What Is Valerian, and Can It Help Me Sleep?

With so many Americans sleep deprived, it’s no wonder there’s been a spike in sleep aids. Enter valerian root, a plant that has been used for centuries to help people sleep.

A wooden spoon holding dried, crushed valerian root flowers.
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If you experience sleep issues, you might have considered a sleep supplement to help you get better Zzz’s.

Insomnia, whether occasional or chronic, is incredibly frustrating and also common: 50 to 70 million Americans struggle with sleep disorders, of which insomnia is the most common, and more than 30% described their sleep as “fair” or “poor” in 2022, according to a Gallup survey.

So it’s no wonder that the supplement industry has brought in more than $700 million annually in sales of sleep-related products of late.

Many of the options are derived from natural sources. One popular one, used for centuries, is valerian.

What is valerian?

Valerian is a perennial plant that can grow up to five feet tall. In the summer, it produces pink or white flowers in clusters, but it’s the root that is used medicinally. Valerian root has been used as a sleep aid and for other ailments since ancient Greece.

How does it work?

“Of the many plants used to help with sleep, I think of valerian as being more sedating than, say, something like lavender or chamomile,” says naturopathic doctor Lauren Geyman. “It’s not just calming; it can make you quite drowsy. Valerian also has some antispasmodic activity, so I think it’s a nice choice for restless sleepers who experience overactive muscle activity at night.”

Research has uncovered a few different possible reasons why valerian can work, including its effect on the amount of a chemical called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. Valerian may increase the amount of GABA, which confers a calming effect. But there may be several factors that cause it to work — and it could be a combination of factors.

“With herbs, we often have studies that focus on one piece of the mechanism,” says Kristina Conner, dean of the School of Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University. “But these are very complex plants, not a single constituent. There’s always a synergistic effect of the whole herb that is sometimes beyond what you would expect just from looking at the individual constituent.”

Reactions can vary; for some people, it may take a few weeks of regular use to feel the effects of valerian.

How is it used?

Valerian is available in pills, tinctures and teas. “I like to recommend it in capsule form, mostly because it has quite a strong flavor that many people do not enjoy,” Geyman says. “If you don’t mind it, I think tea or tincture are also great options.”

It’s sometimes combined with other calming herbs, such as passionflower or lemon balm.

Notably, as with other sleep aids, there are other avenues to explore before turning to valerian, Geyman notes. “In my practice, I like to start with foundational recommendations before I recommend dietary or herbal supplements. So if someone is having trouble sleeping, for example, my primary focus will always be improving their bedtime routine, reducing stress, talking about caffeine intake, and the like,” she says. “If that isn’t quite enough, I might recommend something a bit gentler like magnesium or chamomile tea. Both are calming, often already found in kitchen cupboards, and are safer for most people. For those who really do need more of a sedating sleep aid, especially those with muscle tension, valerian is a nice choice.”

Who should not use valerian?

Valerian should not be used by anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding, and safety has not been evaluated for young children, Geyman says.

Also, valerian should not be mixed with alcohol or benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium, or Ativan. It also may not combine well with other herbal supplements. As with any supplement, be sure to talk with your health care provider before taking it.

In addition, some people can experience the opposite of the intended effect of valerian, Conner notes. “It has an opposite reaction in a small but significant set of people,” she says. “We actually do see that. It’s really interesting. It’s intended to help with sleep, and then some people can just have the complete opposite effect. It keeps them up all night.” Trial and error are the only way to know how you’ll react, she adds.

Valerian, when taken as directed and with your medical provider’s approval, could help you achieve better sleep. But with all supplements, valerian root is just that: a supplement. It’s not intended to knock you out and help offset major sleep challenges.