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Plant Based, Year-Round Health

The Importance Of Sleep

Head shot of Dr. Terry Vanderheyden
by Dr. Terry Vanderheyden, N.D.

Sleep Problems And Nervous Disorders: The Pitfalls Of The Pharmaceutical Approach 

Anxiety disorders and insomnia often go hand in hand. Anxiety disorders afflict one in five people worldwide at one point or another in their lives, while it is speculated that insomnia affects between 9% and 15% of people globally. The Canadian Sleep Society reports that about 10% of the adult population in Canada experience persistent insomnia, while an additional 20%-25% experience occasional symptoms.  

tea cup and saucer sitting on a wooden log with flowers around it in the middle of the feild

The symptoms are broad and debilitating: fatigue, inability to maintain focus and concentration, poor memory, mood disturbance, daytime sleepiness, low motivation or energy, and proneness to errors and accidents. Also, research suggests that there is a correlation between insomnia and other more serious health risks, including anxiety disorders and other psychological problems, as well as hypertension and decreased immune function. 

Comprehensive reviews have shown that a therapy based on pharmaceutical drugs that reduce anxiety and aid sleep (e.g. benzodiazepines and other drugs) is associated with a significantly increased risk of mortality. This is not to mention the dangers posed by dependence and side-effects like gastrointestinal upset, vertigo, and fatigue.  

A Better, More Natural Solution 

Research shows that, for problems of anxiety and insomnia, herbs offer an effective, time-honoured solution that is both safer and non-addictive.  

A perennial plant native to Europe and Asia, valerian is a classic nerve-calming herb. The use of its pungently odoriferous root can be traced back to classical antiquity. In the time of the Roman Empire, we find Galen, for example, prescribing it for insomnia. Closer to our own day, valerian was widely employed by the Eclectics—physicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries who tended to rely on herbal therapies--for treating nervousness, restlessness and anxiety as well as insomnia. 

Clocks all together in a line in the sky, falling down with people walking on top falling with the time

In a double-blind trial of 48 adults, valerian was found to reduce anxiety without accompanying sedation, while another clinical trial that used a standardized valerian preparation showed an anxiety-reducing effect similar to the drug, diazepam. As well, several studies present compelling evidence of the effectiveness of valerian in the treatment of insomnia. These include a six-week clinical trial with 202 patients suffering from insomnia on an average of 3.5 months. This trial found valerian and oxazepam, a standard benzodiazepine tranquilizer, to be equally efficacious and enhancing of sleep quality. 

Both treatments increased duration of sleep, dream recall, degree of refreshment after sleep, and evenness of temper and calmness in the evening, as well as mitigating mental exhaustion before sleep. It is thought that valerian’s mechanism of action is through what are known as GABA neurotransmitters, which regulate motor function, vision, and other cortical activities, as well as controlling anxiety. 

The name “valerian” comes the Latin verb valere, which means “to be strong or in good health.” A charming recipe from the fourteenth century illustrates quite nicely valerian’s calming virtues, which are the central facet of its healing strength. It goes like this: “If they begin a fight and you want to stop them, give them a valerian potion and peace will be made immediately.” 


For more information on sleep, check out our blog on Better Sleep, Please! Natural Ways To Get More ZZZZZ's.

Have questions? Just visit our Great Questions Answered page to learn more or to submit a question.





An herb native to Asia and Europe with a root portion that has been used in traditional medicine for at least 2,000 years to relieve nervousness and for its sedative effects as a sleep aid. Hippocrates described its therapeutic uses, and throughout World War II it was used as a calmative agent.

Ample research has found the efficacy of certain compounds in valerian root in helping with insomnia, reducing restlessness and remedying sleeping disorders associated with anxiety.

Head shot of Dr. Terry Vanderheyden
Author: Dr. Terry Vanderheyden, N.D.


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