Our ancestors left us a legacy we can all still bank on: their healing wisdom about plant remedies for dysfunctional situations. They hadn't evolved with that kind of empirical validation. All they knew was that their methods produced results. Those results came from centuries of trials, and the knowledge was passed on from generation to generation through years of painstaking, dedicated apprenticeship.
Science has come around to validating many of these cures through collaborative research, proving that these ancients were right.
Even the World Health Organisation concedes that 80% of the world’s population still relies on traditional medicine system for primary health care.
This drove us to look into our archives about the many valuable plant remedies that can be of help in various situations.
And that's how we rediscovered this valuable conversation we had with one of the country's foremost plant scientists about a plant called Indian Valerian - the plant whose leaves and roots can help you sleep better.
Dr. A.A. Mao shared with us interesting stories about two herbs – one that can help with sleep and another that can relieve pain.
I have a friend who faced severe sleep issues and used to sleep for only a couple of hours a day. I suggested he try Valeriana jatamansi, or Indian Valerian, a local herb found abundantly in the Northeast and I asked him to crush the root and eat it. Much to his joy this remedy indeed helped him. The only side effect it could have was a decrease in blood pressure and so, I advised him to be careful with the dosage…
The other herb was wintergreen.
Valerian and It's Different Species
Valerian is a high-value medicinal herb. It’s a perennial, bitter-sweet tasting flowering plant. Some kinds they cultivate but you'll mostly find it growing wild in the understory of moist, humus-rich temperate and sub-tropical forests across the world.
Commonly known as Spikenard, Valerian is a plant with mild sedative properties that's reported to enable sounder and quality sleep and helps relieve anxiety.
Botanically, it's a perennial that belongs to the genus Valeriana of the plant family Valerianaceae that comprises about 350 species and 7 genera.
Different species of Valeriana also grow in Europe and other parts of the world.
- Valeriana officinalis is the most widespread (and researched) species. It’s cultivated widely in England, Europe, America and West Asia.
- The Indian subcontinent has about16 Valerian species of which two sub-species, Valerian jatmansii Jones and Valeriana hardwickii Wall. are the most widespread. They thrive in the wild at altitudes of 1800-3500 metres in the moist forests of the sub-Himalayan region that spreads from Kashmir to Bhutan.
In Meghalaya, we find the two Valerians growing in the Khasi and Jaintia hills forests at heights between 1200-1800 metres.
As a plant, Valerian has erect stems that are pubescent, i.e. covered with dense, short and downy hairs. Its rootstock is thick and leaves are radical, that is, they are located at and arise directly from the rootstock at stem’s base. The leaves may be ovate, i.e. egg-shaped or cordate, i.e. heart-shaped. The flowers are usually white or pink and they bloom in panicles, i.e. dense and multi-branched clusters.
A total of 150 compounds have so far been identified in the essential oils of Valerian plants, of which, what are called monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes are the main ones. The essential oils are the most valuable compounds of all plants. In Valerian, the roots and rhizomes are rich in essential oils such as iridoids, flavonoids, alkaloids, amino acids, and lignanoids. These oils possess a characteristic, off-flavour kind of fragrance and, depending upon their individual properties, are very useful as medicines or as perfumes and insect repellents.
According to a study, Valerian yields about twenty-one kinds of essential oils. The roots yield about 0.3-2.1% (v/w) of these oils that exude a strong woody and musky fragrance like that of the moist earth of the forest floor, sweet and balsamic at the same time.
Two oils, patchouli alcohol and malliol are said to be very useful in the perfumery and insect repellent industry. Valerian jatamansi from the Khasi hills, Meghalaya is found to yield the highest percentage of these oils.
How the Khasi Traditional Healers use Valerian
For centuries, Valerian or Jatung is well-known among the Khasi traditional healers or doktor sla (plant doctors, as they sometimes call themselves) as a bone-setting herb. In Meghalaya, it grows well in upper reaches of West and East Khasi hills districts. These remote understories of sub-tropical rainforests with diverse plant and animal life are healthy environments for plants like the Valerian species.
In cases of bone fracture, the Khasi healers set the bone and apply a paste of the whole plant. Also, they apply it on nails in diseases such as onychia, an inflammation around the tissues which often forms pus; or onychomycosis, a fungal infection, where the nail detaches from the nail bed.
They use extract from leaves in cases of stomach ache and extract from roots in case of nervous disorders and fits.
Traditional Uses of Valerian:
Valerian root has been in use since ancient Greek and Roman times to treat headaches, nerve diseases, insomnia, tremors, heart palpitations and to reduce anxiety.
The main bioactive component is Valerenic acid which is the substance believed to stimulate nerve cells to release the brain receptor, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) that helps control fear and anxiety.
Users have reported benefits such as:
- Sounder sleep with better sleep quality, waking up refreshed without a hangover feeling
- Relief from anxiety and restlessness
In Hindi Valerian is called Mushbala or Sugandha and in Sanskrit, Tagara. Both Ayurvedic and Unani systems of medicine have been using the plant since ancient times as tranquillizer and sedative, and to treat health problems such as:
- Hypotension (low blood pressure) and Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Muscle Spasms, Stomach Cramps, Menstrual Cramps and Hot Flashes
- Gastrointestinal and digestive problems including flatulence, inflammation in the digestive tract (diverticulitis), IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), stress-induced nervous stomach (nervous dyspepsia)
- Antidote to poison: remedy for cough, jaundice, and seminal weakness
- Minor cuts and wounds
- Hair fall
- Skin problems
- Bacterial infections
The herb's influence on the nervous system is significant. Its application has produced good results in cases of:
- health anxiety or hypochondria
- migraine and head congestions
- fainting fits
- neural problems such as tensions, mental restlessness, tremors, neuralgic pains and neurasthenia
Valerian has good effects on the heart: it strengthens it and helps regulate blood pressure and palpitations.
