Valerian root for anxiety: Does it work?

If you’re looking for a natural option to help with anxiety in addition to, or instead of, other treatments like prescription anxiety medication, then you may be curious to know more about valerian root.

Valerian is a plant originally from Asia and Europe, although it’s now also grown in North America. Valerian root has been used throughout time for its calming properties, and has earned the nickname “nature’s Valium,” says Dr. Alex Dimitriu, who’s double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in Menlo Park, California.

Because of its reputation as a source of calm, those who use valerian root say that it has helped with their anxiety. It’s also touted as a sleep aid, with benefits including improvement with deep sleep and helping someone to fall asleep faster, says Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, a board-certified internist based in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, and author of “From Fatigued to Fantastic!” It helps some people improve sleep without the “hung over” feeling that certain sleep medications can cause, like those in a class called sedative hypnotics. This medication class includes benzodiazepines and barbiturates.

Valerian root also is used for headaches and premenstrual syndrome, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, though there’s less research done to prove its effectiveness in these areas.

[SEE: 9 Foods and Beverages That May Promote Calm.]

How Does Valerian Root Work?

Valerian root is thought to be effective for anxiety because it has compounds that help calm the central nervous system, says Dr. Cindy Tsai, an integrative physician and life coach based in San Diego. It also is believed to increase levels of a calming neurotransmitter in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. This neurotransmitter can lower anxiety and stress.

Valerian root also has other compounds, such as lignans and valerenic acid, that can increase levels of serotonin and adenosine. These are chemicals that help control mood and sleep, Tsai says.

Valerian root is available in several forms:

— Capsule.

— Extract.

— Pill.

— Powder.

— Tea.

Although some people enjoy the taste of valerian root tea, the smell isn’t always pleasant, Teitelbaum says. He likens it to the smell of catnip. The University of Michigan Health website describes the smell as that of sweaty socks.

[READ: 6 Surprising Signs You May Have Anxiety.]

Is Valerian Root Effective for Anxiety?

For some people, valerian root can be an effective choice for lessening feels of anxiety. “It can be helpful for patients with mild to moderate anxiety who are interested in trying an herbal option with fewer side effects,” Tsai says.

Dimitriu has found it effective in some patients both for anxiety and sleep because of its mild sedating effect. It’s especially worked well as a tea brewed in the evening and “steeped strong” — you can do this by covering the mug and allowing it to steep for a few minutes.

Dosing for valerian root will depend on the form you’re using. Teitelbaum recommends 200 to 800 mg daily of valerian root extract spread over two to three times a day, or a full dose just at night before going to sleep. Doses that are higher than recommended may lead to a hung-over feeling, he adds. Teitelbaum also recommends combining it with hops or lemon balm extract for better effectiveness.

Keep in mind that supplements such as valerian root aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. That means that there’s less research to show how effective they are. Plus, product quality may vary.

The federal government’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says there’s not enough evidence yet to conclude whether or not valerian root is effective for anxiety.

A 2020 meta-analysis in the Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine that included eight studies of valerian root for anxiety and 10 studies for sleep quality concluded that valerian could be safe and effective for sleep issues and associated disorders, but also note that there were inconsistent outcomes in the studies the authors included. Product quality control may be an issue, they add.

[See: Tips to Support Someone Having a Panic Attack.]

Valerian Root for Anxiety: What You Need to Know

One advantage of valerian root for anxiety is that aside from the smell, its downsides are minimal, Dimitriu says. “At worst, it does nothing. At a minimum, it’s part of a healthy winding-down ritual in the evening,” he explains. Dimitriu is referring to a nightly routine that encourages your body to calmly get ready for bed. “At best, it lowers anxiety and improves sleep quality,” he adds.

Still, some people can experience side effects from using it. These can include:

Abnormal heartbeats.

— Headaches.

Mental fogginess.

— Nausea.

— Stomach cramps.

— Feeling more stimulated instead of calmed by it, which happens in a small percentage of those who use it, Teitelbaum says.

There also are some people who should avoid the use of valerian root or use it with caution, including those who:

— Are pregnant. That’s because there’s not much research about its safety for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

— Are using other sedative medications like sleep aids because the sedative effect from those meds along with the valerian root may be too strong. This is also why you shouldn’t use it in combination with alcohol, which is sedating, Tsai says. You also don’t want to combine it with melatonin, another type of natural supplement known to help with sleep. Check with your doctor before using valerian root if you’re on an anti-depressant.

— Have liver disease. It may slow down the way that your body breaks down medications in your liver.

Always check with your healthcare provider to make sure valerian root won’t interact with other medications that you use.

Valerian root is more effective when used consistently over time versus just for one day or night. It may take six weeks to notice a difference from valerian root, Tsai says. If you need a quicker fix for anxiety or insomnia, you may want to choose something faster acting in addition to, or in place of, valerian root.

Other Treatments for Anxiety

If you’re considering valerian root for anxiety, remember that other non-pharmacologic therapies also may help you. These include:

— Cannabinoids, also known as CBD, a cannabis-derivative without the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that creates a “high.”

— Changes to your diet. This includes avoiding foods and beverages linked to anxiety, like drinks high in caffeine or processed sugars.

— Essential oils like lavender because its scent has been shown to calm the brain and body without having a sedating effect.

— More physical activity.

— Relaxation and mindfulness techniques.

— Speaking with a therapist.

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