Valerian is the root of a perennial member of the valerian family found in eastern, southeastern, and eastcentral Europe, to south Sweden and the southern Alps. It escaped from cultivation in the northeastern United States and is commercially grown in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere.
Valerian, not a major medicinal plant of the ancient classical authors, was best known to them as a diuretic and treatment for menstrual difficulties. The Greek physician Galen used it for epilepsy in children and adults. An Italian nobleman, Fabio Colonna, born in 1567, suffered from epilepsy and found Galen's reference. He took valerian himself and claimed it completely restored his health. His words stimulated interest in the plant as a sedative. Use of valerian to relieve spasms and as a sleep aid evolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Valerian was an official remedy in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1936.
Valerian is widely used in Europe as a mild nerve sedative and sleep aid for insomnia, excitability, and exhaustion. Experimental studies have shown that it depresses the central nervous system and relieves muscle spasms. Its sedative action is attributed to a number of chemical fractions, with no single compound emerging as the active principle.
In the 1980s Swiss researchers studied the effects of valerian water extracts on sleep patterns. Sleep quality was assessed by the patients and by laboratory measures. The time taken to fall asleep was reduced, especially in older patients and insomniacs. Dream recall and nocturnal movement were apparently not affected. No hangover effect, a common complaint among users of synthetic sedatives, was reported the following morning. German health authorities allow use of valerian in sedative and sleep-inducing preparations for states of excitation and for difficulty in falling asleep due to nervousness.
Dried valerian root is available in whole, cut-and-sifted, and powdered form for teas, capsules, tablets, tinctures, extracts, and other preparations. Some products are standardized to contain at least 0.5 percent essential oils.
Some individuals may experience temporary stomach upset. Compounds called valepotriates have been shown to destroy and cause mutations in animal cells. Despite these findings, valerian is generally considered safe. Although official texts do not caution against using valerian during pregnancy, avoid it to be on the safe side.