Valerian and Sleep Disorders

August 25, 2009 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

Valerian root extract is perhaps the most intensely studied and widely used natural insomnia remedy known to man. But what’s both fascinating and infuriating about it is that many scientists still don’t agree about whether it’s a viable alternative to pharmaceutical sleeping pills. The two most likely reasons for this are: a) herbal extracts are significantly more complicated to study than most synthetic medications; and b) there isn’t much of a financial incentive to get to the bottom of this issue. The secondary point isn’t an attempt to indiscriminately knock the pharmaceutical industry. Both the allopathic and holistic camps have a financial interest in allowing this mystery to persist.

The last couple of years have, in general, strengthened the reputation of valerian root extract. But little of this new data has been recognized by the medical establishment or major media outlets.

Firstly, it’s important to establish a need for a natural alternative to conventional drugs for insomnia and other sleep disorders. This topic was address last October in an article entitled, “Sleep Complaints: Whenever Possible, Avoid the Use of Sleeping Pills”. In that scientific paper, the authors note that there are few long term studies published on the health effects of “benzodiazepines and related drugs”. This class of medicine is associated with daytime drowsiness, falls and fractures, poor memory and vehicular accidents. Other sleep medications are similarly scrutinized in this medical review. But a hint of hope is provided in the analysis of one particular herbal extract, “Some clinical trials of phytotherapy have shown a positive risk-benefit balance of weak aqueous or hydroalchoholic valerian extracts.” (1)

A study presented in the August 2009 edition of the journal Neurochemical Research presents a new and novel reason to consider valerian instead of conventional treatments for the occasional sleepless night. In addition to improving sleep quality, it appears that Valeriana officinalis also provides antioxidant protection to a key area of the brain (hippocampus) that is negatively affected by insomnia. (2)

In April 2009, a trial investigated the effects of 800 mg of valerian in 37 patients with restless legs syndrome (RLS). Half of the group received the herbal extract and the remainder were given a nightly placebo. At the beginning of the study and after 8 weeks of use, data was collected to assess any differences between the treatment and control groups. The patients receiving the valerian exhibited greater reductions in RLS symptoms and daytime sleepiness. This led the researchers to conclude that, “Valerian may be an alternative treatment for the symptom management of RLS with positive health outcomes and improved quality of life”. (3)

A combination of valerian root and hops is a very popular sleep remedy in Europe. The most recent investigation of this herbal blend yielded positive results that indicate that it may possess a more potent, synergistic effect than valerian root alone. In this case, a liquid extract was employed. On separate nights, a group of 42 patients with sleep disturbances were given either the valerian/hops mixture or a “similar smelling placebo”. All the participants spent two nights at a sleep lab and were subjected to EEG testing and a “validated sleep questionnaire”.

  • Those receiving the herbal blend slept longer than the placebo group – as measured by an EEG (electrohypnogram), a device used to assess “depth of sleep”.
  • There was also a significant improvement in “deeper sleep” in the valerian/hops users.

These results may be of great interest to those who suffer from occasional restless sleep rather than clinical insomnia. Longer term studies tend to support the validity of this herbal pairing as well. (4,5,6)

However, not all of the recent valerian trials have been so successful. A study published in April 2009 failed to find a statistically significant improvement in sleep quality in a group of patients with arthritis and “mild sleep disturbances”. The dosage of valerian used in this research was slightly smaller than in the previous studies (600 mg vs. 800 mg). It’s also important to point out that the duration of this experiment was only 5 days. Another study from March 2009 also concluded unsuccessfully. This, again, was a shorter term study (2 weeks) and utilized only 300 mg of a concentrated valerian supplement. (7,8)

As you can see, there’s a real reason why some doctors are reluctant to jump on the valerian bandwagon. They just don’t feel confident that it will provoke a positive effect consistently. There’s also a question about how exactly valerian works. Some evidence indicates that it targets similar receptors in the brain as many prescription sedatives (GABA A receptors). But laboratory studies don’t always agree on this point. There are even experiments that claim that valerian isn’t a sedative at all. Instead, some scientists believe that it acts as an antixiolytic (anti-anxiety) and antidepressant agent. Some research even suggests that it may be helpful to smell valerian in order to gets it’s full calming impact! This is perhaps the strangest finding of all. Valerian extracts have a very pungent and unpleasant scent that have often been equated to the odor of “sweaty socks”. (9,10,11,12,13)

This is a very intriguing botanical indeed. But it’s true that there are many questions that remain unanswered. I hope the future will bring clarification as to how exactly valerian compares to conventional and natural sleep aids. That type of examination is beginning to take place, but it’s still in its infancy. I’ll make sure to keep an eye out for any relevant updates that may add to our current understanding and promote a more peaceful night’s sleep. (14,15,16,17)

Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!

