Valerian for Sleep: The Foundation of a Better Night’s Rest

I’ve held off on exploring the more “holistic” and “herbal” remedies for sleep for the last two years.First, I worked extensively on sleep hygiene. This process took a long time, because I was sure that the answer for my insomnia lay there. When the results of this process were indeterminate, I looked into central sleep apnea. This particular investigation is still underway, as I had a blood oximeter test a week ago, and it’ll take another week to get the results. I still suspect a weak form of CSA, so with this in mind I looked to possible fixes for that problem.

Valerian for Sleep

That led me to calcium and magnesium supplementation for sleep. I’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks now, but again – no conclusive difference in the quality of my sleep.

As has been the case since I started measuring it, the main issue seems to be the number of awakenings at night. If that could be solved/resolved, sleep would be more restful and my nights would be more fulfilling ,So that’s led me to try valerian tea before bed to help with the sleep.

What Is Valerian Root?

Valerian Root has been used a sleep and anxiety aid for a very, very long time. In fact, Hippocrates described it in about 400BC. But, as with a lot that I talk about on this blog, it’s controversial. Some say it works, some say it doesn’t.

Scientific studies don’t clear up the argument much either – some say it has statistically significant results, some say no. So we’re back to being very subjective with it, so I choose to hope that it has some impact with me. At least I have a way to measure it’s effect with the Zeo.

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Valerian is a flowering plant native to Europe and Asia, and has now been introduced to North America (not native here). It is a perennial – meaning that it blooms every year, and doesn’t die in the fall – and it’s the roots of the plant that we’re interested in.

If it’s used in a pharmacological way (ie: a pill, capsule, or liquid preparation), the root is chemically separated into the individual compounds thought to have something to do with its medicinal properties, and prepared into whatever form it’s sold. The standard preparations will declare a percentage of “valeric acid” as the active ingredient.

If prepared as a tea, the root is normally ground up and mixed with other herbs and plants and then steeped. The tea that I have is Valerian Root mixed with peppermint, lemongrass, chamomile, and other expensive stuff.

Again, the “opinions” are mixed – some say the best way to take Valerian Root is to have a standardized amount (the valeric acid component seems to be in the 2-3mg range, while the actual content of the “root” may be 300-500mg) – and others say the best way to take it is as a tea. Who knows?

What Does Valerian Root Do?

Valerian root, as mentioned earlier, has long been recommended for help with sleep – especially for falling asleep faster, but it’s also been reported to help you get back to sleep once you’ve woken (this is a big deal for me – I’d like to get the number of awakenings down, but also the time spent awake).

Because of it’s purported sedative properties (most obvious with sleep), it’s also used for general nervousness, excitability, stress and hysteria.

From a prescription point of view, many people (doctors included) will try Valerian Root to either avoid benzodiazepines (Valium, Ativan, Paxal, etc) altogether or to assist in the inevitable withdrawal from them.

The Science Behind Valerian Root

Here’s where, for me, the rubber hits the road. I was expecting to find overwhelming scientific evidence that Valerian Root had a least a small statistically significant impact on people in well designed studies.

Not so.

There have been a few well designed studies done on Valerian Root, but they all seem to suffer from two fatal flaws – the study size and the objective measurement of results. Seems there’s always a limited number of participants in the study, and although they try and eliminate as much randomness and subjectivity as possible, results often come down to people’s opinions. But maybe that’s as good as it can get – and in the end that’s all that matters anyways. How you feel.

Anyways, researchers looked at several clinical studies of Valerian Root and sleep disorders, and did a very good job of separating out the good studies from the bad ones. They rated them on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the best designed. Three of the nine evaluated studies scored 5/5, and the results were mixed. Here’s a sample from study number 1 (underlining is mine):

“The first study used a repeated-measures design; 128 volunteers were given 400 mg of an aqueous extract of valerian, a commercial preparation containing 60 mg valerian and 30 mg hops, and a placebo. Participants took each one of the three preparations three times in random order on nine nonconsecutive nights and filled out a questionnaire the morning after each treatment. Compared with the placebo, the valerian extract resulted in astatistically significant subjective improvement in time required to fall asleep (more or less difficult than usual), sleep quality (better or worse than usual), and number of nighttime awakenings (more or less than usual).This result was more pronounced in a subgroup of 61 participants who identified themselves as poor sleepers on a questionnaire administered at the beginning of the study. The commercial preparation did not produce a statistically significant improvement in these three measures. The clinical significance of the use of valerian for insomnia cannot be determined from the results of this study because having insomnia was not a requirement for participation. In addition, the study had a participant withdrawal rate of 22.9%, which may have influenced the results.”

And from the second study:

“…The small sample size makes it difficult to generalize the results to a broader population…”

But, the third study showed:

After 28 days, the group receiving the valerian extract showed a decrease in insomnia symptoms on all the assessment tools compared with the placebo group. The differences in improvement between valerian and placebo increased between the assessments done on days 14 and 28.

So the results of this “study of studies” reveal ambiguous results. It worked for some, but for others there was no significant difference.

Where To From Here?

I did read one interesting tidbit in all the research I did on Valerian Root: “Valerian often seems only to work when taken over longer periods (several weeks)“. So I think I’ll stick with the tea for a while and see what it does (so far, nothing).

One thing I didn’t read, but have to believe it’s true since both my wife and I commented on this – Valerian Root tea makes you pee. The first night we tried the tea, we had a cup about 10pm. We were both up at 12:30am visiting the bathroom.

The last couple of nights, we took the tea at 8pm, and there were no extra bathroom visits.

We’ll keep up with the tea for at least the next month or so, to see if there’s any change in my sleep (which I’ll measure objective using the Zeo).