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Why Scientists Won’t Vouch for Valerian

“On this drug I experienced wild dreams, lots of waking, and extreme next-morning fatigue. The valerian pills also smelled awful, like pungent, wet cardboard, a problem not to be underestimated when you have to choke it down at bedtime.

– Journalist Christopher Null on valerian, reporting for Wired Magazine

Despite its powerful physiological effects, valerian is sold as a “natural dietary supplement,” and regulated as a food, not as a drug. The National Institute of Health cautions that “long-term safety data is not available” for valerian, and there’s evidence that valerian can be habit-forming, causing withdrawal symptoms similar to those caused by benzodiazepines. Liver damage has also been known to occur, though it’s not known whether the cause was due to valerian itself or contaminants in the product.

Valerian in Pregnancy
Regardless of the lack of evidence to prove its long term safety, the use of valerian as an herbal medicine for pregnant women is so widespread, Huffington Post recommended it as a cure for insomnia in pregnant women. To us, that advice is far from responsible. Research on mice found that valerian given to mothers significantly decreased the level of zinc in the brain of fetuses, Because zinc is essential for normal brain development, gestational zinc deficiency can lead to fetal brain malformations. We’d caution any pregnant mother taking a chance on this herbal sleep drug.

Valerian Hangovers
The National Institute of Health states that “there is no scientific agreement as to the active constituents of valerian,” so it’s hard to pinpoint the cause of valerian’s infamous “hangover effect.” While not everyone notices such an effect, we advise strongly against the use of any sedative for sleep, natural or not. In the Everyday Health online forum, some reviewers described a marked deficiency in energy and cognitive abilities after taking valerian.
“I realized why I felt like such crap in the morning – headache, hungover effect, depressed a bit, even. This pill is no joke, even though it’s natural.”
“I have to be quick with numbers at my work, and I believe it interrupted my thinking process. Was not at my usual performance level.”
“Worst hangover ever wow – that herbalist threw this huge dose at me and didn’t warn me it could have hangover effects. I tried taking only one tablet, but I still felt wretched. A long sleepless night and awfully hungover.”

Valerian Drug Interactions
Valerian can slow down how quickly certain prescription drugs are broken down by the liver, so it’s possible for too much of these drugs to build up in the body. Valerian can also strengthen the sedative effects of alcohol, prescription drugs, and other herbs. These include dietary supplements such as St. John’s wort, kava, and melatonin; Benzodiazepines such as Xanax®, Valium®, Ativan®, and Halcion®; and Barbiturates or central nervous system (CNS) depressants. The fact remains, whether your sleep drugs are pharmaceutical or natural, no sedative can promote normal, natural sleep. As UC Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker puts it, “Sedation is not sleep.”

Valerian Withdrawal
According to Mount Sinai Hospital and others in the medical field, “valerian should not be used for longer than one month without the approval of your health care provider. As far back as 1998, there have been reports of cardiac complications and delirium associated with valerian root withdrawal. If you’ve been taking valerian and you want to stop, it’s best to lower your dose gradually rather than stopping all at once to avoid complications.

The Takeaway
Because the FDA regulates herbal remedies like valerian as foods, they don’t have to meet the safety standards prescription drugs do, and as a result, they may be less safe. Valerian isn’t proven safe for long-term use, but even if it were, we wouldn’t put it in Civil, because any sedative blocks the natural, restorative sleep that protects our bodies and brains from illness and deterioration.

We believe the amazing benefits of healthy, high-quality sleep should be accessible to everyone! Want to get a better night’s sleep starting tonight? Check out 5 Rules for Civilized Sleep* (that everyone can do). 

Author: Matthew Rader
Photography: Creative Commons

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