What Is Valerian and How Does it Affect Sleep?

Herbal Supplement Used to Improve Insomnia

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If you are interested in learning about alternative medicines that may help with your insomnia, you may wish to learn what valerian is and how it might affect your sleep.

Uses of Valerian

There are more than 400 different herbal preparations that contain valerian extracts, most derived from the roots of the plant called Valeriana officinalis. As an herbal supplement, valerian is sold over-the-counter without a prescription.

Its medicinal claims and production are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Valerian is touted for its properties related to sedation, anxiety relief, muscle relaxation, and even seizure prevention. For these reasons, it is often used to treat insomnia and anxiety disorders.

How Does Valerian Work?

Valerian contains several chemicals that affect the central nervous system (and specifically the brain). These chemicals include sesquiterpenes, valepotriates, valerenic acid, and other alkaloids. The amounts contained in a particular herbal preparation may vary based on the plant species as well as the extraction process used.

The exact mechanism of action of valerian is unknown. Valerian contains small amounts of GABA, but this chemical does not cross the blood-brain barrier. Therefore, taking GABA in a supplement form is not effective.

Does Valerian Improve Sleep?

The limited research regarding valerian suggests mixed results for its use to treat insomnia.

Some studies have shown a subjective improvement in the time it takes to fall asleep (sleep latency), as well as improved sleep quality and decreased awakenings. More objective studies that include polysomnography show increased deep sleep and reduced stage 1 sleep. Some additional research studies have shown improved overall sleep efficiency.

However, overall the research is not strong enough to recommend the use of valerian to improve sleep at this time.

What Are Potential Side Effects?

The most common side effects of valerian include:

  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Morning sleepiness

Should I Use Valerian?

If you are considering using valerian to improve your sleep, you should consult with your doctor. After a careful discussion of your current medical problems and medications, you may decide whether this herbal supplement is an appropriate choice for you. For most people, other proven insomnia treatments may be a better option.


Donath, F et al. "Critical evaluation of the effect of valerian extract on sleep structure and sleep quality." Pharmacopsychiatry 2000;33:47-53.

Houghton, PJ. "The scientific basis for the reputed activity of valerian." J Pharm Pharmacol. 1999;51:505-512.

Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." Elsevier, 5th edition, pp. 502-503.

Leathwood, PD et al. "Aqueous extract of valerian root (Valeriana officinalis L.) improves sleep quality in man." Pharmacol Biochem Behav 1982;17:65-71.

Schulz, H et al. "The effect of valerian extract on sleep polygraphy in poor sleepers: a pilot study." Pharmacopsychiatry 1994;27:147-151.

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