4 Potential Science-Backed Benefits Of Valerian For Depression

valerian for depression

Name: Valerian, Valeriana officinalis
Active Compounds: Valpotriates, Valerenic acid, Flavonoids like hesperidin, essential oil
Goes well with: Kava kava, Licorice
Number of scientific references: 51
Level of Evidence: Level II What is this?

Note: Theoretically, valerian root has multiple properties that can benefit in depression such as modulating brain chemistry, improving sleep, lowering anxiety and alleviating neuroinflammation.

However, these findings yet need to be confirmed by adequate human studies.

Valerian or Valeriana officinalis is a medicinal plant native to Europe and Asia. It belongs to the Valerianaceae family; the genus Valerian has over 250 species.

Indian Valerian or Valeriana wallichii has some similarities with Valeriana officinalis, but V.officinalis is the one that is commonly used to prepare dietary supplements.

Its traditional use dates back to the ancient time in Greece and Rome; Hippocrates referred to it as a sedative and anti-anxiety agent. It was used to treat heart palpitations, digestive disorders, urinary tract infection, spasmodic ache and pain etc.

The root or rhizome is used for medicinal purposes. The fresh root has no odour but the dried root emits an unpleasant smell due to the isovaleric acid.

The active compounds of the plant include valerenic acid, hydroxyvalerenic acid, acetoxyvalerenic acid, irioid valepotriates, flavonoids such as hesperidin, lignans, sesquiterpenes, and essential oil constituents.

Valerian may help in depression by influencing brain chemistry, reducing inflammation, relieving anxiety and stress and by improving sleep. But more research is required to confirm these findings.

Suggested Valerian Supplements For Depression

Please consult a health practitioner before taking any health supplements.

Nature’s Way Standardised Valerian
 

valerian supplement 1Image Credit: Nature’s Way Brands, LLC

 

Contains 800mg valerian root and 220 mg valerian root extract (standardised to 0.8% valerenic acids) per 2 veg capsules.

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4 Potential Science-Backed Benefits Of Valerian For Depression

This post focuses on the research on the antidepressant and anxiolytic properties of Valeriana officinalis.

1.Animal studies show that valerian root extracts relieve depression and anxiety

In 2002, Andreatini and colleagues conducted a pilot study to examine the effect of valepotriates on generalised anxiety disorder. [1]

36 patients with generalised anxiety were enrolled in the study. They were treated with 81.3 mg valepotriates or 6.5 mg diazepam or placebo for 4 weeks.

All three groups experienced a reduction in anxiety scores in 4 weeks but only those treated with valepotriates and diazepam experienced a significant reduction in ‘the psychic factor of Hamilton anxiety scale’.

The researchers stated that these results were preliminary and deserved further research.

Further, in 2003, Müller and colleagues reported that a combination of St. John’s wort and valerian root extract relieves symptoms of depression and anxiety rapidly in comparison to St. John’s wort alone. [2]

In 2008, Tang et. al proved that low dose Valerian officinalis extract influences brain chemistry, specifically serotonin, to relieve depressive symptoms and saves injured brain cells in the hippocampus (part of the brain that predominantly deals with memory). [3]

Apart from serotonergic neurotransmission, valerenic acid present in valerian extract may also influence the activity of another chemical involved in brain function- gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) to relieve depressive and anxiety symptoms. [4]

GABA is derived from another neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate participates in cognitive activities while GABA induces relaxation.

An imbalance between these neurotransmitters is observed in mood disorders and leads to cell death of neurons.

Researchers are exploring the idea of targeting glutaminergic neurotransmission to relieve symptoms of depression.

A study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2011 revealed that valerenic acid interacts with glutamate receptors to reduce anxiety. [5]

Valerian root extracts are proven to lower stress (in animal models) by lowering the level of hormones involved in stress response and influencing neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. [6]

Recent research states that valerenic acid is the active compound present in the herb that mediates an anti-stress effect. [7]

Perhaps valerenic acid present in Valeriana officinalis extract is responsible for the herb’s natural anti-anxiety action. [8] [9]

Also, the herb contains a flavonoid or plant-based antioxidant named hesperidin that mediates an anti-stress and antidepressant activity by influencing brain chemistry and acting on HPA axis. [10] [11]

The HPA axis or hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis is a delicate feedback between the major hormone-secreting glands and part of the brain that influence our stress response.

Despite the many pre-clinical studies that aim to understand the mechanism of action of Valeriana officinalis, no quality study to date examines its antidepressant effect in patients with Major Depressive Disorder.

There has been one report where valerian supplements were used optional support during benzodiazepine withdrawal so as to improve sleep. [12]

While 66% of the patients successfully withdrew from benzodiazepine, the role of valerian root in the withdrawal was not clear.

Further research is required to confirm the antidepressant effect of valerian extract.

Despite the popular use of valerian root for sleep and anxiety disorders, research regarding its mechanism of action is only limited to animal studies.

