Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a botanical known best for its role in supporting sleep. Its root has been used medicinally for centuries, dating back to at least the first century. The first recordings of valerian’s use for “nervous disorders” and insomnia were made in the Middle Ages. More recently, valerian has been studied for its supportive actions on the nervous system.
Some calming constituents in valerian are valerenic acid, valepotriates, borneol, lignans, and flavonoids. The constituents, valerenic acid and valerenol, exhibit modulatory properties of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors. V. officinalis also modulates GABA by inhibiting GABA transaminase. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system (CNS). Disturbances in GABA levels are associated with many conditions involving the CNS, including anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia.
Valerian is considered a partial agonist of 5-hydroxytryptamine and serotonin receptors. It also supports the body's response to stress by changing corticosterone plasma levels and modulating the turnover of norepinephrine and serotonin in the hippocampus and amygdala. A clinical trial showed a reduction in psychological and physiological stress reactivity in healthy adults when given 600 mg of valerian for 1 week.
In laboratory studies, V. officinalis extract significantly increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The BDNF is a protein that plays an important role in synaptic plasticity, nervous system modulation, memory formation, and the growth, maintenance, and survival of neurons. V. officinalis also demonstrates neuroprotective actions in the presence of rotenone, a pesticide used in animal studies to simulate neurological disorders. A recent animal study concluded that V. officinalis protects against rotenone-induced changes in certain glial cells, which play a role in the loss of dopaminergic neurons in Parkinson’s disease.
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial assessed the effects of valerian on anxiety, depression, and sleep quality in individuals undergoing hemodialysis. Mood and sleep disturbances are common among hemodialysis patients. This crossover study had a treatment period of 1 month and showed statistically significant improvements in the symptoms of state anxiety, depression symptoms, and sleep quality. Valerian was reported to be relatively safe in this study population. In another clinical trial, supplementation with 1,260 mg of valerian reduced premenstrual anxiety when administered for a duration of 7 days per menstrual cycle for three cycles.
Valerian has clinical applications beyond the support of sleep quality. Supplementation with valerian may support the body’s response to stress and a healthy mood. It also shows promise as a potential neuroprotective botanical.
By Colleen Ambrose, ND, MAT