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Valerian: An Ancient Herb that Soothes Seizures and Promotes Sleep

Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) has been used on seizure patients since as far back as ancient Roman and Greek times. Its use continued through the Middle Ages, and by the 16th Century, it was documented by both herbalists and physicians alike, who administered it to their patients for seizures, insomnia, and anxiety. 

Today, valerian is very much in the mainstream. It is used to alleviate anxiety, promote sleep, and even ease digestive issues. It is found in most pharmacies in the supplements section, and in various online stores.

Unbeknownst to most, parents are turning to valerian for its historical use: seizure control.

The Scientific Rationale

The properties and history of valerian root, coupled with its proven sedative effects, have prompted researchers to explore whether it could help mitigate seizure activity. Studies have primarily focused on valerian as a complement to current epilepsy treatments rather than as a replacement, with promising results.

How Does Valerian Help Seizures?

In the roots of the valerian plant is a compound called valerenic acid. It is not fully known exactly how valerian produces its calming effect; however, research has shown that valerenic acid interacts with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA, a neurotransmitter). It is assumed that this interaction is responsible for the power of valerian.

Valerian plant with pink blossoms and roots shown
Credit: iStock | Marina Lohrbach

GABA is important in seizure regulation because it regulates brain activity and establishes relaxation. More specifically, “GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it tells our nerves (and remember, the brain is a huge mass of nerves) to settle down, not to fire off needlessly,” explains pediatrician and functional medicine physician Julie A. Buckley, MD, IFMCP.

“When a seizure happens, it’s essentially a nonsensical massive firing of neurons in a completely unruly way. Most seizure medications act to reduce firing –– in essence, making our nerves (neurons), less ‘ticklish’. GABA makes neurons less ticklish, and substances like valerian root seem to increase the amount of GABA present to settle our neurons down.” Since valerian works by blocking the breakdown of GABA, it increases the level of GABA in the brain.

In the case of neurological disorders, decreased GABA levels are associated with neurological conditions, mental health, and other medical conditions. This decreased GABA could very well contribute to the occurrence and/or severity of seizures. Thus, enhancing the effects of GABA may mitigate seizures.

Indeed, scientists have used this understanding of how GABA works to develop many of the antiseizure medications used today. “There are over 30 antiseizure medications (ASMs), many of which control seizures via a GABA mechanism,” says Rusty Novotny, MD, Director of the Seattle Children’s Hospital Epilepsy Program. “Enhancement of the GABA neurotransmitter system is known to provide seizure control.” 

Looking at pharmaceutical seizure medications, benzodiazepines—alongside sleep aids—work by increasing GABA. This is true for a commonly prescribed epilepsy benzodiazepine drug called clobazam, for example.

What is valproic acid?

One pharmaceutical medication that seems to be mentioned less often than benzodiazepines is sodium valproate. Sodium valproate is the salt form of valproic acid, also medically prescribed for epilepsy. As with benzodiazepines, valproic acid works by increasing GABA; it is assumed that this increase in GABA stabilizes electrical activity in the brain and prevents or mitigates seizures or their severity. Some patients experience seizure control with sodium valproate, without the side effects attributed to benzodiazepines. 

Valproic acid was first synthesized in 1882 by Belgian scientist Dr. Pierre Eymard. Decades later, his relative, Dr. Michel Eymard, alongside a team of researchers, was studying valeric acid from valerian root and soon came to understand that valproic acid from valerian enhances GABA in the same way.

Later, in 1963, valproic acid was first used to treat epilepsy, with success. By 1967, it was marketed by Abbott Laboratories under the name Depakene in the U.S. In time, the salt form, sodium valproate, was created to increase bioavailability and ease of administration. AbbVie Inc., a spin-off of Abbott, markets sodium valproate under the name Depakote.

Sodium valproate is also prescribed to treat migraines. This is usually good news for children with epilepsy, given headaches and migraines are common.

Rare side effects are potential consequences for the kidneys or liver. In very rare cases, pancreatitis has been reported, though there isn’t clear research demonstrating the connection to the medication. Some neurologists recommend regularly monitoring these organs, while others don’t think it’s necessary.

To avoid potential complications, blood checks every 3–4 months can ensure the health of these organs. If your child becomes unusually ill, ensure they’re seen immediately and the attending physicians are aware of the possible link between kidney/liver issues and valproic acid so that those organs are monitored.

Valerian Use for Seizure Control

*Always consult your doctor before adding any supplement to your child’s regime.*

Valerenic acid, along with other beneficial compounds found in valerian root, is extracted to create a tincture and then sold as simply “valerian” or “valerian root.” There are two extraction processes, one using alcohol (ethanol) and one using glycerin (referred to as an aqueous extraction). While most herbalists will say the alcohol extraction process produces more effective tinctures, research has yet to prove this specifically for valerian. Tinctures using the alcohol-based extraction process result in tinctures with alcohol content, and it is not recommended that children take tinctures containing alcohol. Always make sure to check the label to ensure you are purchasing an alcohol-free version of valerian, such as this one by Herb Pharma.

