Top Ten Herbs: Valerian Root

Valerian, or Valeriana officinalis, is an herb native to the continent of Europe and some areas of Asia, valerian also can be found in North America. Its root is used to make supplements, extracts, and oils to aid in sleep and other health related issues. It has a sedative effect.

Health Benefits and Side Effects

Valerian root is often used to aid with sleep. People who suffer with insomnia have found they can sleep after taking valerian. Most have sleep that is better quality, as well. Some people find that it reduces anxiety symptoms and relieves stress. In some people, it can control ADHD and hyperactivity. It can lessen symptoms of menopause in some women. It can improve heart function and increase elasticity of blood vessels. Some find it helpful in treating restless leg syndrome. In some people, it can lessen OCD. Some have found it useful for treating digestive issues such as intestinal cramps, bloating, and related problems. 

It should be taken for 4-8 weeks at most, then stopped for a time. It can cause withdrawal symptoms in some people if stopped abruptly, so it is wise to plan ahead and step it down over a week or so before stopping completely.

Valerian should be taken at bedtime or when staying at home. Driving and using machinery are dangerous after taking valerian.

There are some things that should not be combined with valerian root. Alcohol should never be combined with valerian, as both can cause a sedative effect, and this could cause one to be excessively sleepy. Xanax (alprazolam) also causes drowsiness; additionally, valerian can slow down the body’s processing of the drug causing increased effects. It should not be combined with other sedatives, including (but not limited to) Ativan (lorazepam), Diprivan (propofol), Duragesic/Sublimaze (fentanyl), Halcion (triazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Luminal (phenobarbital), Nembutal (pentobarbital), Restoril (temazepam), Seconal (secobarbital), Valium (diazepam), and Versed (midazolam). Medications that are broken down by and changed by the liver may have increased effects (including side effects) if taken with valerian, due to how valerian slows the process. Some of these include Allegra (fexofenadine), Halcion (triazolam), Mevacor (lovastatin), Nizoral (ketoconazole), Sporanox (itraconazole), and others. It is recommended that those considering using valerian who already take prescription medication talk to their doctor first. 

Valerian can have side effects in some people, though it usually only causes drowsiness (its intended effect). Some may be allergic to the herb; typical allergic reactions can occur in this case. In some people, it can cause problems with the liver. More common side effects include upset stomach, dry mouth, headache, anxiety, and strange dreams. 

Food and Nutrition

Valerian root is not generally used with food; however, it can be made into tea.

Growing Valerian

Valerian can grow to be four feet tall, but if it is being grown to use as a supplement, the roots must be accessible. It is an easy to grow perennial plant that can thrive in most areas (but does best in growing zones 4-7). Its flowers can be white or pink, and they have a sweet smell. The root, which is the part used for medicinal reasons, tends to smell quite unpleasant. 

The plant needs sunshine but can handle some shade. While it can grow in most soil, it prefers rich, moist soil that drains well. 

It can be grown easily from seeds, but young plants can be purchased and transplanted into the garden, as well. The seeds can be planted outdoors in early spring or started indoors if desired; transplants into the garden should be done in late spring. 

Valerian should be kept moist; it does not like getting too dry. If left alone, it will drop seeds and more plants will grow; to prevent this, prune after the plant flowers. 

Valerian can be planted in a pot, but it must be a large one for the root system. A self-watering pot is a good option, since valerian does not do well if it gets too dry.

Cats love valerian, so if there are cats in the neighborhood, your valerian may need to be protected from them. If they can get to it, cats may lay on the plant and crush it, killing it before the root is ready for harvest. 

Harvesting is easy, though a bit messy. Dig up the root of a two-year-old plant (this is easiest when the ground is wet) and rinse well to remove the dirt. If the smell is unpleasant, it may be best to wash outdoors, and with gloves on. These can be dried in a 200-degree Fahrenheit oven, left slightly open, for as long as necessary, checking every quarter-hour or so. If the smell is too much, they can be dried in a cool, dry place for several months on a drying rack. 

Dried roots can be stored whole, chopped, or powdered, then used in tea, encapsulated, or taken in other ways. 

The leaves can also be dried and used for tea.