Be well!


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Posted in Alternative Therapies, Mental Health, Nutritional Supplements

6 Comments & Updates to “Valerian and Sleep Disorders”

  1. Mike Mahon Says:

    who conducted the RLS valerian trial? Where can I find the results?

  2. JP Says:


    It was conducted at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. Here’s a link to the study abstract.

    Be well,


  3. Billy Says:

    You can also use bright incandescent light before bed time to stimulate thyroid which in turn will down regulate adrenaline and help with sleep. Eating before bedtime to will help as well.

  4. JP Says:

    Thank you for sharing your suggestions, Billy!

    Be well!


  5. JP Says:

    Update: L-Theanine, a component of green tea, improves sleep quality …

    J Am Coll Nutr. 2015 Mar 11:1-12.

    In Search of a Safe Natural Sleep Aid.

    Sleep deprivation is associated with an elevated risk of various diseases and leads to a poor quality of life and negative socioeconomic consequences. Sleep inducers such as drugs and herbal medicines may often lead to dependence and other side effects. l-Theanine (γ-glutamylethylamide), an amino acid naturally found abundant in tea leaves, has anxiolytic effects via the induction of α brain waves without additive and other side effects associated with conventional sleep inducers. Anxiolysis is required for the initiation of high-quality sleep. In this study, we review the mechanism(s), safety, and efficacy of l-theanine. Collectively, sleep studies based on an actigraph, the obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) sleep inventory questionnaire, wakeup after sleep onset (WASO) and automatic nervous system (ANS) assessment, sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve activities, and a pediatric sleep questionnaire (PSQ) suggest that the administration of 200 mg of l-theanine before bed may support improved sleep quality not by sedation but through anxiolysis. Because l-theanine does not induce daytime drowsiness, it may be useful at any time of the day. The no observable adverse effect level (NOAEL) for the oral administration of l-theanine was determined to be above 2000 mg/kg bw/day. Key teaching points: Sleep deprivation-associated morbidity is an increasing public health concern posing a substantial socioeconomic burden. Chronic sleep disorders may seriously affect quality of life and may be etiological factors in a number of chronic diseases such as depression, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. Most sleep inducers are sedatives and are often associated with addiction and other side effects. l-Theanine promotes relaxation without drowsiness. Unlike conventional sleep inducers, l-theanine is not a sedative but promotes good quality of sleep through anxiolysis. This review suggests that l-theanine is a safe natural sleep aid.

    Be well!


  6. JP Says:

    Update 07/14/15:

    Sleep. 2015 Jun 22.

    Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia in Adolescents: A Randomized Controlled Trial with Internet Therapy, Group Therapy and a Waiting List Condition.

    STUDY OBJECTIVES: To investigate the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) in adolescents.

    DESIGN: A randomized controlled trial of CBTI in group therapy (GT), guided internet therapy (IT), and a waiting list (WL), with assessments at baseline, directly after treatment (post-test), and at 2 months follow-up.

    SETTING: Diagnostic interviews were held at the laboratory of the Research Institute of Child Development and Education at the University of Amsterdam. Treatment for GT occurred at the mental health care center UvAMinds in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

    PARTICIPANTS: One hundred sixteen adolescents (mean age = 15.6 y, SD = 1.6 y, 25% males) meeting DSM-IV criteria for insomnia, were randomized to IT, GT, or WL.

    INTERVENTIONS: CBTI of 6 weekly sessions, consisted of psychoeducation, sleep hygiene, restriction of time in bed, stimulus control, cognitive therapy, and relaxation techniques. GT was conducted in groups of 6 to 8 adolescents, guided by 2 trained sleep therapists. IT was applied through an online guided self-help website with programmed instructions and written feedback from a trained sleep therapist.

    MEASUREMENTS AND RESULTS: Sleep was measured with actigraphy and sleep logs for 7 consecutive days. Symptoms of insomnia and chronic sleep reduction were measured with questionnaires. Results showed that adolescents in both IT and GT, compared to WL, improved significantly on sleep efficiency, sleep onset latency, wake after sleep onset, and total sleep time at post-test, and improvements were maintained at follow-up. Most of these improvements were found in both objective and subjective measures. Furthermore, insomnia complaints and symptoms of chronic sleep reduction also decreased significantly in both treatment conditions compared to WL. Effect sizes for improvements ranged from medium to large. A greater proportion of participants from the treatment conditions showed high end-state functioning and clinically significant improvement after treatment and at follow-up compared to WL.

    CONCLUSIONS: This study is the first RCT that provides evidence that CBTI is effective for the treatment of adolescents with insomnia, with medium to large effect sizes. There were small differences between internet- and group therapy, but both treatments reached comparable endpoints.

    Be well!


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