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 being 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 (we like this one on Amazon).
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, versus as a replacement. To date, studies have shown 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, it has been proven that Valerenic acid interacts with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA, a neurotransmitter). It is assumed that this interaction is responsible for the power of valerian.
GABA is important in seizure regulation because it regulates brain activity and establishes relaxation. If you imagine a link between a person having a seizure and a person with increased anxiety, what you’ll find is that both people have increased electrical activity (increased neuronal activity, or activity of the neurons) alongside increased excitatory signals. GABA works by regulating, or calming, this activity. You’ll find all sorts of anxiety supplements in your local pharmacy, many of which include GABA.
Valerian works by blocking the breakdown of GABA, thereby increasing the level of GABA in the brain. It is therefore supposed that seizures, anxiety, and insomnia all exhibit the breakdown of GABA, or decreased levels of GABA. Interestingly enough, this has yet to be studied and understood fully.
In the case of rare disorders, it is quite possible that genetic mutations leading to rare disorders also may lead to the breakdown, or otherwise decrease, of GABA. This decreased GABA could very well contribute to the occurrence and/or severity of seizures. Thus, enhancing the effects of GABA may be the answer to mitigating seizures.
Looking at pharmaceutical medicines, benzodiazepines — alongside sleep aids — work by increasing GABA. This is true for a common benzodiazepine prescribed for seizures called clobazam, with a brand name Onfi, manufactured by Lundbeck.
One drug 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. Many patients have noted great results with sodium valproate, without the side effects attributed to benzodiazepines.
Interestingly enough, 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 in order 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 very interesting for children with epilepsy and/or rare disorders, as headaches and migraines are common symptoms.
Rare side effects worth mentioning are potential effects on the kidneys or liver. In very rare cases, pancreatitis has been reported. Neurologists seem to disagree on the matter of whether monitoring is necessary, given the rarity. Further, there also seems to be a disagreement on whether pancreatitis is directly related to the use of valproic acid. However, if you are of the “better safe than sorry” mindset, it’s important to do blood checks every 3–4 months to ensure the health of these organs. And, as always, if your child becomes unusually ill, ensure he is seen immediately and the attending physicians are aware of the possible link between kidney/liver issues and valproic acid, as many are not.
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 the one we like, available here.
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 regime may decrease the severity and/or occurrence of seizures. Furthermore, it may promote restful sleep and may treat migraines. 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 in 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 children, teens, or adults, 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.
While valerian is generally considered safe, like any supplement or drug it could interfere with other medications. It is always recommended that drugs or supplements are added to a regime one at a time, and effects are monitored closely.
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