The Valerian plant has a (very) storied history. In the German version of the ‘pied piper’ fairy-tale, the pied piper of Hamelin is believed to have placed valerian in his pockets, or rubbed himself with it, in order to draw scores of rats from the town as they love the smell.
In Nordic folklore; Hertha, the Nordic goddess, was said to put valerian on her riding crop causing the horse she rode to increase its speed. As the stag’s bridle was said to be made of hops, the combination may have helped facilitate the journey between realms, the liminal space of the shaman and witch or between waking and sleeping .
Ancient Greeks used valerian to ward off evil, hanging valerian bunches in windows. The Celts hung it in their homes to ward off lightning. One belief regarding Valerian’s power was that if you tossed it into a fight, those involved would cease instantly .
This long and storied history leads to the current day, where Valerian has found popular function as a herbal medicine promoted as a sleep aid, calming agent for people suffering from anxiety, and a natural sedative.
Valerian root (valeriana officinalis) is a herb derived from the root of Valerian plant, that was originally found growing in Europe and Asia .
At the time of writing, valerian supplements are not yet FDA-approved for any medical use, but Valerian is generally considered safe for adults for short-term use.
Clinical studies looking into the effects and mechanisms of Valerian root are inconsistent, at best. But there are many advocates of the herb and here, we are going to look into whether Valerian root can help with anxiety symptoms (both social anxiety and performance anxiety), as well as try to understand how the compound works, what the downsides and side-effects might be, plus highlight the best Valerian products currently available (and some alternatives).
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What is Valerian Root?
Valerian root is a herb prepared from the root of the Valerian plant, which can be found in the wild throughout Asia, Europe, and North America .
Valerian root has been used for centuries as a herbal remedy, and is thought to improve symptoms of both tension and anxiety. Solving these symptoms is thought to help with sleep, so there is a solid case for valerian root being thought of as a sleep aid, as well.
The ancient Greeks and Romans used valerian root for things like nervousness, stress and trembling; all symptoms that are experienced by those suffering from social anxiety, performance anxiety & general anxiety . There are recorded instances of Valerian being used to treat insomnia, migraines, fatigue, and stomach cramps.
The Valerian plant has delicately scented flowers. In stark contrast, valerian roots have a very strong odor that many people find unpleasant, having been described as smelling like “old, dirty & damp socks”.
It is the roots, rhizomes (underground stems), and stolons (horizontal stems) of valerian plants that are used to make dietary supplements such as capsules and tablets, as well as teas and tinctures .
Effects of Valerian Root on Anxiety
While the clinical studies around valerian being used for anxiety and the mechanisms of action involved are sparse, and the studies that do make an attempt at deconstructing it are inconsistent due to “variable quality of herbal extracts” , what is known is that Valerian can boost GABA levels in the brain.
Is Valerian a GABA Antagonist?
Studies do show that Valerian is a GABA antagonist . More accurately: several components of valerian, specifically valerenic acids and amino acids, have affinity for GABA receptors. Valerian constituents also have been shown to promote release and inhibit reuptake of synaptic GABA .
GABA, or Gamma-aminobutyric acid, is an amino acid that plays the role of a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. GABA’s primary function is to reduce the activity levels of neurons in the nervous system, which then has various effects on the body.
Primary effects of GABA on the body include relaxation, calmness, and a balanced mood. If your GABA levels are disrupted, you might be more susceptible to social anxiety disorder .
A study concluded in 2004 at The University of Bonn in Germany also identified a substance that appeared to be responsible for the sedative effects of valerian. Their research suggested that valerian works on a separate ‘tiredness molecule’ than GABA called adenosine, targeting specific adenosine receptors of type A1 and triggering potential drowsiness effects of valerian .
Interestingly, Caffeine also attached itself to the same receptors as valerian, but it merely blocks the A1 receptors without causing a reaction. This leads to the coffee drinker becoming more wide awake. The opposite effect of valerian.
The effects of valerian were tested on the brain waves of around 50 test subjects at Bonn University. After caffeine was ingested the alpha waves signalling relaxation leveled out; by contrast, the beta waves, signs of nervousness, became more marked. When valerian extract was administered, this effect was neutralized – an additional indication that the Valerian plant does in fact affect the A1 receptor .
Other Compounds in Valerian Root
Besides GABA, researchers have identified the following active chemical compounds in Valerian root that may impact the human brain and body, however the research into the concrete effects of each compound are not as consistent as that of GABA :
- Iridoids, also called valepotriates
- Essential oils, including valerenic acid and valeric acid
As we have established, Valerian root boosts GABA levels in the brain and there is plenty of studies and research where people have experienced a calmer state and reduced social anxiety, performance anxiety and generalized anxiety symptoms after increasing GABA levels.
Two of the more popular studies were carried out in 2006, and looked at the effects of GABA supplementation upon the brain . The first study involved 13 participants consuming GABA, water, and L-theanine (an amino acid known to promote relaxation). Researchers in this study discovered that, compared to water and L-theanine, GABA significantly increased alpha brain waves in participants, which are associated with feelings of calm and relaxation.
In another study, participants were divided into two groups; one group was given GABA, and the other a placebo. All subjects then had to cross a suspended bridge for a stimulus of stress. The group that was given GABA was found to be considerably more relaxed as they performed a stressful task. Researchers went on to conclude that increasing GABA levels is a proficient method to naturally relax the participants, and help them to stay calm in the face of stressors .
It’s for exactly this reason that valerian root is said to be helpful with social anxiety symptoms. Valerian Root, amongst other properties, provides an effective boost to brain GABA levels, and doing so provides a calming effect and lowers the effects of social anxiety and generalized anxiety symptoms.
Valerian Root For Anxiety Dosage Recommendation
Valerian is available in several different forms, including:
No form of valerian is currently considered superior for anxiety purposes. Studies that have looked into recommended Valerian root dosage for anxiety consider between 400 to 600 milligrams per day to be ideal. It is generally best to start with a low dose and slowly increase the amount until you determine which dose works best for you. Taking valerian 30 minutes to two hours before bedtime is the best dosage timing, and valerian reportedly promotes restful sleep alongside helping with anxiety symptoms.
Valerian dosage for the treatment of insomnia ranges from 300 to 600 mg of liquid root extract, or the equivalent of 2g to 3g of dried valerian root. Lower dosages are typically used for treating nervous tension and when the root is combined with other supplements .
It’s always best to consult with a medical healthcare professional before taking valerian, and take the chance to discuss dosage with them.
Best Valerian Root Brand
We currently recommend Oregon’s Wild Harvest Organic Valerian Supplement to help with your social anxiety and general anxiety symptoms. It has the highest amount of valerian per serving compared to competing products (900mg per serving), and is certified and rated highly as containing quality ingredients with sturdy packaging.
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Side Effects & Downsides of Valerian Root
However, valerian root supplements should ideally only be used under the supervision of a qualified healthcare professional, and caution should be used if you are taking the supplement for an extended period of time.
While Valerian Root is generally considered to be effective as a natural relaxant that can aid with your social anxiety symptoms, it must be noted that Valerian is a temporary solution that only helps with the physical symptoms of social anxiety.
Addressing the root causes of your social anxiety might require the help of a medical professional and/or time to analyze yourself and learn some new techniques.
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