What is valerian root?

Valeriana officinalis, commonly known as valerian, is an herb native to Europe and Asia whose roots have been used since ancient Greek and Roman times as a sleep promoter.

Does valerian root really work for sleep?

Research from the National Institutes of Health (1-5) shows that valerian plays a role prior to and during N1 (first sleep stage) when the body needs to feel calm, relaxed, and drowsy in order to move to N2 (second sleep stage). It works synergistically with gamma-aminobutyric acid, commonly referred to as GABA, an amino acid produced naturally in the brain that acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, blocking certain brain signals and decreasing activity in your nervous system. Together, the two ensure a more relaxed, calm state.

READ MORE: A Guide To The 4 Stages Of Sleep (REM + NREM)

This is incredibly powerful in supporting better sleep because, when your body reacts to acute (short-term) or psychological stress, there’s an increase in sympathetic nervous system activation, during which time your autonomic nervous system (ANS) releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that circulate blood to vital organs and muscles. (6) Your heart rate increases, your breath quickens, your muscles tense, beads of sweat form...sound familiar? It’s your “fight or flight” response, which evolved as a survival mechanism to enable people (we’re talkin’ hunger gatherers-era) to quickly react to life-threatening situations.

When this occurs before bedtime, it can run interference with sleep onset (the ability to fall asleep) and sleep maintenance (the ability to stay asleep). That’s where valerian and GABA come in.

READ MORE: How Stress Affects Your Sleep + What You Can Do About It

How to take valerian?

Although valerian is most commonly taken in capsule form, there’s also the option for valerian root tea, which usually entails 2-3 grams (1 teaspoon) of dried root steeped in hot water for 5-10 minutes. Fluid valerian extracts (½ - 1 teaspoon) and tinctures (1 - 1 ½ teaspoons) are also an option.

How long does it take for valerian to kick in?

For best results, valerian should be taken between 30 minutes and two hours prior to bedtime.

Recommended dose of valerian

300 mg of valerian standardized to a clinically beneficial dosage of 0.8% valeric or valerenic acid is a safe starting point for adults.

Safety of valerian

Side effects of valerian

  • Vivid dreams
    In one clinical trial evaluating both valerian and kava (another common herb for the treatment of insomnia), (7) the majority of participants (58%) did not experience any side effects; however, 16% of those taking valerian reported vivid dreams, which is thought to be caused by an essential oil called iridoid glycoside, which stimulates the brain’s production of serotonin (our happy hormone), which calms the mind and body, leading to deeper sleep (and thus more vivid dreams). 
     
  • Upset stomach
    Although unlikely, the same study mentioned above did find that 18% of participants taking valerian reported symptoms of diarrhea compared to 8% in the placebo group. (8)

Drug interactions
Valerian root can interact with other medications, specifically anticonvulsants (Dilantin + Depakote), barbiturates, benzodiazepines (Xanax + Valium), Ambien, Sonata, Lunesta, Rozerem, and tricyclic antidepressants (Elavil). (9) Experts also recommend against the use of valerian root with alcohol.

Is it safe to take valerian when pregnant or breastfeeding?
Experts advise that pregnant women avoid taking valerian root extract. For nursing women, no data exists on the safety and efficacy of valerian (for the mother or infant), so it’s necessary to talk to your healthcare provider first for tailored medical advice. (10)

Can I take valerian every night?

Absolutely. In fact, valerian has been studied and deemed safe for trials studying daily usage up to 28 days (four weeks). (11-12)

Valerian root vs melatonin

Valerian root and melatonin are two of the most popular natural sleep aids, so it makes sense why they’re often compared to each other. Here’s what you need to know.

They’re not mutually exclusive
Depending on your unique sleep needs and wellness goals, you can opt for a sleep supplement that contains both valerian and melatonin, as Sleep + Restore and Sleep + Restore with CBD do.

They produce varying effects
While valerian provides emotional and behavioral support by working with GABA to reduce excitability and promote relaxation and calmness, melatonin provides physical sleep support by directly regulating the sleep-wake cycle. It improves sleep quality, increases total sleep time, and decreases the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.

Melatonin isn’t for everyone
It should be noted that, for some, melatonin produces symptoms of grogginess, drowsiness, and sleepiness the next morning. If you’re a shift worker or a frequent traveler suffering from jet lag then melatonin might be the best choice for you in order to reset your natural sleep cycle (aka circadian rhythm). If not, you may want to consider other natural dietary supplements such as valerian or GABA.

How to select a valerian supplement

Because supplements are less strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it's important to do your research to ensure it contains what it says it does and is not contaminated with heavy metals or pesticides. Here's what to look for when selecting an herbal supplement like valerian:

  • Third-party tested for purity and verified free of heavy metals, microbes, and pesticides
  • U.S. manufactured and produced in an FDA-approved, "Good Manufacturing Practices"-compliant facility
  • Botanical extracts standardized to guarantee consistent purity, potency, and efficacy
  • Free of artificial colors or binders
  • Vegan, gluten/dairy/sugar-free, non-GMO

Is there an alternative to valerian?

Absolutely! There are a range of alternative, clinically-studied natural sleep aids that help improve the duration and quality of sleep while ensuring you wake up refreshed the next day, including:

  1. Lemon Balm
  2. GABA
  3. L-theanine
  4. Ashwagandha
  5. Chamomile
  6. Magnesium

Learn more about the science behind WHY these natural remedies work in our complete guide.

Not sure whether your occasional sleep disturbance is a sign of a more serious sleep disorder or health condition? Sleep Psychologist Michael T. Smith weighs in on ways to tell if it's time to see a sleep specialist—plus how to find one.