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Valerian

Latin Names: Valeriana officinalis (European Valerian); Valeriana wallichii (Indian Valerian)

Other Names: English Valerian, Fragrant Valerian, Indian Valerian, Musk Root (English); Fu (Arabic / Persian for European Valerian); Asaroon (Arabic / Urdu for Indian Valerian); Tagara (Sanskrit for Indian Valerian); Valeriana (Spanish / Romanian)

Taxonomy: Vegetable Kingdom, Valerianaceae family

Part Used: Rootstock

Basic Qualities: Avicenna says that Valerian is warming, and calls it Hot and Dry in the third degree, although some claim that its dryness is less than its heat or warmness. In my experience, however, I would call Valerian only moderately warming.

Other Qualities: Dissolving, cleansing, loosening, aromatic, sedating, heavy and grounding; warms up cold organs.

Taste: Pungent, aromatic, slightly bitter.

Humoral Dynamics: The warming properties of Valerian are dissolving and cleansing to tough, congealed superfluous humors like phlegm in the internal organs. Its loosening properties disperse nervous stress and tension, thereby subsiding nervousness and Melancholy. Its beneficial effect on the liver and spleen tends to balance and regulate the generation of all the Four Humors, subsiding excesses or aggravations of phlegm, bile and melancholy.

Tropism: Valerian has an affinity for the head, brain and mind; the heart; the liver, spleen, stomach and intestines; the female reproductive system; and the muscles and neuromuscular synapses.

Constituents and Pharmacology: The chief constituent of Valerian is its essential oil, which is of a complex composition, containing valerianic, formic and acetic acids, borneol and pinene. The Valerianic acid present in the oil is not the normal acid, but isovalerianic acid, having an oily consistency, to which the unpleasant odor of Valerian is largely due. There are also various mineral salts present, as well as alkaloids, like Chatarine and Valerianine. Iridoids, such as Valepotriates and valtrate, have also been found in the root.

Medicinal Properties: Nervine, sedative, antispasmodic, stomachic, carminative, tonic, cardiotonic, emmenagogue, expectorant, anodyne, aperient laxative, intestinal antiseptic, aromatic, fixative, hypnotic.

Cautions and Contraindications: Because of its heavy, sedating nature, Valerian is contraindicated in lethargy and depression. Because of its warming nature, Valerian, particularly the Indian variety, which is more heating, may trigger heat and inflammatory reactions in the body, especially in hot, Choleric individuals, and especially in large doses, or untempered by other more cooling herbs. In a few individuals, Valerian may not be calming or sedating, but rather have the opposite reaction of being stimulating. In most individuals, however, excessive doses of Valerian may provoke mental dullness and lethargy, although normal doses do not have any negative side effects.

Medicinal Uses: As a nervine and sedative in insomnia, nervous exhaustion, mental agitation and hysteria, and spaciness or lack of mental focus. As a cardiotonic for palpitations and a nervous heart. As a stomachic and carminative for a nervous or colicky stomach and digestion, and to relieve gas, distension and bloating. As a warming anodyne and antispasmodic to relieve muscular tension and spasm, and neuromuscular pain and tension; also for the pain of lumbago and sciatica. As a warming pectoral and expectorant to loosen up phlegm congestion in the lungs and chest. As a female tonic to regulate the flow of the menses, and to relieve menstrual cramps, as well as premenstrual nervousness, mood swings and irritability. As a mild aperient laxative in constipation or sluggish bowels, and as a corrective with stronger laxative / purgative herbs. As an intestinal antiseptic in intestinal fermentation, putrefaction and candidiasis.

Other Uses: Because of its strong musky, earthy odor, Valerian root is an important ingredient in natural incenses and perfumes, where it is used as a fixative. A fixative is a substance that amplifies or fixes the fragrance of the other herbs in an aromatic formula, enhancing their potency and staying power. In itself, the odor or fragrance of Valerian is not pleasant, and so it is commonly combined with other sweet smelling herbs and spices to enhance their potency. Because its odor resembles that of true Musk, which is the scent gland of the Musk Deer, Valerian in sometimes called Musk Root. Because the Musk Deer is now an endangered species, true Musk is prohibitively expensive; and so, Valerian root or other synthetic substitutes are commonly used instead. Musk perfumes are popular, no matter what form of Musk or Musk substitute is used, and combine the pungency of sweet aromatic spices like Cinnamon, Mace or Cardamom with the heavy sultriness of Musk. Once you get used to it, the odor of Valerian isn’t so bad, and exudes an earthy sensuality.

