As the legend goes, Pied Piper was hired to lure plague-carrying rats and pests away from Hamelin with his music. While some stand by this story, others suspect he might’ve been stuffing the odorous valerian root in his colorful coat pocket to get the job done. Though people compare valerian’s pungent scent to sweaty socks, rats can’t get enough. Luckily for us, the plague’s been cured and valerian root doesn’t taste as bad as it smells.
Valerian was used long before the 14th century, when the Pied Piper fairy tale originated. Doctors used it to treat insomnia, nervousness, trembling, headaches, and stress as far back as ancient Rome and Greece. Hippocrates published findings on the therapeutic power of valerian root and Chaucer wrote about it in The Canterbury Tales. During World War II, it was used to alleviate the stress brought on by air raids.
You may have even taken valerian root before without realizing it. It’s commonly used in natural sleep remedies, like Sleepytime tea. Scientists haven’t quite pinned down how it works, but many suspect it increases gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) levels in the brain, which is the same chemical used in prescription anxiety drugs like Xanax and Valium, to calm nervous activity.
The medical field has called for further studies of valerian’s effects, including research professor Dr. Stephen Bent from the University of San Francisco’s School of Medicine. Though prevailing studies on valerian are flawed, he told us he would encourage patients suffering from sleep anxiety and insomnia to try valerian root “for temporary, occasional use.”
Tips, dosage, and use
A number of scientists found that valerian reduced sleep latency (the length of time it takes to transition from full wakefulness to sleep) and improved sleep quality in subjects. The herb has also been linked to lowered blood pressure.
“There are very few reports of side effects,” Bent added. In fact, many users experience less next-day drowsiness than they do with other remedies. He suggests also focusing on lifestyle and sleep hygiene changes, like eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and avoiding screen time at least an hour before bed.
For anxiety, herbalists recommend taking between 120 to 200 milligrams three or four times a day; for insomnia, 300 to 600 milligrams an hour before bed should do the trick. Because it can slow your heart rate, be sure to ask a medical professional before taking valerian for an extended period of time. And steer clear of rats.