Valerian is much better fresh. The more pleasant, sweet, musky odor and better tasting components start to fall away once it is dry, leaving the compounds and scents that are less desirable behind. I actually think it may be that I’ve handled Valerian fresh more than I’ve handled it dry that I enjoy its scent and taste, because our memory of scents and tastes can fill in details at times. My original teacher and every herb teacher after described it this way: The fresh root is better tasting and more reliable in action than the dried root.
Some report and I also have found it to be true that we are more likely to see adverse effects in those who used dry valerian products, capsules, teas, and so on, and maybe more so the older the dry product is. I learned that there are some excitatory components of Valerian, why it is sometimes called a stimulant. In the absence of some relaxant components, as they volatilize, Valerian turns it into a chancier remedy in terms of side effects. Another way I learned it is that possibly some of the compounds which have changed once it is dried possess the stimulating effects. Baldrinals for example are found only in the dried plant and root and are these are degradation products of valepotriates (source - Medical Herbalism, David Hoffman). This is notable, as valepotriates are said to be at least part of the sedative profile of Valerian, with volatile oils being the other component. Both degrade with time, air, heat, general exposure to the elements. For this reason many herbalists also suggest that if you do make an infusion of Valerian, spare the very hot water we would often use in making teas.
I have typically prepared Valerian as a tincture or glycerite in the field or as soon after harvesting it as possible, definitely on the same day it is harvested. I should add that I find glycerites work well also. On rare occasions I have made a Valerian vinegar and this seemed ok.
I have preferred to keep my Valerian tinctures and glycerites on the very low water side, as I think this also creates the possibility of components degrading. I suggest 75%-95% alcohol or straight, undiluted vegetable glycerine, or a combination of glycerine and alcohol.
Clean the roots/rhizomes really, as best as you can to free soil from the tangle, chop and cover with alcohol. I’ve typically achieved a 1:1 or 1:1.5 tincture, using finely chopped or blended fresh roots, though less concentrated tinctures of Valerian work well too.
Valerian tea is a reasonable delivery, but an unusual tasting infusion.
Clinical Trials: There are really very many clinical trials and more nuanced and technical studies done on Valerian and its constituents, but in my perusal of other authors writings about Valerian, the work of a Swiss researcher, Leatherwood comes up again and again for practical findings about Valerian. For example, subjects taking Valerian took less time to fall asleep, an average of 16 minutes with placebo or 9 minutes with Valerian. (I don’t really see how any of these people were said to have insomnia, they called it mild insomnia, yeah, I guess so, but that aside other studies supported these findings.) Also the difference between Valerian groups and placebo groups was greater when the subject were older, and people who identified themselves as good sleepers noticed little difference with Valerian. The more you need it the more difference it makes I believe. Additionally, though I’ve harped on it for assisting those who have trouble falling asleep, it has also been shown to improve sleep quality, less waking.
Potential Uses Extrapolated from Pharmacology:
Valpotriates have reduced diazepam withdrawn in animal models. Components of Valerian extracts, in addition to valpotriate bind to benzodiazepine receptors in vitro. This was demonstrated in many studies. Five are cited in Herbal Contraindications and Drug Interactions, fourth edition. This means that Valerian may be supportive for those ending use of benzodiazepine drugs. However, if you just want to give a basic nervine to someone and they report that they have not done well with Benzodiazepines, you might want to choose another herb. Valerian won’t necessarily have an adverse effect, but there are other choices.
There is also evidence of an extract of Valerian rhizome reducing a symptom of morphine withdrawal in mice. Herbalists have used it to usuage sufferering from opiate withdrawal.
Safety Issues: Aside from mentioned additive effect with sedatives, practically none. There was some speculative evidence for the toxicity of valepotriates in Valerian, however we quickly metabolize these to less toxic constituents. This information is from the American Herbal Products Associations botanical safety handbook, 2nd edition, which is highly recommended.