Preparation and Dosage: Valerian is most commonly taken in powder form, in which two to three standard gelatin capsules is the usual dose. Larger doses than this tend to be too depressing to the nervous system, leading to mental dullness and lethargy. The dried root can either be infused, especially in powder form, or the whole root can be decocted, with a teaspoon per cup being a mild dose, and a tablespoon per cup having a stronger sedative action. Alcoholic tinctures of Valerian can be taken, in doses of 15 to 20 drops. Valerian, either alone or in combination with other herbs, usually in equal parts, can be prepared either as a medicinal decoction or as a medicinal wine, usually with red wine. Higher doses of Valerian tend to be more sedative in their action, whereas smaller doses, usually in formulas, have more of a dispersing, loosening effect on neuromuscular or organ function.

Herbal Formulation: Overall, Valerian is a very useful and versatile herb in all kinds of herbal formulas. Larger doses of Valerian, and also using it in combination with other sedative or nervine herbs, has a more calming, sedative effect, whereas using it in smaller doses, in combination with herbs that target other organs and systems of the body, sends the loosening, relaxing effects of Valerian to these other bodily organs and systems. Since Valerian’s loosening, relaxing effects mainly target the brain and mind, the heart and circulatory system, the stomach and intestines, the hepatobiliary system, the female reproductive system, and the neuromuscular system, Valerian combines most advantageously with herbs that also target these organs and systems of the body. Energetically, Valerian combines best with herbs of a similarly pungent and aromatic, as well as dispersing, loosening and relaxing, character.

Classic Combinations: With Hops and Skullcap as a basic nervine formula in nervous exhaustion, hysteria and insomnia.  With Hawthorn berries and / or flowers as a cardiotonic to treat a nervous heart, palpitations and high blood pressure.  With Peppermint to soothe a nervous, irritable stomach and hepatobiliary system.  With Calamus as a calming nervine to clear the mind and senses; the dry, light, stimulating nature of Calamus complements and counterbalances the heaviness of the Valerian.  With Cinnamon as an intestinal antiseptic in intestinal fermentation, putrefaction and candidiasis.  With Cinnamon and Laurel as a warming anodyne for neuromuscular pain and tension, and to improve digestive and GI function.  With Ginger and Fennel to settle a nervous stomach, and for colic, distension, gas and bloating.  With Galangal, and the possible addition of Peppermint, to relieve heaviness and torpor in the liver, stomach and digestive tract, as well as gas, distension and bloating.  With Gentian to improve liver, biliary and digestive function.  With Angelica and / or Peony root to soften a hard liver and spleen, and for premenstrual cramps, as well as nervousness, depression, irritability and mood swings.  With Myrrh to improve intestinal function and peristalsis.  With Rose Petals as a female tonic in irregular and/or excessive menstruation, and for chronic diarrhea or loose stools due to digestive weakness; this combination, which is also a favorite in beverage teas as well as aromatics, incenses and perfumery, is called Rosa Moschata, or “Musky Rose”.

Description: Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Valerian root is its powerful odor or aroma, which many people don’t like, but some people love.  The fragrance of Valerian is musky and earthy, giving the herb a very strong resonance with the Earth element.  This earthy aroma is very centering and grounding; it calms people and brings them down to earth.  Its aroma is also heavy, to keep people’s nerves from flying off the handle.  In Greek Medicine, the nerves and the nervous system resonate with the Earth element, being Cold and Dry in temperament, and Valerian is a powerful tonic and restorative for the entire nervous system in cases of stress, nervous exhaustion, insomnia and hysteria.  Valerian’s warming properties also disperse, loosen and relax nervous spasm and tension wherever they might occur in the body, counteracting the coldness of the Melancholic or nervous humor.  Valerian’s warming properties also dissolve and disperse tough, congealed phlegm and rheumatic humors in the body, and its warming anodyne action soothes neuromuscular pain and muscular aches and tensions, especially due to cold. 

Being such a powerful herb for the nervous system, Valerian also exerts a profound effect on the mind and consciousness.  Its main quality or attribute here is its heaviness, which grounds the individual and brings him or her back down to earth.  Although Hindu Yogis and other spiritually inclined individuals might disparage Valerian as being too heavy and Tamasic, and dulling of the higher spiritual faculties and perceptions, there are situations and conditions in which this Tamasic quality of Valerian is highly desirable, as in cases of hysteria, nervous restlessness and agitation, paranoia and even possession by negative spiritual entities.  In these situations, Valerian grounds the person and brings them down to earth, and closes off the aura so that these subtle spiritual entities and perceptions can no longer agitate and distract the individual.  Then, they are able to get back to the basics of life and regain their focus and composure. 

As a nervine and sedative, Valerian is most famous as a remedy for insomnia.  Its therapeutic action here is to loosen and defuse residual nervous stress and tension so that one can get to sleep.  Valerian’s action as a sleep aid can also be enhanced by skillfully blending it with other relaxing nervine and sedative herbs, such as Hops, Skullcap, and Passion Flower.  Because Valerian is warming in nature, it can have the opposite effect of being a stimulant in a few individuals, and can provoke inflammatory or heat reactions in those whose constitutions are very hot and Choleric.  A good way to take Valerian as a sleep aid is to make a milk decoction of it, boiling a heaping teaspoon of the powdered herb in a cup of milk or a water / milk mixture, and adding a little powdered Cinnamon or Nutmeg to it to improve the flavor.  Decoct or simmer it slowly for about 5 to 15 minutes. 