It also helps in liver functions and lung problems such as coughs and relieving accumulated phlegm.
How is Valerian Collected and Prepared for Use as a Remedy?
The herb grows in the wild and so is collected fresh from the forests. The whole plant is of use that includes the leaves, roots and rhizomes. Use of the plant may be as a decoction or a poultice.
To prepare a decoction the leaves and stem are first washed and then boiled, strained and administered orally.
In case roots are used, their skins are first scraped off lightly, crushed to pieces using a pestle and mortar and then put to boiling water. After about ten minutes, the decoction is strained and administered.
If it is not for immediate use, the plant material, usually the root and rhizome, is dried and stored in airtight containers.
Other preparations are by crushing the dried plant material into powder. Again, Valerian essential oil is also obtained through processes such as steam distillation.
What Science Says About Valerian
As a sedating botanical, Valerian, a herb with anxiolytic and hypnotic properties, is non-addictive and has an absence of withdrawal symptoms. Moreover, it does not impair cognitive or psychomotor performance and so, generally, is safe to use.
Many studies have gone into Valerian but despite that more research is needed to establish further its efficacy as a remedy for sleep disorders and other problems.
This analysis of Valerian jatamansi identified seven major components in the essential oils including Patchoulic alcohol and Malliol, compounds that are useful in perfumes and insect repellents. Results also showed high antioxidant activity which could be due to the presence of rich amounts of polyphenols and flavonoids.
An assessment reported in this ethnobotanical review explains that certain phytochemicals such as iridoids, valeriandoids, lignoids, and valepotriates are the compounds responsible for Valerian’s antioxidant, antibacterial and other health-promoting properties.
The assessment was based on in vivo and in vitro studies using methanolic, chloroform and aqueous extracts from the dried roots of Valerian jatamansi.
Here's what they found:
- Antioxidant activity – the presence of flavonoids, tannins and polyphenols which bioactive compounds increased scavenging of cell-damaging free radicals that resulted in decreased mediation in inflammation.
- Anti-inflammatory activity – methanolic and aqueous extract showed active anti-inflammatory activity. It slows up inflammatory mediators histamine and prostaglandin, and synthesises serotonin, a brain chemical that contributes to feelings of wellbeing and happiness.
- Antibacterial activity – the presence of valerenic acid in the three extracts showed active antibacterial activity against induced microorganisms such as E.Coli, S.aureusa and Pseudomonas aeroginosa. The activity may be useful as an alternative treatment of urinary tract infections.
- Cytotoxic activity – extracts from rhizomes of three valerian species, V.jatamansi, V.officinalis and V. Edulis revealed toxicity against certain human colorectal, colon, prostate, liver and lung cancer cell lines. This was mainly due to the action of Valerian’s bioactive principles badrinals, valepotriates, jataman valtrates, nardostachin and valerinic acid.
Apart from phytochemicals, another study reveals Valerian jatamansi to have about ten important dietary minerals that include:
- Chromium: Leaf of Valeriana jatamansi was found to contain the highest amount of Chromium, an essential nutrient that increases insulin action and so influences carbohydrate, lipid and protein metabolism
- Iron: Roots of Valeriana jatamansi was found to have a high concentration of Iron, the essential micro-nutrient that makes up haemoglobin in the blood, responsible for transportation of oxygen and maintenance of the body’s immune system. Iron is also a component as well as a site of many enzymes that perform vital functions in the body including energy distribution. Iron deficiency is the most common dietary deficiency in the world and leads to anaemia.
- Copper: Again, roots of Valeriana jatamansi were found to have high content of copper, an essential mineral for health. Copper helps modulate cholesterol and glucose metabolism, give antioxidant protection, and regulate immune functions
- Magnesium: Leaves of Valeriana jatamansi are found with high concentrations of magnesium, a trace mineral necessary for energy metabolism or biochemical reactions in the body. It helps synthesise protein, RNA and DNA. It maintains normal nervous functions, muscle tissues and cell membranes as well as a robust immune system. Magnesium deficiency can lead to cardiovascular problems, hypertension, diabetes, and atherosclerosis in humans.
Still, although the herb’s been in use since many centuries modern research doesn’t as yet have enough conclusive evidence to the herb’s efficacy.
How You Can Use and How Much
You can also use Valerian root in the form of:
- teas, tinctures and extracts – made from crushed or powdered roots
- tablets and capsules
Initially, take it once daily at least 30 minutes before bed-time for 2-3 weeks in doses of about 1/3 to 1/2 teaspoons in a glass of hot water with a sweetener such as honey or sugar. Alternately, you can add it to your tea or beverages.
Give a break for the same length of time before repeating.
However, a Word of Caution
Although studies have shown that valerian is safe for short-term use, it can cause mental depression if taken for longer periods.
Other side effects can include headache, giddiness, excessive drowsiness and upset tummy.
Therefore, it is advisable to use the medication only when symptoms appear. Moreover, excess consumption may lead to hyperactivity or stupor instead of being calmly relaxed.
Don't mix valerian with alcohol, anti-depressants, tranquillizers or sedatives. If you are using remedies containing drowsiness-inducing components such as codeine, doxylamine or chlorpheniramine (cough, cold and flu medicines), it is better to avoid valerian altogether as it might induce more drowsiness.
Pregnant or lactating women, children and persons with known liver diseases must avoid valerian because more research is required to evaluate regarding the safety of valerian when used by such people.
If you are on medication, always consult your physician before using valerian.
That's it for now
Next time, if you can lay hands on Valerian jatamansi or any other Valerian, do try it. With precautions, though.
Tell us how it worked for you.
Until next time, stay safe, stay healthy!