Getting Your Z’s Safely With Valerian

Shakespeare once described sleep as the balm of hurt minds, and that which knits up the raveled sleeve of care. Just how important is a good night’s sleep to recharge the batteries and restore the brain’s hard drive to high-working efficiency? It is very important. Furthermore, restful sleep can also stave off fatigue and mild depression.

But how often have you had to resort to counting sheep to fall asleep? Many Americans have trouble falling asleep at night and end up taking a sleeping pill to induce slumber. However, using a conventional sedative can produce daytime drowsiness, poor concentration, slowed reaction times, and other side effects. In addition, a dependency may develop within four to six weeks of continuous use. So what safe alternatives are there for persons suffering from insomnia?

There are some simple things that can help a person with sleep problems. Have a set time for going to bed every night. Remove the computer from the bedroom–reserve the bedroom for sleep. Alcohol, coffee, and other caffeinated drinks should be avoided, as they disturb sleep. Late-night exciting television shows and videos should be avoided. The brain should be disciplined not to dwell on the problems of the day. A warm shower or bath, relaxation techniques, soothing music, massage, and reading some of God’s promises are all useful for inducing sleep. In addition, there are a number of herbs useful for sleep disorders, including valerian, hops, passionflower, and lemon balm. These herbs do not produce dependency, and side effects are very rare.

Valerian Helps With Insomnia

Historically, valerian is considered to be one of the best herbal tranquilizers. The aqueous extract of the roots of Valeriana officinalis has been used successfully for nervous unrest, anxiety, tension, insomnia, and other sleep disturbances. It has a sedative effect, as well as an antispasmodic effect. Valerian is a hardy plant with fernlike leaves and tiny fragrant flowers that come in white, pink, or lavender hues. Altogether, there are more than 200 species of valerian. In medieval England valerian was used to flavor broths and soups.

Valerian has a beneficial effect on a variety of sleep conditions, yet it does not produce a hangover effect, that is, sleepiness the next morning. Valerian produces significant improvements in those geriatric patients who suffer from difficulties in falling asleep and staying asleep. It decreases the time taken to fall asleep, and decreases the frequency of waking during the night. For patients with sleep disorders, valerian is truly a safe alternative to synthetic hypnotics and barbiturates.

A study by the Swiss researcher Leathwood found that those subjects taking valerian took less time to fall asleep. This observation was especially true for older persons. The quality of sleep among those who reported to be poor or irregular sleepers vastly improved when valerian was used. However, those who claimed to be good sleepers gained little benefit from using valerian. Also, persons who claimed to be habitually poor sleepers reported fewer night awakenings than usual after taking valerian. In a follow-up study, Leathwood observed the sleep habits of eight volunteers who suffered from mild insomnia. The volunteers taking valerian took nine minutes to fall asleep, while those taking an inert placebo took 16 minutes. In addition, the valerian produced more stable sleep during the first part of the night but had no significant effect on total sleeptime.

How Does Valerian Work?

More than 100 constituents have been identified in valerian. However, the actual substances responsible for its activity are not known at this time. The sedative action of valerian probably results from a complex interaction of compounds. The sedative properties have been attributed to both the volatile oil and the highly unstable valepotriates. The volatile oil, which comprises only about 0.5 percent of the dried root, contains at least 30 different terpenes, including valerenic acid, valerenal, and valeric acid.

Valerian promotes natural sleep after several weeks of use, with no adverse side effects or risk of dependency. But one may need to take valerian for at least two weeks before its effects are fully realized. For good results, the valerian capsules or tablets should be taken about two hours before bedtime. While side effects are rare, occasional headaches may result. Valerian is not considered to be suitable for acute cases of insomnia and is not recommended for use during pregnancy or lactation.

The usual dose of valerian is 2 to 3 grams (taken several times a day). A tea is made by adding one teaspoonful of valerian to a half-cup of hot water, and then straining it after 10 to 15 minutes. Valerian should not be used at the same time as regular sleeping pills, since it may overenhance the sedative effect of those pills. A combination of valerian with other sedative herbs such as hops, lemon balm, and passion flower is reported to be more effective for insomnia than using valerian alone.

Remember: Herbal products and dietary supplements can have pharmacological effects, may produce adverse reactions in some people, and could interact with over-the-counter and prescription medications you may take. Discuss with your physician your decision to use any herbal product. Anything mentioned in this article is not intended to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any ailment.

Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is a professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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