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Valeriana officinalis

Family: Valerianaceae



Valerian is a perennial that produces clusters of pink or white flowers in the summer and grows up to 5 feet tall.1 It is native to Asia and Europe, has naturalized in northeastern America, and is extensively cultivated in Belgium, The Netherlands, France, Germany, Eastern Europe, Japan, and the United States.2,3 There are over 250 species of the genus Valeriana.4 In the United States and Europe, V. officinalis is the most commonly used and studied species.

The derivation of the genus name, Valeriana, is unclear. It may have been named for the German physician and botanist Valerius Cordus (15151544).5 Others believe that the name is derived from the Latin word valere meaning “to be in health.” Prior to the 9th or 10th century CE, the plant known as valerian was variously called phu, fu, amantilla, setwall (or setewale), thericaria, marinella, genicularis, and terdina.5

Some modern popular writers have confused the anti-anxiety drug Valium® (diazepam) as being derived from valerian, but it is not. There is no connection between the two, except for the phonetic similarity.

History and Cultural Significance

Valerian has a long history of medicinal use dating back to the era of the Greek physicians Hippocrates (circa 460-377 BCE) and Dioscorides (1st century CE) who prescribed it as a sleep aid.6 Galen (circa 130-200 CE), physician to Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, prescribed it for insomnia.6 Among the ancient classical authors it was also recorded as a diuretic and a menstrual flow stimulator.7 Valerian was used to treat nervousness, trembling, headaches, and heart palpitations in the 16th century.5 In England during World War II, valerian was used to relieve the stress caused by air raids.5

Some folklorists attribute valerian as being the agent used by the fabled Pied Piper of Hamelin in ridding the German town of Hamelin of its rats. Animal studies testing valerian on rats have shown anxiolytic (reduction of anxiety, agitation, and tension) effects.8,9

In the United States, valerian is used extensively as a dietary supplement in the form of alcoholic tinctures, infusions (teas), and as a crude-root, powdered and dried extract in capsules and tablets. Often, valerian is combined with other herbs traditionally known to promote sleep such as hops (Humulus lupulus, Cannabaceae), passion flower (Passiflora incarnata, Passifloraceae), and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis, Lamiaceae).10

The United States Pharmacopeia provides dietary supplement quality standards monographs for valerian root, powdered valerian root extract, and valerian tablets that contain powdered valerian root extract.11 Valerian standards were published in the national pharmacopeias of Austria, France, Great Britain, Hungary, and Russia, among others.10 Most of these have been superseded by the European Pharmacopoeia, which provides pharmaceutical product quality standards monographs for valerian tincture, dry hydroalcoholic extract, and dry root.12

In 1985 the German Commission E approved the internal use of valerian for restlessness and sleeping disorders based on nervous conditions.6 The European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy (ESCOP), a non-official group of scientists in Europe, notes that valerian is used for “tenseness, restlessness, and irritability, with difficulty in falling asleep.”13 For the purposes of drug licensing, the European Medicines Evaluation Agency (EMEA) permits indications for “relief of mild nervous tension and sleep disorders.”14 Further, Canada’s Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD) also recognizes valerian’s sedative actions.15

Modern Research

A growing number of clinical trials have shown various types of valerian preparations to be useful in reducing anxiety,16-20 as well as for improving sleep quality and decreasing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.21-42 In 2 clinical trials, valerian (taken the evening before) did not significantly influence alertness, reaction time, concentration, driving, or operating of heavy machinery,43,44 despite such cautions by EMEA. Additional clinical trials have been conducted on a fixed combination of a valerian extract (500 mg; extract strength not specified) with an extract of another popular traditional sedative herb, hops (120 mg; extract strength not specified), demonstrating improved quality and length of sleep and ease of falling asleep.45-47

Future Outlook

Mass-market sales of valerian equaled $2,947,351 in the United States in 2007; this statistic represents only about 15% of the total herbal dietary supplement market in the United States.48 Most of the valerian marketed in the United States is from cultivated sources.49 Currently, there is a strong demand for certified organic material.

—Gayle Engels


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