A recent study published in Neuropsychobiology, 2017 examined the effect of Valerian officinalis extracts on brain function in healthy individuals. [13]

Participants were given 900mg valerian extract (standardized to 0.8% valeric acid) or placebo. Non-invasive brain stimulation techniques were used to understand the effect of the herb on brain function.

A single dose of valerian activated the same circuits in the brain that are affected by benzodiazepines to reduce anxiety and induce relaxation.

The effect on brain circuits achieved by valerian consumption was indicative of changes in brain chemistry.

Researchers commented that further research must be conducted in larger study populations to understand the ‘neuromodulatory’ effect of Valerian in depression and other mood disorders.

Quick Gist: Multiple studies conducted in animal models have demonstrated that valerian root extracts exert an antidepressant effect by influencing brain chemistry, reducing stress hormone levels, and protecting brain cells.

Valerenic acid and valepotriates are the major active compounds of the herb that mediate this action.

However, this has not been translated into reliable clinical results yet. Two preliminary studies indicate that Valeriana officinalis acts as a natural antidepressant and anti-anxiety agent but more research is required to confirm this.

2. It is a safe natural sleep aid

Sleep disturbances due to chronic anxiety are commonly observed in Major Depressive Disorder and these disturbances can exacerbate depression and reduce chances of remission.

Valerian is a popular herb used to improve sleep and insomnia. On a biochemical level, it possibly interacts with neurotransmitter GABA or gamma-aminobutyric acid to induce relaxation and improve sleep. [14]

Not only valerian root ingestion, but its inhalation may help improve and lengthen the sleeping time. [15]

In 2000, Donath and colleagues demonstrated that treatment with herbal extracts of valerian root improves sleep structure and sleep perception in patients with insomnia. [16]

There were improvements in sleep latency (time taken to fall asleep) and in REM (rapid eye movement sleep- the part of the sleep cycle characterised by vivid dreams). However, no significant differences in the effects of the herb and placebo were observed.

One remarkable finding of this study was that valerian treatment resulted in lower side effects.

LI 156 Sedonium is a standardized commercial preparation of valerian root. A study was conducted to compare the effect of Sedonium with benzodiazepines for non-organic insomnia. [17]

The participants received 600mg Valerian extract per day or 10mg oxazepam per day. The study lasted for 6 weeks.

It was observed that Sedonium extract was effective as oxazepam in improving sleep quality. 82.8% of the participants in the valerian group rated that the treatment was good.

28.4% in the valerian group and 36% in the oxazepam group experienced side effects.

Benzodiazepine is a common class of drugs prescribed to treat anxiety. They are associated with increased risk of dependency and side effects.

Poyares et. al have shown that valerian may help reduce sleep disturbances caused by benzodiazepine withdrawal. [18]

They found that the herb reduced ‘wake after sleep onset’, lowered anxiety and improved sleep quality within 2 weeks in patients with insomnia. However, it did not reduce the time required to fall asleep.

Conventional sedatives tend to negatively affect our thinking, ability to concentrate and are also associated with daytime drowsiness.

Unlike these drugs, single or repeated high doses of the herbal extract of Valeriana officinalis in the evening does not impair focus, reaction time and alertness the next morning. [19] [20]

A combination of valerian and hops is found to act as a herbal remedy for better sleep. Koetter et al. have shown that the combination may be better than valerian root alone to improve sleep. [21]

A few research studies have shown that valerian-hops combination may be a natural alternative to benzodiazepines and antihistaminics (diphenhydramine) prescribed to improve sleep. [22] [23]

Despite these positive findings, several meta-analysis studies, that have examined all articles conducted on valerian and its effect on sleep, have found that there is no significant difference between the herb and placebo. [24] [25] [26]

While users have reported that valerian supplements are effective natural sleep aids, there is not enough clinical evidence to suggest the same. [27]

Quick Gist: Valerian serves as a herbal remedy for sleep disturbances and insomnia by reducing anxiety and altering brain chemistry to improve sleep. One research study has demonstrated that standardized valerian root extract is as effective as benzodiazepine in ameliorating insomnia.

There is not enough clinical evidence to confirm the effectiveness of Valeriana officinalis for insomnia and sleep.  But anecdotal evidence suggests that it is an effective natural sleep aid and may help in mild to moderate depression.

3.Valerian has natural anti-inflammatory action

Apart from influencing brain chemistry to ameliorate depressive symptoms, Valeriana officinalis may also curb inflammation in the brain.

Neuroinflammation or inflammation in the brain may occur as a result of HPA axis hyperactivity and immune dysfunction. [28] [29]

HPA axis or hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis is a network between part of the brain and major hormone-secreting glands in our body, that influences our stress response.

Neamati et al. have confirmed that Valeriana officinalis reduce depression-like behaviour ( in an animal model) by employing its anti-inflammatory action. [30]

Valepotriates, present in Valeriana species, exert an antidepressant effect by inhibiting the action of pro-inflammatory agents in the brain. [31]

Hesperidin is an antioxidant present in many plant sources including valerian root. A study published in Inflammation, 2016 confirmed that hesperidin inhibits neuroinflammation to deliver an antidepressant effect. [32]

Oxidative stress involves an imbalance between prooxidant and antioxidant agents in the body. High levels of prooxidant species and reduced antioxidant defences cause oxidative damage.

