Last updated: Sep 23, 2010
valarian
123RF
I did something really stupid last night, and Im paying the price for it today, big time. I awoke after tossing and turning at around 3:30 a.m. But instead of doing what I usually do, which is to relax myself back to sleep by focusing on peaceful thoughts, I tormented myself with bad "what-if" thoughts.


Pretty soon, I was visualizing perfectly awful things happening to my loved ones. (Im sure this had nothing whatsoever to do with my 22-year-old sons newly acquired 1984 Honda motor scooter.)

Because Id run out of valerian capsules, the herb I normally take when relaxing thoughts dont cut it and insomnia strikes, I reached instead for a couple of Tylenol PM tablets that I found in the back of the medicine chest. Big mistake. I woke up an hour later than usual, so groggy and out of it that I couldnt make it to the gym for my morning workout. And when I sat down to write, nothing happened—my brain was fried. Thatll teach me.

My mistake reminded me that veering off the natural living path I try so hard to walk has its consequences. Its noon now and Im still cotton-headed and cranky.

Note to self: Dont run out of valerian
Valerian officinalis is an herb with a distinctive odor that few appreciate—its been likened to old gym socks—but to me, it just smells odd and earthy. Its too bad you cant open herb bottles in the health food store to give a sniff, because an herbs signature aroma is a good sign of its freshness and authenticity. (Herbal educators urge people who use herbs medicinally to get familiar with how they smell; a good way to do this would be to make friends at a reputable health store that stocks herbs in bulk and ask them to take you on an olfactory tour of their offerings).

Valerian has been used for centuries to improve sleep quality without making you groggy the next day. When taken before bedtime, valerian can shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and reduce the likelihood that youll awake in the middle of the night. Whats more, valerian relaxes muscle spasms, which makes it useful for easing painful menstrual cramps and tension headaches.

What's more, valerian is known to be non-addictive and, unlike prescription sleep medications or even over-the-counter sleeping pills that contain the antihistamine diphenhydramine, theres no interaction between valerian and alcohol.

As any good healer will tell you, however, if youre reaching for the valerian or any other sleep aid regularly, you need help to find out whats causing your chronic insomnia.

Helps people with restless legs syndrome
A study just published in the March-April issue of the peer-reviewed journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine suggests that valerians sleep-enhancing ability might even ease restless leg syndrome (RLS), a bedeviling and debilitating—for both the sufferer and his or her bed partner—sleep disorder that affects up to 11% of us.

The randomized, placebo-controlled study pitted the effects of valerian against a placebo for easing RLS symptoms. The researchers discovered that valerian improves sleep quality and reduces RLS severity for people whose RLS symptoms kept them awake at night and made them feel sleepy the next day. Interestingly, the herb didnt help folks whose RLS didnt make them feel sleepy.

“The treatment for RLS includes benzodiazepines and gabanergic medications, and valerian works as well as both of these classes of drugs,” the study author, Norma G. Cuellar, DSN, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, tells me. “If youre taking these drugs for RLS, valerian may be an alternative,” she adds. Its good news if valerian works for you, because its cheaper and has few, if any side effects, compared to drugs often prescribed for RLS.

“We know that you can take up to 1200 mg of valerian. If it works for you, you should use it,” says Cuellar.

It works for me, for easing my occasional insomnia. So I think Ill head out to the health food store and pick some up today—and Ill stash an extra bottle in my cupboard so I dont run out. Natures Way brand valerian passed testing for potency by ConsumerLab.com, an independent testing lab; several other valerian products werent approved.