Valerian can also be a relaxing sedative for a nervous or agitated heart that is prone to palpitations.  Combined with Hawthorn berries and/or flowers, it can treat these heart concerns as well as lower high blood pressure.  It can also be a warming pectoral and expectorant in cases of phlegm congestion in the lungs and chest, especially in combination with Elecampane, Marshmallow root and/or Fenugreek seeds. The aromatic properties of Valerian not only relieve and disperse phlegm congestion and bronchial spasm, but also stimulate and improve circulation, dilating the blood vessels.
In digestive complaints, Valerian can also disperse nervous tension in a nervous or colicky stomach and digestion, where it has stomachic and carminative properties.  It is extremely versatile in digestive formulas, combining well with either pungent or bitter digestive herbs to add a loosening, relaxing quality to them to disperse psychosomatic nervous tension held in the gut.  Valerian also softens the liver and improves the flow of the Natural Force of digestion in the two most important digestive organs: the liver and the stomach.  Valerian can also warm digestive organs that are too cold, and dissolve tough congealed phlegm that congests them.  Avicenna recommends Indian Valerian in removing obstructions from the liver and treating jaundice; for this purpose, it works especially well with Chicory root or Gentian root.  A medicinal wine of Valerian, says Avicenna, is useful in treating swelling, fever and hardness of the spleen.  The strong fragrance and high essential oil content of Valerian also gives it valuable antiseptic properties in treating intestinal fermentation, putrefaction and candidiasis, for which purpose it combines well with other aromatic spices with similar antiseptic properties.  Valerian is a mild aperient laxative, since it gently relaxes spasms of the intestinal muscles. 

On the musculoskeletal system, Valerian acts as an analgesic and antirheumatic, and as a warming anodyne to relieve muscular and neurological aches and pains.  Avicenna says that it is even valuable for treating the pain of lumbago and sciatica.  Valerian relaxes and loosens nervous tension and spasm in the muscles.  In the female reproductive system, Valerian regulates the menses, and will help procure them if they are blocked or obstructed.  The warming antispasmodic action of Valerian is great for relieving menstrual cramps, especially those due to cold.  Being relaxing and sedative in nature, Valerian is also useful for premenstrual nervous tension, irritability and mood swings, especially in combination with other female tonics.  The dry Valerian root, says Avicenna, has a mild diuretic effect; this is not due to any marked action on the kidneys or urinary tract, but simply due to improvements in the overall circulation and metabolism of body fluids.  Although touted in health food stores mainly as a sleep aid in insomnia, Valerian has a whole host of other health benefits and uses.

Related Species: There are other roots that are similar to Valerian, which also have an earthy or musky aroma.  And they are also nervine herbs, or tonics and restoratives for the nervous system.  Perhaps the most famous of these is Jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi), which is better known as Indian Spikenard, or simply Spikenard.  This herb formed the base for the aromatic Spikenard Oil that was used to anoint the feet of Jesus; like Valerian, it is also calming and relaxing to the spirit, and also to the muscles.  Unlike Valerian, Jatamansi, which is sometimes called Indian Valerian as well, is not so heavy, Tamasic, and dulling to the spiritual senses and perceptions.  American Spikenard (Aralia racemosa) is totally unrelated to Indian Spikenard, and is a relative of Ginseng, being a tonic and adaptogen like the latter.  Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium pubescens), sometimes called American Valerian, also has a strong characteristic aroma of its own; many herbalists consider it to be the finest nerve tonic known, being even superior to Valerian.  Being the root or rhizome of a species of orchid, Lady’s Slipper is unfortunately an endangered species.

Sources: The Canon of Medicine, Vol. 2 by Avicenna, pp. 1102 – 1105. Translated and compiled by Laleh Bakhtiar.  @2012 by Laleh Bakhtiar, Published by Great Books of the Islamic World, Inc., distributed by Kazi Publications, Inc., Chicago, IL, USA. 

Ayurvedic Medicine: The Principles of Traditional Practice, by Sebastian Pole, pp. 275 – 276.  @2006 by Elsevier, Ltd. 

A Modern Herbal, Volume II by Mrs. M. Grieve, pp. 824 – 829.  @1971 by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY, USA

DISCLAIMER:  The information in this article is for educational purposes only, for general health maintenance and prevention, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical disease or condition. The reader assumes all personal responsibility and liability for the application of the information contained in this article, and is advised to seek the services of a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her symptoms or condition persist or worsen.