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Definition

Valerian is an herbal remedy derived from the dried roots of the valerian plant, Valeriana officinalis. The plant belongs to the Valerianaceae family. It has been used for over a thousand years as a mild sedative and hypnotic (a preparation that brings on sleep). Valerian is native to Europe and parts of Asia; it has since been introduced in the United States, placed under cultivation and now growing in the wild, as well. It is often cultivated for its pinkish white or lavender flowers as well as for its medicinal uses. The name "valerian" is thought to derive from the Latin verb valere, which means "to be well." It is also sometimes said to derive from Valeria, the province of the Roman Empire where the plant may have originated.

According to one marketing research firm, valerian is the fastest-growing herbal remedy in the United States; its sales more than doubled between 2000 and 2001.

Purpose

Valerian is most commonly used to relieve mild cases of anxiety and insomnia. It was given during World War I to soldiers suffering from battle shock. It has also been recommended for the relief of menstrual cramps and as a carminative, or preparation that relieves gas in the stomach and intestines. Lotions made with valerian extract are said to soothe skin rashes and swollen joints.

Description

The valerian plant prefers the damp lime-rich soil near streams or rivers, where it may grow as tall as 5 ft (1.5 m). It can, however, be grown in drier soil at higher elevations, where it may grow only 2 ft (.67 m) tall. Some herbalists consider the drier-climate variety of valerian to have greater medicinal potency.

5 KEY TERMS

Carminative—A substance or preparation that relieves digestive gas.

Hypnotic—A type of medication that induces sleep.

Neurotransmitter—A chemical in the brain that transmits messages between neurons, or nerve cells.

Placebo—An inactive substance or preparation used as a control in experiments with human subjects to test the effectiveness of a drug or herbal preparation. Some patients may experience a medicinal response or experience side effects to a placebo simply because they have faith in its powers even though it contains no medicine.

Rhizome—The fleshy underground horizontal root of certain plants. Valerian preparations are made from dried rhizomes as well as from roots of the valerian plant.

Tincture—An alcohol-based herbal extract prepared by soaking parts of the plant in a mixture of alcohol and water. Established ratios and dilutions are followed.

Valerenic acid—The primary medicinal component in valerian preparations.

The parts of the plant that are used for medicinal purposes are the roots and rhizomes (horizontal underground stems), which are typically yellowish-brown in color. The roots and rhizomes are harvested in the autumn of the plant's second year. They can be freeze-dried and used to prepare tablets or capsules containing the ground herb. Juice can be pressed from the fresh root, or the root may be mixed with alcohol to become a fluid extract or tincture of valerian. When valerian is used to relieve tension or induce sleep, it is frequently combined with either passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) or skullcap (Scutellaria lateri-folia). Because valerian tea has a somewhat bitter taste, flavorings are often added, including peppermint or fruit flavor, to make a more pleasant-tasting drink.

Although not all the compounds in valerian that have medicinal value have been identified, two compounds in its essential oil—valerenic acid and bornyl— appear to be the most important. Like most prescription tranquilizers, valerian appears to affect a neurotransmitter (GABA) in the central nervous system.

There is some disagreement among researchers about the efficacy of valerian as a tranquilizer and aid to sleep. While a team of Swiss researchers found a valerian/lemon balm combination to be significantly more effective than a placebo in inducing sleep, another group in the United States concluded that valerian is overrated as a sedative. Further research may help to settle the question, but multiple studies that are currently available are inconclusive. It appears to have mild sedative properties.

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