The essential oil of valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has long had a reputation as a soothing essence that is used to relieve anxiety, worry, and nervous turmoil. For decades, it has been extensively studied by science and its pronounced beneficial effects on the central nervous system have been documented. In some countries, valerian is recommended as an effective treatment for anxiety and sleep disorders.
What is valerian?
Valerian is a genus of perennial herbaceous plants that includes more than two hundred species. The most widely used plant is the medicinal variety. It grows in Europe, in central and northern parts of Asia, in North and South America.
This is a truly legendary plant, which is considered to be one of the most ancient medicinal herbs. It’s been used since ancient Roman times, and its name according to various versions comes from the Greek word for health or the name of a Roman emperor. And to this day, doctors, beauticians, and aromatherapists recommend the use of valerian essential oil for the prevention and treatment of many ailments.
In the Middle Ages, monks grew valerian as an obligatory crop in the first ornamental gardens, actively using it in their medicinal formulas. In Western medicine, it was traditionally used to treat rheumatism, insomnia, nervous diseases, skin infections, epilepsy, and cholera, while in Eastern medicine it was used primarily for colds, ulcers, and menstrual disorders.
All the properties of the legendary medicinal plant, also known as forest incense or catnip, a pretty herbaceous perennial with dark leaves and purple-white shield-shaped inflorescences, are fully inherited by the essential oil of valerian.
- Bornyl acetate
- Ethyl isovalerate
- Myrtenyl acetate
- Alpha-terpinyl acetate
- Neryl acetate
- Geranyl acetate
- Epi-gamma eudesmol
- Caryophyllene oxide
The essential oil is obtained by classical distillation with water vapor. This oil is not extracted from the above-ground parts of the plant, but only from the roots.
Outwardly, the oil is quite bright with brown and olive tones, fluid, and quite light. During storage the oil gradually darkens, its color becomes more pronounced (this feature can help identify counterfeits). In a fully sealed packaging, it can be stored for at least five years.
You have to be very careful when buying this essential oil. Due to the fact that real valerian roots release very little essential oil, manufacturers often partially or completely replace them with Japanese valerian. The oil extracted from this plant not only has a more camphoric smell but also can’t boast the necessary range of properties. Spikenard, Indian valerian, Mexican valerian root can also be used as a substitute. The resulting essential oils can’t be considered a full-fledged replacement for valerian and are not worth the price.
You can sometimes find absolutes and concretes of the oil, which is obtained by extraction with organic solvents from the roots of the plant. However, they are used only in diluted form, bringing them to the concentration of a standard aroma oil (1:10). The absolute of this essential oil must be viscous, not fluid.
The aroma of this essential oil is very strong, musky, balsamic, and woody. In perfumery, valerian oil is the main tool for introducing scents of woods and moss into the compositions of elite perfumes. The oil has a very fresh, persistent, dense, and deep scent of green woods with balsamic notes. While the essential oil has a pronounced woody-musky base, the absolute is bittersweet.
The benefits of valerian essential oil
This essential oil is widely used in medicine as a sedative. It’s recommended for treating nervous agitation, insomnia, asthma, palpitations, neurosis. It is taken for nervous stomach and intestinal disorders, nervous headache, migraine. Women are advised to take valerian for menopausal disorders.
Alcoholic tincture of the root is widely used for rheumatic joint pain, hemorrhoids, urinary retention, and various nervous excitements. Valerian helps fight colds and spleen disease.
The plant was highly valued by ancient Greeks as a perfume because of its pleasant odor. People often carried the roots with them hidden in clothes. Valerian root boiled in wine was used as a stomach-strengthening remedy. For external applications, the roots were used as some sort of plaster and compress. Dioscorides notes that valerian was used by the ancients as a remedy for diarrhea and was used for jaundice and kidney disease. Fresh root was put in wine and the resulting tincture was used to treat the liver, retaining urine, and for diseases of the lungs and stomach.
To this day, they use Valerian oil for multiple purposes, from cosmetics to medicine to aromatherapy.
They don’t normally use this oil for general skincare. When it comes to cosmetics, it plays a role primarily as an active adaptogen, allowing to prepare the skin for extreme weather and temperature conditions, to compensate for the effects of external factors, to relieve hypersensitivity. It’s the most effective remedy for climatic dermatitis, photodermatitis, as well as stress rashes, and neurodermatitis.
Valerian oil is the main relaxing additive for herbal teas and can be used to flavor tobacco products, drinks, elixirs, and balms. When formulating a personal fragrance, the oil is used to create notes of a woodsy, mossy undertone to the base of the scent.
The therapeutic effect of valerian has a restorative nature. It helps relieve headaches of neurotic nature, relieves cerebral vasospasms, heart pain, and tachycardia. The analgesic effect of the oil is used for treating neuralgia and neuritis, and it’s combined with an anticonvulsant effect.
The oil can be used to relieve symptoms of menopausal disorders and thyroid hyperfunction.
This oil has an optimizing effect on heart rhythms, it can be used to relieve smooth muscle cramps, treat diseases of the mouth and gums, eliminate constipation and colic. Despite its fairly wide range of characteristics, the main use of valerian oil is psychotropic and sedative, combined with a sedative and restorative effect.
This oil is the basic relaxing tool in both aromatherapy and traditional medicine. Its amazing aroma not only has a calming effect but also eliminates nervous exhaustion, neurosis, anxiety, and fears, helping to get rid of feelings of desperation, addiction, restlessness. Valerian oil helps change attitudes from external to internal and allows you to immerse yourself in a calm atmosphere for introspection and self-exploration.
It’s one of the most effective tools for dealing with insomnia and stress disorders.
