Of all the botanicals used for sleep, valerian is the one we hear about the most. I tried it myself several years ago on a trip to Japan. The inky black tincture stank up our bedroom like a pile of ripe wet socks, tasted bitter, and, taken at bedtime, didn’t do a dime’s worth of good for my sleep. So I tossed it on my heap of failed alternative treatments for insomnia and moved on to the next thing.
Now I’m toying with the idea of trying valerian again. Support for its efficacy as a sleep aid is mixed, but the latest published study shows that it can improve sleep quality in postmenopausal women. One hundred women with insomnia participated in this study, a randomized, controlled trial. Thirty percent of those who used 530 mg of concentrated valerian extract twice a day for four weeks reported significantly improved sleep. Only 4 percent taking a placebo reported a similar improvement.
Why Valerian May Improve Sleep
Why valerian might work as a sleep aid for women aged 50 and above is still unknown. Postmenopausal women are more prone to insomnia than younger women. Menopause brings about decreased levels of estrogen and sleep-protective progesterone, in turn altering the balance of other hormones and neurochemicals helpful and harmful to sleep.
Laboratory studies have shown that valerian should help to promote sleep. It enhances the ability of GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, to tranquilize the brain at night. To a lesser extent, valerian supports the serotonin system in its efforts to improve mood and promote relaxation and sleep.
But the proof of the pudding is always in the eating, and, while 30 percent of the women taking valerian in the study above had improved sleep, 70 percent did not.
Use It Correctly
If you decide to try valerian, don’t expect to see results overnight, said Jerome Sarris, who studies herbs as alternative treatments for mood disorders and sleep at the University of Melbourne, in an interview two years ago.
“You’re not going to get the same punch from herbal medicine” as you do from a sleeping pill, Sarris said. “The herbal medications generally take longer to work, whereas some people just want that quick fix. I think herbal meds may have more of a role in long-term assistance for sleep rather than as an acute measure” to hasten sleep.
So use valerian and other herbal sleep aids not as you would use Ambien but rather as a vitamin, taken daily to gradually tip the balance of hormones and neurochemicals to favor those friendly to sleep.
Have you tried valerian? What did you use it for, and was it effective?