Valerian is also available in dried form, but the variances in the bioavailability of dried herbs are too wide for these capsules to be recommended.

Adding valerian to your child’s regimen may decrease the severity and/or occurrence of seizures, when paired with other seizure medications. It may also promote restful sleep and may treat migraines, which may help lead to seizure control. Dr. Navalny says he’s seen some of these sleep benefits first-hand.  Though he doesn’t prescribe valerian root supplementation in his own practice, he says he does work with naturopaths and other providers who do. “I have had children use valerian root supplements to assist with sleep as prescribed by another provider. Sleep is important when it comes to epilepsy and seizures. If the supplement improves a person’s sleep, it may also improve seizure control.”

While many plants and herbs may have negative side effects, to date, there are no known negative side effects of valerian for short-term or continued use.

Dosage

*Always consult your doctor before adding any supplement to your child’s regime.*

Dosage of valerian root for children has not been studied. In adults, recommended one-time dosing has ranged from 450mg to 900mg, at night, to treat insomnia. It has been found that regular daily use promotes better sleep quality than one-time use. 

It is hypothesized that valerian is best broken into two or three doses per day to help mitigate seizures. However, this schedule may not be recommended for active individuals, as valerian’s sedative effects could cause drowsiness that could interfere with daily activities. As with any supplement, most advice recommends beginning slowly and increasing the dosage over time.

Dr. Buckley echoes this advice. “In functional medicine, we always say to start low and slow, using the lowest dose that can be effective,” she says. “I would start with a very small amount and make sure it’s well tolerated. The dose can be gradually increased if it is well tolerated, and sometimes, a practitioner will be willing to reduce other medications.” 

While valerian is generally considered safe, like any supplement or drug, it could interfere with other medications. “It’s important to remember that valerian—because it works with GABA—will enhance the effect of some seizure meds,” Dr. Buckley says. “And it definitely will enhance the effect of benzodiazepines, like Valium and Onfi and CBD.”

Therefore, it is always recommended that drugs or supplements be added to a regimen one at a time and that the effects be monitored closely.

When to avoid valerian root supplementation for epilepsy

Dr. Navalny says that in limited clinical circumstances, valerian root supplementation may provide seizure relief. However, there are several caveats.

First, you should only consider this approach if your “child has an epilepsy syndrome where their seizure type (of which there are over 40) is known to respond to antiseizure medications that have a GABA mechanism of action.” 

Second, your child “should not have a type of seizure or epilepsy syndrome that puts them at risk for severe medical complications, such as status epilepticus or Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP).”

Third, Dr. Navalny suggests following the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) guidelines for valerian root supplementation. Specifically, “children younger than three years old should not take valerian, because possible risks to children of this age have not been evaluated.”

Valerian root supplementation – Important Considerations

Although some children with epilepsy do benefit from valerian root supplementation, this treatment approach presents unique obstacles.

“The challenges with valerian root supplements and medicinal herbs, like cannabidiol (CBD) products, are the issues of content and components of the various preparations,” Dr. Navalny says. “How accurate and consistent are the formulations regarding the amount of valerenic acid? Are there other components that may cause other problems, such as allergic reactions or other adverse effects? Can the valerian root supplement interact with other medications, including ASMs that the patient is receiving?”

It’s crucial to consider all of these questions before moving forward. Likewise, Dr. Buckley says it’s essential to get your child’s doctors and care team involved. If you’re considering valerian root supplementation, she recommends approaching your epileptologist or neurologist and saying, “I would like to try this. I know it’s not a routine medication, but I think maybe it would allow us to reduce the dose of other medications. Can you take a look and let me know what you think?”

“Most practitioners know that you are going to try things anyway, and it’s a lot easier if they know you are trying it,” she adds. “Since most of them are unfamiliar with supplements, it would also be helpful if you have a proposed way of introducing it.”

The bottom line

Valerian root supplementation offers promise for seizure mitigation, but “its use should be limited to children with forms of epilepsy and seizures that are low risk,” Dr. Navalny says. “There are several current antiseizure medications that work via the same mechanism of action that have undergone rigorous clinical trials that provide evidence for their use.” Dr. Navalny stresses that when research evidence is lacking, which is for valerian root supplementation in children with epilepsy, it’s best to go with more trusted options.


References and Further Reading

Legal Disclosure:
Valerian root has yet to be clinically studied as a primary treatment for epilepsy. In using it as a complement to your child’s treatments, as with any complementary approach, exercise caution, seek medical advice, and be well informed. The content found on rareparenting.com is not intended to diagnose any disease or disorder, endorse or recommend any specific treatment, or act as a substitution for medical advice. The user of rareparenting.com should not use this information without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. For more info, please review our Terms & Conditions.

Disclosure: Occasionally, we include links to recommended products. When you purchase a product through a link, we may earn a small percentage of the sale, at no cost to you. These sales contribute to the operation of our site, and help to keep content free to read.

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