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Herbal Medicine Materia Medica: VALERIAN

David Hoffmann L. BSc (Hons), MNIMH ©



Valeriana officinalis


Part used: Rhizome, stolons & roots.

Constituents: A range of unique chemical constituents have been found, but as with all herbal remedies it is a mistake to try to understand the plant from these chemicals alone. The healing gift of Valerian is much more than simply the effects of constituents like valepotriates. The practitioner of herbal medicine can glean much of value from biochemical research that canaugment clinical experience but never replace it.

  • Valepotriates: valtrate, didrovaltrate, acevaltrate, isovaleroxy-hydoxydidrovaltrate
  • volatile oil: esters: bornyl isovalerianate, bornylacetate, bornyl formate, eugenyl isovalerate, isoeugenyl isovalerate alcohols eugenol terpenes valerianol, a sesquiterpene alcohol.

Alkaloids: chatinine, valerine and 2 others similar to skytanthine

The powerful sedative action of valerian is partially due to valepotriates, epoxy-iridoid esters, found in the root. A whole series of valepotriates has been isolated, and their actions have been found to be different, and in part opposite. They do not have simply sedative properties, but a predominantly regulatory effect on the autonomic system. One fraction has a suppressant effect, another a stimulant one, so that in combination they have an equalizing effect that has been referred to as amphoteric. Valtrate& didrovaltrate have been to have potent cytotoxic activity, and the former is active against Krebs II ascitic tumors.

There is 0.5-1.0% of volatile oil present. The peculiar bouquet of valerian is actually produced by drying. A number of components of the volatile oil in the roots, hydrolyse with time to isovaleric acid. Very little is present in the fresh root, which has a pleasant aroma. The older the dried herb the stronger the smell of isovaleric acid, but not necessarily stronger in effect. This volatile oil has anti-microbial, carminative and relaxing properties.


Alkaloids are also present that have blood pressure lowering effects. There may be up to 0.1% in the dried root.

Like many other medicinal plants valerian contains a complex of active principles, making analysis is difficult. Even detailed and thorough investigation does not reveal a single active constituent in this well-known medicinal plant, highlighting that the therapeutic effect depends on the interaction of the plants constituents as a whole.


Actions: Nervine, hypnotic, anti-spasmodic, carminative, hypotensive, emmenagogue.


Indications: It has a wide range of specific uses, but its main indications are: anxiety, nervous sleeplessness, and the bodily symptoms of tension such as muscle cramping or indigestion. It may be used safely in situations where tension and anxiety are causing problems. This may manifest in purely psychological and behavioural ways or also with body symptoms. Valerian will help in most cases. For some people it can be an effective mild pain reliever.


As one of the best gentle and harmless herbal sleeping remedies, it enhances the natural body process of slipping into sleep and making the stresses of the day recede. For people who do not need as much sleep as they once did, it also eases lying awake in bed, ensuring that it becomes a restful and relaxing experience. This is often as re-vivifying as sleep itself, and indeed all that is necessary in more cases than not. The true nature of sleep still remains a mystery. Everybody goes through stages of REM (rapid eye movement)sleep, a stage where dreaming is associated with minor involuntary muscle jerks and rapid eye movements, indicating that active processes are occurring in the brain. It is important not to suppress the dreams dreamed during this stage. Emotional experiences are processed by the mind in those dreams, and much arising from both the unconscious and daily life is balanced and harmonised. Whilst sleeping pills have a marked impact on REM, Valerian does not interfere with this process as it is not powerful enough to suppress these necessary REM phases.

The research into valerian is confirming the traditional experience of the herbalist. In one study Valerian produced a significant decrease in subjectively evaluated sleep scores and an improvement in sleep quality. Improvement was most notable amongst those who considered themselves poor or irregular sleepers and smokers. Dream recall was relatively unaffected by Valerian . When the effect of valerian root on sleep was studied in healthy, young people, it reduced perceived sleep latency and the wake time after sleep onset. In other words they experienced an easily and quicker descent into sleep. A combination of Valerian and Hops was given to people whose sleep was disturbed by heavy traffic noise. Giving the herbs well before retiring, reduced the noise induced disturbance of a number of sleep stage patterns.


Much research has Centered on its effects upon smooth muscle, demonstrating that it is a powerful and safe muscle relaxant. It can be safely used in muscle cramping, uterine cramps and intestinal colic. Its sedative and anti-spasmodic action can be partially ascribed to the valepotriates and to a lesser extent to the sesquiterpene constituents of the volatile oils. Amongst other effects, Valerian decreases both spontaneous and caffeine-stimulated muscular activity, significantly reduces aggressiveness of animals, and decrease a number of measurable processes in the brain.


Italian researchers compared the relaxing properties of Valerian and a number of other plants on the muscles of the digestive tract. Hawthorn and Valerian were the best, followed by Passion Flower and Chamomile. Especially interesting was the finding that combining all the herbs acted in a synergistic way, being relaxing at low dosage levels.


Valerian is used world wide as a relaxing remedy in hypertension and stress related heart problems. There is an effect here beyond simple nerve relaxation, as it contains alkaloids that are mild hypotensives. Such use is recognized by the World Health Organization. They promote research and development of traditional medicine that sees the importance of using whole plants and going beyond the test tube for meaningful results. In WHO sponsored studies in Bulgaria, traditional herbs known for their healing effect in cardiovascular problems were considered. Results of clinical examination of patients using such herbs are impressive. Valerian is one such herb whose use was validated. Others are garlic, geranium, European mistletoe, olive, and hawthorn.

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