Giving Thanks for Valerian: Therapeutic Uses and Brain Basics (part 1)

Posted by MDFloto on

Most nights, if I want to get some solid sleep, both the dogs and I take a Valerian tablet or two. Insomnia lite and general sleep disruption have followed me since I was a kid. Doctors are fond of prescribing heavy drugs for this (half a tablet of Seroquel once left me nearly comatose for a day and a half), but eventually I decided that Klonopin and all the rest could shove it. I was still tired, done with feeling like a zombie.

Then I found valerian. Valerian is a plant that is native to Europe, China, and the Americas. People have been using it for thousands of years as a natural remedy, and it still has a few tricks up its leaves.

Benefits and uses of Valerian include improvements in:
  • Sleep
  • Muscle pain and spasms
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Focus problems

Forms of usage:

  • Diluted essential oil for aromatherapy benefits
  • Herbal tea
  • Herbal extract
  • Tincture

The Nerdy Science Behind the Benefits
The brain’s network of neurons is responsible for processing incoming stimuli and sending out responses. When your hand feels a burning sensation as you accidentally touch a hot Thanksgiving plateful of turkey, that signal travels to the spinal cord and up to your brain in no time, and the responsive jerk of the hand and a choice swear word are the neuronal response that your brain sends back almost instantly.

Those signals are all conducted via neurotransmitters, chemicals traveling along those billions of pathways like a colossal baton race.
Neurotransmitters fall into two categories: excitatory and inhibitory. That’s it. Billions of connections, trillions of cells, unlimited functions, all down to two types of neurotransmitters.

Glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain, while GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) is the main inhibitor. These two usually balance each other out, but when they don’t, you can experience some severe problems.

With an excess of unrestrained glutamate, your brain cells can experience excitotoxity, or cell suicide. Therefore, researchers believe that this may be related to some degenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Other possible indications are ADHD, Autism, restlessness, addiction, and anxiety.

An excess of GABA, on the other hand, can impair memory, lower libido, and decrease motivation.
Valerian and GABA are pals. They work well together. This is thought to be the reason that valerian helps with insomnia, anxiety, and pain. The benzodiazepine Valium is even better friends with GABA, and its powerful effects often lead to physical dependence and addiction when a person needs to take more and more of the drug to achieve the same results*.

Valerian root and essential oils do not present this danger, however. Valium is articifically produced in a lab, and valerian is a plant.

* As a side note, chemical dependence and tolerance of a substance is often related to an over-stimulation of brain chemicals, which eventually impairs the brain and body’s ability to self-regulate.


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