When people think of plant explorers, the mind’s eye often goes to those cutting their way through tropical forests, climbing mountains, and combing deserts, all in search of botanical treasures. But there is another type of plant exploration, and that is scouring the herbal literature, in search of the early clues that have led to our contemporary uses of botanical medicines. While I have spent more than four decades learning about the uses of plants from indigenous elders in some of the most remote regions of the world, I also find it very productive to page through ancient botanical texts, many of which are particularly rich in information about the past uses of plants. After all, it is said that scientists stand on the shoulders to giants to accomplish their work, meaning that we build on the work of those who have come before us—and this certainly applies to ethnobotany!
These days many of us suffer from an inability to get a good night’s rest, for so many different reasons. One of these is due to the reality of life in modern society--always overscheduled, burdened with deadlines and rushing from meeting to meeting—in other words, always running our body’s engine at full throttle or beyond. I know that at times I am like that, and during the night when I should be winding down, my thoughts are racing, going over the day’s events and my agenda for tomorrow. And life in a pandemic makes it worse--it seems that every day is “blursday,” without a hard stop on weekends or evenings. That of course is a recipe for insomnia.
Traditional cultures and practitioners of herbal medicine have identified many different plants that are good for anxiety and insomnia, and I have personal experience with a number that, at least for me, are effective. One of my favorites is valerian, known by scientists as Valeriana officinalis, a plant with many beneficial properties. Its generic name was derived from the Latin “valere” to be strong and healthy. Valerian is native to Europe and Western Asia and has spread to North America. Early on, ancient Greek and Roman physicians found many uses for this plant, including as a mild sedative. During the second century, the Greek physician Aelius Galenus, known as Galen, prescribed this plant for those who had trouble sleeping. Galen’s brilliant observations, as well as those of other Greek physicians, were repeated in works on herbal medicine for over a thousand years. By the 16th century, valerian was commonly used to treat nervousness, heart palpitations (often related to anxiety) and other conditions. Valerian’s sedative properties make it quite useful as a natural sleep aid.
I’ve always wondered how pre-industrial people were able to make so many important discoveries about the uses of plants, particularly as medicines. I refer to this process “trial, error and success,” which has led to the knowledge base of many plants we use in herbal medicine today. Modern research has built on this traditional knowledge of valerian, and in this century, scientists discovered that valerian dilates the coronary arteries and helps normalize heart rhythm. During World War I, this powerful plant was used to treat soldiers suffering from “shell shock,” now considered a type of post traumatic stress disorder related to experience in combat. Valerian is a Central Nervous System (CNS) depressant that contains over 150 identified phytochemicals—and probably many more that are not yet identified. As recently as twenty-five years ago, German researchers learned how valerian’s sedative properties work, through binding with benzodiazepine and other receptors in the CNS. Because this binding was found to be weak, it solved the puzzle of why valerian is not very addictive.
Clinical studies on the use of valerian as a sleep aid have shown that it shortens wakefulness, reduces the times that people waken through the night, improves the efficiency of sleep and increases our ability to recall dreams. All of this without producing the hangover that is the unwanted side effect of some of the commonly available prescription sleep medications. Of course, there are cautions with everything in life. In this case, valerian should not be combined with prescription or over the counter sleep aids, particularly those that depress the CNS
(including benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Halcion; barbiturates, alcohol, and some dietary supplements such as St. John’s wort, kava and melatonin. And pregnant women are cautioned to discuss intended use of this herb with their physicians, as in one mouse study valerian reduced the level of zinc in the developing fetal brain. That may be balanced thorough appropriate supplementation, but as each of our metabolisms are different, we should be guided by medical professionals.
Exploring the literature, from the earliest writings of the Greek and Roman physicians to contemporary medical research is an exciting path to understanding the uses of herbs to improve one’s health. So, during these times when traveling to a South Pacific Island and interviewing elders is not something I can do for the immediate future, discovering the great published works of others is something that is quite satisfying. And in the case of valerian, I’ve learned why I get better sleep using this herb, combined with a few others, practically every night.
Michael J. Balick