Valerian and GABA’s benefits for sleep and anxiety
Just as we need food, shelter, and clothing to survive, we need peace of mind and healthy sleep to thrive. But anxiety and poor sleep are so common that our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls sleep deprivation a public health epidemic. What can we do to relax when we’re stressed, and sleep when we just … can’t?
Thankfully, as usual, Nature comes to the rescue with some very effective partners for peace and relaxation.
How much sleep do we need?
It’s different from person to person, of course. And opinions vary, even among experts. Some say less than 6 hours per night is trouble. I say less than 8 hours per night is trouble, with the ideal being 9–10 hours. The National Sleep Foundation recently issued its new recommendations:
- Adults (26 to 64): 7–9 hours per day
- Older adults (65 and older): 7–8 hours per day
Why sleep is essential medicine
Your body works hard all day, creating energy, using it up to fuel all its functions, then creating more. Like any machine, it can start to burn out if it’s overworked, under-fueled, and worse, both. This go, go, go lifestyle is the perfect recipe for anxiety and poor sleep.
One of the early casualties of sleep deprivation is the immune system. You know how you feel after a bad night’s rest—tired, apathetic, cranky and/or stressed and jangly.
Well, our immune systems have feelings, too. If yours is feeling tired, you’re not getting a full, healthy, measure of protection against potential “invaders”. Chronic sleep deprivation, like chronic inflammation, is often among the causes of the murderers’ row of diseases—cancers, heart, liver, kidney, and neurodegenerative diseases … the works.
And other troubles have been linked to sleep deprivation:
- Reduction of brain size
- Type 2 diabetes
- Slow reaction time
- Diminished concentration and recall
How to get a good night’s sleep
There are dozens of behavioral changes that can help improve sleep—three hours of no screen time (TV, smartphone, tablet or computer), food or alcohol before bed, creating a regular pre-sleep pattern, taking a warm bath before bed, mindful meditation, and many more.
It’s important to bear in mind that the half-life of caffeine is 5 to 6 hours. So, 6 hours after that 8am cup, half of the caffeine is still in your body. At 8pm that night, you’re still processing through roughly a quarter of that morning’s caffeine.
So, if sleep is a challenge, try avoiding any caffeine at all after lunch time.
I recommend trying all of these and more—especially mindful meditation, for its amazing immediate and long-term benefits.
But what if you’ve tried behavioral changes and they don’t work?
As I promised, Nature has given us several ways to relax, and to sleep
Valerian is a natural, plant-derived remedy that helps manage anxiety and insomnia, which go hand in hand to interfere with sleep. Though research is limited, studies have shown that valerian can improve quality of sleep and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep.
“Valerian” comes from the Latin verb valere—”to be strong, to be healthy.” A few of valerian’s other names tell us it’s an old and respected world traveler: All-Heal, Guérit Tout—French for “cures all.”
Healers don’t get names like that without reason. Most studies show that valerian can help you fall asleep 15–20 minutes sooner than hitting the hay without it.
Other studies show that valerian can help improve sleep when combined with other herbs, including hops and lemon balm.
Valerian has also been shown to improve the sleep quality of people who are withdrawing from prescription sleep aids.
Valerian may also help with chronic conditions characterized by anxious behaviors, such as generalized anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
It’s also well regarded for helping to relieve:
- Menopause: Menopausal women found significant reductions in hot flash severity, and modest reductions in hot flash frequency, during 8 weeks of treatment with 765 mg of valerian daily
- Menstrual problems: Women who suffer from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or painful menstruation may benefit from valerian. One study found it improved physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms of PMS
- Restless legs syndrome: An eight-week study in people with restless legs syndrome showed that taking 800 mg per day improved symptoms and decreased daytime sleepiness
- Parkinson’s disease: A study found that treating mice with Parkinson’s disease with valerian extract led to better behavior, a decrease in inflammation, and an increase in antioxidant levels
If you need further assurance that valerian has a good thing going, and a bright future, be assured—prestigious research centers aren’t spending millions based on a hunch or a wild guess. There’s a rich trail of evidence that valerian may also:
- Improve heart health
- Improve well being during cancer therapy
- Reduce frequency of epileptic seizures
- Prevent dizziness
- Relieve addiction
- Relieve depression
- Relieve digestive problems
- Improve memory and cognitive function
- Improve fibromyalgia
- Prevent kidney damage
Doses of 400-900 mg of valerian extract taken up to 2 hours before bed seem to work best. Check with your doctor to see what’s best for you. Please keep in mind that natural remedies don’t take effect overnight—that’s not nature’s way. So, while some people notice a difference right away, it could take a week or more for valerian to start doing its best work—relieving stress and anxiety, and promoting a good night’s sleep.
Happily enough, valerian’s best work includes helping another of my favorite anti-stress, pro-sleep champions do its best work, too.
GABA and valerian for stress relief and sleep
Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is another of my favorite anti-anxiety remedies. It’s an amino acid we make in our brain, which acts as a calming neurotransmitter in stressful situations.
When we respond to stress, whether external (Lion! Run away!) or internal (He hates me!), we produce “excitatory” neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline, that prepare to aid our fight or flight response.
When the threat is behind us, GABA steps in to help release serotonin and other “feel good” hormones. These help calm our stress/anxiety, so we can reach that relieved, post-stress “Glad that’s over” moment.
Valerian, in addition to being a standalone calmer, plays a key role in this process, protecting GABA from attack by a GABA-killing enzyme. This ensures GABA has the time and sufficient molecular strength to calm us into our post-stress “chill.”
For a frame of reference, our brain receptors for GABA are the targets for a class of medication called benzodiazepines. They’re a powerful ingredient in Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, and Ativan—prescribed in the millions, despite being linked to increased risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
If you’re using any of those drugs, you might find this stressful news, and might want to look into GABA as an alternative. It’s been found to be as effective as benzodiazepines in relieving anxiety. Naturally, it’s somewhat slower in reaching full efficacy, but thankfully, has none of the benzodiazepines’ nasty side effects.
In fact, it’s being used today to ease withdrawal from prescription drugs for conditions other than anxiety and insomnia.
Adding supplemental GABA to our natural, internal GABA can truly hit the anti-anxiety, pro-sleep sweet spot. Add valerian, as well, and you’ve got a knockout combination.
Like valerian, GABA shows positive results in addition to its anti-anxiety and sleep bringing powers. It can help:
- Treat attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Promote lean muscle growth
- Burn fat
- Reduce PMS symptoms
- Stabilize blood pressure
- Relieve pain
- Improve exercise tolerance
I typically start with about 100 mg of GABA per day, but check with your doctor regarding the dosage best for you.
Nothing can remove all stress from your life. But these two mind-soothers do a heck of a job reducing the negative effects of stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation.
Valerian and GABA are your go-to partners for peace of mind and peaceful sleep.
Take good care.
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- Spritzler, Franziska. “How Valerian Root Helps You Relax and Sleep Better” Last accessed April 9, 2018.
- Gupta, Saarik. “5 studies you may have missed” Updated July 25, 2014. Last accessed April 9, 2018.
- “GABA For Anxiety – Does It Work?” Overcoming Your Anxiety. Published NA. Last accessed April 9, 2018.
- “GABA (GAMMA – AMINOBUTYRIC ACID)” Published NA. Last accessed April 9, 2018.
- Wexler, Alyse. “Does valerian root work as anxiety treatment and insomnia?” Medical News Today. Reviewed June 25, 2017. Last accessed April 9, 2018.
- “Valerian” Published NA. Last accessed April 9, 2018.
Last Updated: August 5, 2019
Originally Published: April 19, 2018