Tuesday 20 January 2015

Valerian, a herb with more questions than answers?

One of the first herbs I came across being used medicinally was valerian.

“I take it when I can’t sleep,” my friend told me, producing a plastic box filled with large white tablets. “They smell disgusting but they work.”

It was several years before I decided to grow the plant. It was a delightful companion, growing happily in the shade, reproducing itself without any help or support and providing tall, white flowers tinged with pink every summer. I gave away at least twenty plants to replenish a friend’s medicinal garden. I harvested some roots and made a dried root tincture. It’s still sitting in my larder as I’ve never used it.

It was resilient as well. The year of my largest potential harvest, my next door neighbour dug up all my plants when he replaced the fence between our two gardens. He’s asked me if there was anything in the border I wanted to keep. I hadn’t realised he would dig quite so far up so only mentioned the rose and a fern. I remember coming home from work that night and discovering the decimation. I cried for an hour wondering what I had done to deserve such a loss when the lesson was that I needed to be more specific.

The following spring I noticed the valerian re-appear and since then it has happily recolonized its original position. The flowers scent the entire garden for more than a month, attracting bees and other insects to gather nectar from its tiny floral trumpets.

Valeriana officinalis grows wild in Europe, Asia and North America. Its roots and rhizomes have been gathered for medicinal use for centuries. It is said that cats and rats love the scent of the root and the Pied Piper of Hamelin used it to lure the rodents from the town.

The constituents of valerian are volatile oils, valepotriates, valerianic acid, glycosides, alkaloids, choline, tannins and resins. It has many actions, including anxiolytic, sedative, hypnotic, anodyne, anthelmintic, antibacterial, antispasmodic, astringent, bitter, carminative, diaphoretic, diuretic, hypotensive, nervine, restorative, stomatic and tonic. With such a long list of actions it is no wonder valerian has been a staple of herbalists over time.

Within the digestive system, valerian acts as an antispasmodic and sedative,. It relaxes tension and spasm in stress related issues such as dyspepsia, intestinal colic and irritable bowel syndrome. It is also helpful with circulatory problems as it helps to lower blood pressure but also increases blood flow to the heart. It can also calm nervous palpitations.

Valerian is most well-known for its mental and emotional properties, especially as a sedative and nerve tonic. Anne MacIntyre says it is the valepotriates which are mainly responsible for the calming effects. She says it is excellent for anxiety, nervous tension, agitation, panic attacks, irritability, insomnia, nervous headaches and exhaustion.

In World War I it was used to treat shell shock and nerve strain caused by air raids. Agatha Christie mentioned it in “Murder on the Orient Express” when the victim was given his nightly dose of valerian before being stabbed.

Valerian relaxes smooth muscles, hence its use in stress related digestive disorders, colic, period pain and headaches. It can also be helpful as an antispasmodic for paroxysmal coughs and croup.

Valerian can also help in the treatment of addiction, chronic aggression and Attention Deficit Disorder.

Annie cautions that valerian should not be used for long periods. She says that excessive doses may cause headaches, muscle spasm, insomnia or palpitations – the very effects for which some people may be taking it! Henriette Kress adds that if you take valerian for more than a few days at a time you may well find yourself becoming over-emotional e.g. bursting into tears for no reason.

What the text books don’t say, although some herbalists are beginning to mention it in passing is that people react in different ways to valerian. Most people find it sedates them but there is a significant number for whom the herb acts as a stimulant. When I mention this during workshops there is always at least one person who has either had personal experience of valerian keeping them awake all night or knows a good friend which has reacted in the same way.

There have been no written studies performed on valerian as yet that I know of. 7Song 7Song, the Ithacan herbalist, has said this is something he wants to consider at some point. He estimates in his practice, one in twelve people taking valerian find it stimulating, which is approximately eight per cent – quite a significant proportion!

Some herbalists believe the effects of valerian can be predicted given someone’s particular constitution but it is still a case of trial and error knowing how it will affect you personally. When my herbalist friend suggested valerian might be a useful ally for me during a particularly stressful phase in my life, she told me to try it during a weekend when I had nothing else to do. I’ve never found such a weekend so have never tried it!

There does seem to be a difference in how you make your valerian extract. Dried root tincture will be different from fresh root tincture. If you are using a concentrated alcohol to extract constituents the dosage should be in drops rather than teaspoonfuls.

Henriette Kress recommends making a tincture or tea from fresh or dried aerial parts which will be a much weaker medicine and might therefore be tolerated better than the stronger root extract. Other herbalists have been taught to do a cold water overnight maceration of the dried root as the volatile oils are destroyed by boiling. Their dose is ½ to 1 tsp of this liquid.

Debs Cook, who is one of those who finds valerian too stimulating, has noticed people who are sedated by valerian loathe the flower scent, describing it as smelling like “cat’s piss”. Interestingly, people who adore the scent of valerian are those who find it stimulating.

Valerian is an extremely useful herb for many different conditions but it must be treated with caution until you know how it will affect you. Anyone taking an ‘over the counter’ sleep remedy should read the label carefully. Valerian is often one of the ingredients, along with wild lettuce, passionflower and hops. You don’t want to be crawling the walls instead of experiencing a good night’s sleep!


danielle diver said...

I have been wildharvesting Valarian for about five years in several different locations: North America (Maine), Canada (Montreal), Switzerland (alps), and western France (wetlands). I always use the same fresh tincture method of preparation. When I lived in the states I harvested it and used it primarily for a sleep aide. Like you stated in your article, i found it to be deeply relaxing for a time, say a good 10 min or so after taking it, then suddenly very stimulating. Therefore in order to use it as a sleep aide I had to be ready to sleep (in bed and eyes closed!), because if I took it too early, i missed that ten min window and couldnt get to sleep and felt wide awake! Then, in Switzerland, i found the roots much stronger, yeilding a dark black tincture that effected me much stronger, but with none of the stimulating effects i found in the Maine valarian. I began using it as a stress/anxiety aide. Now in France, i harvest it close to my house, near water, and it makes a light brown tincture that is much more mild than its Swiss sister, but easier to use without feeling too 'dosed.'
All this to say is that no two locations are alike, meaning no two tinctures will be the same!
Thank you for this article!

Emma Christian said...

Ahh interesting Sarah.

I'm building my medicinal herb patch at the moment and often struggle to stay asleep. I had not thought of planting valarian. But I certainly will when autumn comes and I will keep this post in mind.

Love your blog.


rose AKA Walk in the Woods - she/her said...

Valerian is a fascinating botanical. And beautiful. And I love how the fragrance of bloom is so intense and - to me - sickly sweet.

She fascinates me, too, because of that odd way us two-legged respond to her Medicine. Her tincture is my spouse's GoTo herb when he can't fall or stay asleep (and must get rest) and for me it's not helpful in such cases, though it was when I was younger.

Such a fascinating beauty!

John Martins said...

Valerian is one of my favorite herbs to use as well. I always recommend my friends try it out (and check the labels of their sleep aids too!). I know a few friends myself for whom it acts more like a stimulant than a relaxant.