Substances & Homeopatic Remedies

Valeriana officinalis

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Valerian Root is also known by the names Garden Heliotrope and Tobacco Root. Valerian is found throughout Europe, South Africa, and temperate areas of Asia, and has also been introduced to North America. The parts of this plant used medicinally are the root and the rhizome. Valerian has a characteristic aromatic, yet offensive, scent that strangely enough is attractive to cats. In fact, some Victorian physicians suggested that the quality of Valerian can be determined by how cats react to it. The name Valerian is from Latin "valere", meaning "to be in health". Legend has it that the Pied Piper of Hamlin used Valerian to lure the rats out of the city. The Greek physician Dioscorides recommended Valerian for a host of medical problems, including digestive problems, nausea, liver problems, and even urinary tract disorders. Use of Valerian for insomnia and nervous conditions has been common for many centuries. Valerian was traditionally used for epilepsy, sleeplessness, nervousness, hysteria, and as a diuretic and emmenagogue. It has been used for nervousness and insomnia in Ayurvedic medicine in India, and in traditional Chinese medicine. This herb was used as a coffee substitute by German women, and as a condiment during Medieval Times, and as a perfume during the 16th century. The roots have been used for food by many cultures. The Piute Indians ground them for flour, and the British used the roots in soups. By the eighteenth century, this herb was an accepted sedative, and was also used for nervous disorders associated with a restless digestive tract. In the early part of the 19th century, Shakers grew Valerian as a principle cash crop. During World War I, Valerian was given to shell-shocked soldiers and stressed civilians. In Europe, Valerian is still the most common non-prescription sedative, where over one hundred Valerian preparations are sold in pharmacies. In Germany, it is used for unruly children. Native Americans used it to treat horses with distemper. Valerian Root was a very popular sleep sedative in the United States until it was displaced by synthetic drugs after World War II. Clinical studies have shown that people taking Valerian Root had shown significantly improved sleep quality without morning grogginess. Some researchers have compared Valerian Root to benzodiazepines such as Valium™. However, Valerian is a much milder and safer sedative. Unlike Valium™, Valerian is not addictive or does not promote dependency. And Valerian's sedative effect is not significantly exaggerated by alcohol and barbiturates (unlike Valium™), and also has not been linked to any birth defects (again, unlike Valium™). Valerian is a smooth muscle and skeletal relaxant, as well as a premier sedative that aids in anxiety, stress and insomnia.  The primary chemical constituents of Valerian Root include valepotriates, alkaloids (chatinine, valerine), valerenic acid, essential oils (acetic acid, borneol, pinene, camphene), caffeic acid, beta-sitosterol, tannin, manganese, calcium, choline, and B vitamins. Valerian Root contains many different constituents, including essential oils that appear to contribute to the sedating properties of the herb. Central nervous system sedation is regulated by receptors in the brain known as GABA-A receptors. Valerian may weakly bind to these receptors to exert a sedating effect. Recent studies indicate that valepotriates and valerenic acid can bind to the same receptor sites in the brain as benzodiazepine drugs. It reduces hypertension due to stress and reduces pain from shingles. Experiments in Italy and Germany conducted for the past 15 years have found that valerian preparations are effective in treating children with psychomotor agitation (hyperactivity) and behavioral disorders. In fact, in these children, the preparation enhanced motor coordination and maintained reaction time, while calming anxiety and fears, curing restlessness and curbing aggression.

Several small studies involving humans have been conducted to test the effectiveness of valerian compared to placebo (sugar pills) and to prescription and non-prescription sleep aids. Most of the results show that valerian has some value for both insomnia and anxiety. However, these studies had very small sample sizes; they used many different doses of valerian; and they varied widely in both the length of time valerian was taken and the methods utilized to determine the results.

Although valerian is not usually applied topically, it may occasionally be added to bath water. Inhaling the vapor from the warm water is thought to help relieve nervousness and induce sleepiness. Similarly, shredded valerian root may be put into simmering water so the steam can be inhaled as a relaxant.

Epilepsia. 2004 Nov;45(11):1338-43. Related Articles, Links  
Could valerian have been the first anticonvulsant?
Eadie MJ.
Department of Medicine, University of Queensland, Royal Brisbane Hospital, Brisbane, Australia. M.Eadie@mailbox.uq.edu.au

PURPOSE: To assess the available evidence for the belief that valerian, highly recommended in the past for treating epilepsy, possessed real anticonvulsant effectiveness. METHODS: Review of available literature. RESULTS: In 1592, Fabio Colonna, in his botanical classic Phytobasanos, reported that taking powdered valerian root cured his own epilepsy. Subsequent reports of valerian's anticonvulsant effectiveness appeared. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was often regarded as the best available treatment for the disorder. Valerian preparations yield isovaleric acid, a substance analogous to valproic acid and likely to possess anticonvulsant properties, as isovaleramide does. In favorable circumstances, high valerian doses can be calculated to have sometimes provided potentially effective amounts of anticonvulsant substance for epilepsy patients. CONCLUSIONS: Valerian probably did possess the potential for an anticonvulsant effect, but the uncertain chemical composition and content of valerian preparations, and their odor and taste, made it unlikely that they could ever prove satisfactory in widespread use.