However whenever an herb is more commonly used and especially when it has substantial immediate effects it is more likely we find isolated reports of potential safety issues. In the case of Valerian they are really idiosyncratic, meaning truly isolated incidences, one person per scenario with a multitude of possible factors involved. Four cases of liver damage potentially involving Valerian were described in The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety. All of those four individuals were self medicating with a multitude of herbs and drugs. One was using a combination which may have contained germander as a contaminant to skullcap. These factors make it difficult to determine a risk of using Valerian. Additionally the reports are called unsustained. Potentially Valerian should be avoided with opiate drugs or excessive alcohol use, as there are also isolated incidences of delirium or fainting. Valerian however was by far the gentler of the substances involved each of only two cases reported. (Principles and Practices of Phytotherapy, Mills & Bone)
Use in Pregnancy?: Also going from the AHPA safety handbook, no adverse effects have been reported, but I might still reserve this for the more sleepless nights and not every, and use even gentler remedies, some of the time, to avoid any potential effect from accumulative use.
Another respected resource, The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety by Simon Mills and Kerry Bone, states that Valerian is classified by the FDA as pregnancy category B, and more specifically by the Australian equivalent as category B1, meaning No increase in frequency of malformation or other harmful effects of the fetus from limited use in women, and also despite animal studies, there is no evidence of increased fetal damage in animal studies. (principles and Practices of Phytotherapy, Mills & Bone)
Valerian is actually probably a really good match for the bodily tension, excitement, worry, planning mind, and symptoms of changes in blood pressure due to a quickly growing body that are experienced in pregnancy, as well as the effort and impact of moving around in bed which may make one tense and restless during pregnancy.
Similarly it seems like a desirable helper for parents of infants, for use by the parents. It has not been conclusively determined safe during nursing, though it has not been shown to be unsafe either. It might have some added sedative and carminative benefits if it is expressed in breastmilk.
The Mills and Bone, Principles and Practices of Phytotherapy, calls it category C for lactation, which suggests there is not enough information to say conclusively that it is safe or unsafe. The authors very informed conclusion is that it is probably compatible with breastfeeding, but use caution, as there is some speculation, which I would say suggests moderate doses for mother who really benefit from it, occasionally.
Use for children: For children, we generally reserve it for use in those 3 or older.
Speculatively, under three years, children may not metabolize Valerian the same as adults do.
For older kids I have heard mixed reports on use for children who have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, some children benefiting from it and in other cases, parents noting it was not helpful or even made children more hyper or anxious.
Combinations & Similar Herbs:
· Kava for the unyielding stress case, or situational dread or anxiety,
· Hops for restlessness from digestive upset & Hops for menopausal sleeplessness.
· Skullcap as a nervine and a skeletal muscle relaxant, also a headache remedy.
· California Poppy for those who have trouble falling asleep and trouble staying asleep.
A former foraging frolicker, who aims at answering some of often asked but tougher questions in herbalism, such as, how herbs work and what are the real versus theoretical safety issues. Heather was not long ago collecting and growing hundreds of medicinal plant species for her small herbal product line: Giving Tree Botanicals. www.GivingTreeBotanicals.com. Now in the heart of Boston, she is offering herbal health consultations, classes and informal one on one herbal mentorship for interested persons who have immersed themselves in one or more aspects of herbalism or related topics and want to continue with guidance, regular one on one instruction and encouragement, with the possibility of attending occasional community-building events with other students. Fits your schedule and starts where you are!
She also teaches Actions and Chemistry for the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, www.VTHerbCenter.org and teaches two for-credit herbal courses, for Johnson State College/Northern Vermont University. She gets a great thrill out of presenting at and simply attending herbal events, from Herbstalk, a bustling educational and community gathering in the Boston area to the annual American Herbalists Guild Symposium and anything in between. She has also begun offering seminars for health professionals, the first of which is called "Supplement Straight Talk" about practical aspects of popular herbs & supplements, and talking to patients about herbs.
Sources: Principles and Practices of Phytotherapy, 2013 Simon Mills & Kerry Bone; The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety, 2005, Simon Mills & Kerry Bone, Medical Herbalism, David Hoffman; Herbal Contraindications and Drug Interactions Plus Herbal Adjuncts with Medicines, Expanded Fourth Edition, 2010, Francis Brinker, MD; The American Herbal Product Associations Herbal Safety Handbook, Second Edition; Stress and Natural Healing, Christopher Hobbes, 1997; The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 1922, Harvey Wickes Felter, MD, John K Scudder; American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy, Finley Ellingwood, M.D., Prof John Uri Lloyd, Ph.M., Ph.D., L.L. D.; USDA Plants Database accessed in 2018 at https://plants.usda.gov/, notes from the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine and the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism as well as personal experience from practice.