Oxidative stress in the brain fuels inflammation and depressive symptoms.

Seems like Valeriana officinalis extracts can help with this as well; it exerts its antioxidant action to protect brain health and function from neurotoxicity and relieves oxidative stress in the brain. [33]

Quick Gist: High levels of oxidative stress and inflammation are few of the pathological processes that underly severe depression.

Valerian extracts have natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant action that can attenuate these processes and improve therapeutic outcomes in major depressive disorder.

4. It may protect cognition

Cognitive deficits are one of the symptoms of major depressive disorder that are rarely discussed or targeted as a part of treatment. Impairment of multiple pathological processes in the brain indirectly impair cognition.

This could result in impaired decision making, reduced ability to focus and concentrate, minor memory lapses or brain fog.

Apparently, Valerian is a popular over-the-counter psychotropic or natural cognition enhancer. [34]

But a few human studies conducted in 2003-2004 found that valerian extract did not have any effect on cognitive or psychomotor function. [35] [36] [37]

Recently a study published in Neuropsychobiology, 2017 demonstrated that standardized valerian extracts may activate certain brain circuits to induce relaxation and improve focus. [38]

Hesperidin is a flavonoid or plant-based antioxidant found in valerian roots. It mediates an antidepressant effect by lowering oxidative stress and improving BDNF levels. [39]

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that supports growth and development of neurons. Low levels of BDNF have been observed in depression. [40]

Restoring optimum levels of BDNF is found to have an antidepressant effect. BDNF supports neuroplasticity- the ability of the brain to rewire itself.

Neuroplasticity if influenced positively can help recover from depressive disorder.

A recent study published in The European Journal of Pharmacology, 2016 revealed that hesperidin is as effective as imipramine in relieving symptoms of depression. [41]

In addition to attenuating depressive symptoms, the flavonoid was found to support brain plasticity and regulate the activity of neurotransmitters associated with memory and cognitive function.

Active components of Valeriana officinalis are proven to regulate the cholinergic system- a neurotransmitter network that actively participates in our learning and memory function. [42]

Quick Gist: Unlike conventional antidepressants, anxiolytics and sedatives, Valeriana officinalis does not have any negative effects on cognition.

It does contain active components that may help protect memory and cognition in depression but more research, employing standardized extracts, is required to confirm this.

Dosage of Valerian For Depression

A dose of 450-900 mg of standardized valerian extract (standardized to 0.8% valerenic acid) can help Major Depressive Disorder. A dose of 900mg valerian extract has been successfully used to mitigate symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder.

Valerian tea is the most popular herbal sedative tea. More research is required to confirm its effects on sleep.

Please consult a health practitioner before taking valerian supplements.

Precautions with Valerian Use

Most research studies have found valerian supplements to be safe when used for a short period of 4-8 weeks and within recommended doses. No study has explored the safety of its long-term use.

Few minor side effects noted with valerian root use are:

  • Upset stomach, stomach pain or related side effects
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness [43]
  • Vivid dreams

One report has noted an incidence of heart palpitations and delirium post-withdrawal after long-term use of valerian root. [44]

At high doses, valerian extracts may cause anxiety. [45] Wiley et al. have toxic effects with valerian overdose (25g of valerian root powder).  [46]

The patient developed fatigue, abdominal cramps, tremor, chest tightness and dizziness but these symptoms disappeared within 24 hours.

Valeriana officinalis supplements may cause drug interactions especially with anaesthetics and benzodiazepines like lorazepam. [47] [48] [49]

Please consider opting for standardised extracts of Valeriana officinalis only. Case reports have described an incidence of excessively low blood levels of sodium and seizures after consuming beverages that do not contain standardised valerian extract. [50]

In 1995, Chan et. al reported a case series where 23 patients were affected with liver toxicity and poisoning after consuming an over the counter hypnotic that contained valerian (Sleep-Qik). [51]

Please consult your doctor before taking Valeriana officinalis supplements.

Conclusion

Valerian is also referred to as Nature’s Valium.

Scientific studies have found that valepotriates present in Valeriana officinalis have an anti-anxiety effect. The herb influences brain chemistry- primarily serotonin and GABA to relieve stress and depressive symptoms.

Pre-clinical studies indicate that it may even counter inflammation to deliver a natural anti-depressant effect.

Valerian root is also a popular natural remedy for improving sleep and users find it a safe alternative to benzodiazepines and sleeping pills but there is no sufficient clinical evidence to confirm them.

We need studies that investigate the effect of standardised valerian extracts in patients with Major Depressive Disorder. Based on anecdotal reports and current evidence, it may help as a natural sleep aid in depression.

Valerian extracts seem to be a potential natural add-on therapy for mild to moderate depression but more research is required to confirm this.

Know the research-backed benefits, dosage and safety of valerian root for depression.

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