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Eases insomnia, calms nerves, relieves menstrual cramps and muscle spasms

Valerian smells funky — sort of like a forgotten washrag left in a basement corner. And it tastes funny — as you might imagine sucking on that washrag would taste. (Cats don't share this view. They think valerian is the hottest thing since catnip.) Taste notwithstanding, herbalists for hundreds of years have relied on the woody roots of valerian to calm the anxious and relax the sleepless. But does it really work?

Numerous studies have shown that valerian does indeed help people with insomnia get to sleep faster and sleep better — without the groggy "morning-after" effects of standard prescription sedatives. No one is quite certain how valerian performs this magic.

"According to the latest information available, we simply don't know what the active ingredients are," says Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University School of Pharmacy in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of The Honest Herbal.

Chemicals in valerian called valepotriates act as muscle relaxants, making the herb potentially useful against menstrual cramps and other types of spasms. But even valerian preparations without valepotriates help slumber time come faster — raising the possibility that some still-unidentified chemical, or a synergistic reaction among various compounds in the root, may confer its calming action.

Putting the herb to work

In Europe, where herbal preparations are part of mainstream medicine, there are dozens of valerian preparations available to treat nervousness and insomnia. In the USA, the root is available in the form of teas, tinctures, capsules and extracts.

Since the herb has a good record of safety, with few reported side effects, many herbalists — and a few doctors — suggest trying it if you toss and turn at night.

"I recommend it to my patients, and they say it helps," says Alan R. Gaby, M.D., a Baltimore physician who practices nutritional and natural medicine and is president of the American Holistic Medical Association. "For some people, only the big guns — the prescription tranquilizers — will offer relief," he adds. "But for those with mild insomnia, it's the first thing I try, usually in capsule form." Simply follow the directions on the package. When using a tincture or extract, one teaspoon daily is the usual recommended dose. If taken as a tea, one cup should be sufficient.

As with any herbal remedy, be cautious about using large amounts over a long period, especially if you're using concentrated extracts; valerian in high doses has been reported to cause headaches and grogginess.

Important note: Don't be confused by the similarity of the herb's name to Valium. Valium is one of those "big gun" prescription sedatives. This powerful drug has no relation to valerian and should be used only under the strict supervision of a physician.

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