How to use valerian essential oil
Some varieties of the plant are used as spice mainly in European countries. The leaves are used in cooking and have a milder taste and smell than roots. The leaves are added to different salads and dessert dishes.
Valerian leaves make an interesting garnish to fish dishes. The leaves go well with meat, especially lamb. They can also be added to meat marinades. In combination with other herbs, the leaves of the plant are added to a variety of sauces. The unique flavor of valerian will nicely accentuate the taste of fish and seafood.
The roots of the plant are used in the production of essences, liqueurs, and tinctures. As a flavoring agent, valerian is included in the preparation for Havana cigars and Turkish tobacco. Most often the roots are used to make soothing drinks and teas, as well as inflorescences of valerian combined with mint.
The main methods of application of valerian essential oil are massage, aroma baths, ointments, cold compresses, and inhalations, as well as aroma lamps.
Valerian oil is taken internally by dissolving two drops in a teaspoon of honey or a glass of warm milk just before going to bed with nervous exhaustion, insomnia, and other disorders of the psycho-emotional state.
In aroma lamps or diffusers
1 drop for every 50 square feet of space. Use it in sessions, for 20-40 minutes in the evening.
1-2 drops for aroma pendant, aroma stone, or napkin. Inhale for 15-30 minutes. 20 drops in an aroma inhaler, take a few deep breaths when necessary.
For skin application and massage
1 drop per 0.2 – 0.3 oz. of base (depending on the area of application, the severity of the problem, duration of application, and tolerance). Apply to painful areas, abdomen (in case of internal organ problems) clockwise. Apply a few drops to pulse points and for massage.
3-5 drops per 1 tsp. of neutral hydrophilic oil, dissolve under running water. Take a bath for 15-20 minutes.
Blending with other oils
Valerian oil is not so easily combined with other essential oils. A good combination of aromas can be obtained only when mixed with lavender, pine, cypress, petitgrain, myrtle, patchouli, and rosewood.
Caution, safety, and side effects
The pronounced relaxing and sedative effect of valerian requires increased caution when using this essential oil, in particular, safety measures require refraining from using it at work and during activities that require increased concentration and determination.
Valerian oil should be used in moderation, not longer than two to three weeks in a row in minimal dosages, because an overdose can lead to the opposite effects – disorders of heart rhythm, depression, headaches, overexcitement, nausea.
Due to the risk of reduced physical and mental performance and memory impairment, valerian oil should be used with caution with people aged 10 to 45 years (this essential oil is considered an aromatherapy tool for children and the elderly).
When applied to the skin, it doesn’t cause any discomfort or irritation, it’s not toxic, but the test for individual reactions is highly recommended.
NB: in case of chronic enterocolitis valerian can exacerbate the issue. People with hypersensitivity should be extremely careful with valerian as it sometimes generates a stimulating effect, disrupts sleep, causes heavy dreams.
Warnings & precautions
- This is a potent aromatherapy oil that should be used with caution. Valerian has a strong depressant effect.
- Not suitable in the morning, before serious events when concentration is required, or before/during driving.
- Avoid when breastfeeding, with infants and young children (under 6 years of age).
- Do not combine with pharmaceutical sedatives and antidepressants. Valerian may increase the sedative effect of anesthetics and other drugs that act on GABA receptors, and preoperative treatment may cause valerian to interact with the anesthetic.
- It has been suggested that it may inhibit glucuronidation in the body.
To sleep better and to make sure you are fully rested in the morning, substitute valerian oil with vetiver, hop, lavender, chamomile, geranium.
To calm down and decrease anxiety, replace it with such oils as lavender, basil, or rosemary.
Whenever you need a remedy for an upset stomach but don’t have any valerian at hand, use chamomile, dill, coriander, cardamom, spearmint, or peppermint instead.
When it comes to nervous tension, vetiver, geranium, rose, frankincense, or sandalwood will do nicely when valerian isn’t available.
Is valerian oil safe during pregnancy?
There is still a lot of controversy surrounding valerian’s safety during pregnancy, but valerian oil has been shown to be safe when used in aromatherapy and diluted correctly. I would avoid using it undiluted and only use the oil if you were unable to get any other sleep aids and valerian was the only thing that helped.
It should be used with caution if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. If valerian is the only thing that helps your insomnia, consult your doctor about taking it. Never take valerian if you have liver disease or epilepsy as this may worsen these conditions.
If you are looking for a valerian alternative, hops and lemon balm may be safer options.
Does valerian oil stain?
Like all essential oils, valerian stains clothing so use it sparingly and avoid applying to areas covered with clothes.
Is valerian oil toxic?
Valerian isn’t toxic but due to its side effects and rather poignant smell must be taken with caution. It’s a very strong oil so it should be diluted to some extent before being applied to the skin.
Is valerian oil good for acne?
Valerian essential oil is not considered to be a treatment for acne due to its strong scent but some people use valerian essential oil as part of their skincare regimen to decrease dark spots and hyperpigmentation by applying it topically on the skin. Valerian may also act as an antioxidant by scavenging free radicals which may reduce the risk of oxidative stress-related diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, etc.
What to look for when choosing valerian oil?
Since valerian essential oil is derived from a common weed, it can be found in different grades of quality. This means that not all valerian oils are the same and some of them may even contain impurities that could pose a health hazard when applied topically or consumed orally. It’s advisable to look for a product that is 100% pure and contains no impurities.
Valerian essential oil is widely used due to its many beneficial properties and has a strong sedative effect. The oil should be diluted before being applied to the skin or taken orally and it mustn’t be combined with pharmaceutical sedatives or antidepressants. There are several valerian oils of different grades of quality so choose carefully, buy valerian essential oil only if you can’t get any other sleep aid and use it only occasionally.