The valerian conundrum

While recording the most recent episode of , I spoke about my recent foray into better sleep hygiene. In addition to restricting caffeine intake to pre-7pm, shutting off video/internet/games by 10 and lights out at 11, I drink decaffeinated Sleepy Time tea. I mentioned that I had started drinking one of the varieties of Sleepy Time tea that contains valerian root, and that my combined efforts have had a noticeable effect on me. Michael McElroy asked “How’s the scientific backing to that valerian root…”? That was an excellent question and I didn’t feel that I had an adequate response. So I took to the internet in search of more data.

The University of Maryland Medical Center states “scientists aren’t sure how valerian works, but they believe it increases the amount of a chemical called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain.” and followed with a description of how GABA works. This certainly piqued my curiosity. Further reading pretty clearly stated that taking valerian root in addition to sedatives would magnify the effect of the medication. That and warnings of potential to affect how your liver breaks down other medications seemed to lend valerian root some credibility.¬†Timothy Morgenthaler, M.D. writes on a Mayo Clinic FAQ that “several small or short-term studies indicate that valerian … may reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and help you sleep better.” He also notes that not all studies uphold this conclusion. Dr. Morgenthaler states that an effective dosage is unclear and that it seems valerian root is more effective after a couple of weeks of continual use. All of the articles I’ve read have a few similarities. They all state the mechanism by which valerian root probably works. They also list references to efficacy studies with conflicting results as well as some potential side effects (most of which are seemingly pretty minor). The summary articles I’ve read allude to or outright state a lack of conclusive evidence that valerian root is an effective sleep aid.

I wish to avoid correlative-based or appeal to tradition reasoning while exploring my experience with valerian root and its effects on me. I began drinking this particular tea because I wanted more tea and it was there. I noticed it contained valerian root and thought it couldn’t hurt to give it a try. I’ve noticed that I am sleepy about an hour or so before my regular bedtime now. So it could be tempting to draw a causal line, but there’s a number of assumptions in play if I do so. I could take into account the detailed history of the use of valerian as a sleep aid – as well as other medicinal applications – but again there is a lack of conclusive evidence in tradition. I’m left with this then, I cannot say that the valerian root has any effect whatsoever on my sleep routine. It’s likely that my practice of better sleep hygiene is as much or more the cause than what tea I drink or its ingredients. I’ll certainly continue to enjoy my evening Sleepy Time tea and if there’s a little placebo effect in play there, so be it.

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