Valerian and the benefits of synergy

by | Nov 11, 2023 | herbal medicine

Valerian is a medicinal herb with a long tradition of use for calming the nerves and aiding sleep. Both the ancient Greeks and Chinese documented its use long ago. Remaining popular for this purpose until more potent pharmaceutical medicines became available. Yet, it is still found as an ingredient in over the counter herbal preparations for insomnia.

It is clear people still prefer these gentle natural remedies. They know that powerful pharmaceutical medications often come with undesirable side effects. In comparison valerian has a good safety record. As well as plenty of research to back up its efficacy. Indeed, research continues as scientists recognise valerian still has a lot to offer.

But, scientists are always looking for the single active ingredient in herbs. Something they can isolate, standardise and patent. They believe in valerian, valerenic acid is the active medical compound. So, this is likely where research money will go in the future.

Yet other work describes over 150 active constituents in valerian. In the whole herb, these compounds work synergistically to produce the beneficial effects. In fact, synergy is a concept that underpins herbal medicine.  

Herbalists believe that whole herb extracts with many active constituents are more beneficial. With no one single ingredient responsible for the whole effect. The whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Natural remedies with many compounds in low amounts, may be better than an isolated compound at a higher dose. The many compounds tend to balance out any side effects that might otherwise exist. 

To illustrate, research shows that valerian may increase the effects of gamma-aminobutyruc acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is a neurotransmitter that is crucial for relaxation. Benzodiazepines work in a similar way. Yet valerian does not have the same side effects as benzodiazepines. We know that use of benzodiazepines increases risk of hospitalisation due to traffic accidentsYet, in a study to determine the safety of valerian when driving, it did not impair driving simulator performance.

Whats more, herbalists tend to use combinations of herbs. Perhaps four or five herbs in a formulation. This increases the synergy in the mixture. With hundreds, or possibly thousands of active compounds.

While modern medicine may shudder at the thought of all those active constituents. Herbalists know that in synergy lies the opportunity for greater healing. After all, it is what traditional medicine has been using for thousands of years.


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