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How valerian and hops can help you de-stress, relax, and sleep better.
Whenever I ask my patients, audience members, peeps on social media, or people I just run into if they are taking supplements, they all say a resounding YES! When I ask which ones they take for sleep I get a million different responses. Often, they will ask me: “What do you think I should be taking?” In this article, I’ll discuss what is probably the most well researched herbal supplement for sleep: valerian. I’m going to talk about hops as well, because there are several studies that have looked at the effectiveness of valerian and hops in combination with each other.
Many people who seek natural remedies for sleep issues may be familiar with valerian, since it is an herb that’s been used for centuries as a remedy for anxiety and nervousness. Hops can also help with anxiety and sleep (YES, I am talking about the hops in beer!). These two herbs are especially effective when they’re used together. Let’s take a closer look at valerian and hops and explore how these herbs can enhance relaxation, calmness, and sleep, as well as other health conditions.
What are valerian and hops?
The valerian herb used for sleep and other medicinal purposes comes from the perennial plant, Valeriana officinalis. It’s actually the root of the valerian plant that is harvested for medicinal use. Native to parts of Asia and Europe, valerian has an ancient history as a medicine that stretches back more than 1,000 years. Historically, valerian has been used to treat difficulty sleeping as well as restlessness, nervousness, and anxiety.
Valerian has a very strong odor that many people (myself included) find unpleasant. Look for valerian in pill form or in a tincture, to avoid this stinky smell.
Valerian is often used in combination with other herbs that have calming effects. To help sleep problems, valerian is frequently paired with hops. Hops is the plant that is best known as an ingredient in beer. Like valerian, hops also been used for hundreds of years as an herbal medicine to treat sleep problems as well as anxiety, irritability, excitability, and restlessness.
How do valerian and hops work?
Valerian primarily functions as an anxiolytic. Anxiolytics relieve anxiety and have calming, sedative effects. How does valerian lower anxiety and promote relaxation? One way, it appears, is by increasing levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain. GABA is a chemical that our brains make naturally. GABA is what’s known as an “inhibitory neurotransmitter”—it quiets the activity of the neurons of the central nervous system, which helps lower anxiety and boost feelings of relaxation and calm. GABA is an important neurochemical for sleep. Healthy levels of GABA promote and protect sound and restful sleep, and help ensure we spend the right amount of time in slow-wave sleep and REM sleep, the two deepest and most mentally and physically restorative sleep stages.
Hops also works to enhance GABA levels in the brain. Research also indicates that the sedative effects of hops may come from its ability to lower body temperature. Lowering body temperature helps to bring about drowsiness and is an important part of the body’s sleep process.
Scientists continue to study how valerian and hops function in the body, helping us to learn about other ways these herbs may help sleep, mood, and other conditions.
Benefits of valerian and hops
For sleep and sleep problems
Valerian is among the best-studied herbs for sleep and sleep problems. At least a dozen or more scientific studies have found valerian—used on its own or with hops—helps to improve sleep. Research shows that valerian can help people fall asleep more quickly, improve the quality of sleep, and increase amounts of nightly sleep. Valerian can also help ease the symptoms of insomnia, which are:
• Difficulty falling asleep
• Trouble staying asleep
• Waking very early
• Waking feeling unrefreshed
Valerian may help improve sleep in women undergoing menopause. It also can help improve symptoms of restless leg syndrome, and reduce the sleep difficulties associated with RLS.
Like valerian, hops has a long history of being used to help improve sleep. Scientific research shows that hops, with its natural sedative effects, can increase sleep time. Hops also helps to lower body temperature—falling core body temperature is one important physiological step toward sleep. Hops has also been shown to reinforce the body’s daily bio rhythms of rest and activity. Hops appears to work most effectively for sleep when it is used in conjunction with valerian.
To reduce stress and lower anxiety
Scientific study has demonstrated that both valerian and hops can help alleviate restlessness and anxiety. Research shows valerian can be effective in helping to reduce stress, lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Studies also show hops can be effective in reducing stress and anxiety.
Hops, high cholesterol and high blood sugar
Hops contains flavonoids which have potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-bacterial properties. A flavonoid in hops has also been found to help reduce weight gain, lower elevated cholesterol and reduce high blood sugar. These conditions all contribute to what’s known as metabolic syndrome, which significantly increases a person’s risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Hops and cancer
Hops flavonoids also have anti-cancer properties. Recent research shows that hops may provide promising preventive therapy for some cancers. Studies have found that hops may spur the ability to protect against some forms of cancer, including breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers.
Other uses for valerian and hops
With their calming, sedative, healing properties and low risks for side effects, valerian and hops are being studied and used to help other conditions, beyond sleep and stress or anxiety. Preliminary research shows valerian may be useful for:
• Menstrual symptoms
• Menopausal symptoms other than sleep problems
• Muscle and joint pain
• Stomach pain or upset
• Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
• Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
Preliminary research shows hops may be useful for:
• Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
• Indigestion and intestinal cramping
• Pain and inflammation, for arthritis and other conditions
• Menopausal symptoms
Valerian and hops: what to know
Always consult your doctor before you begin taking a supplement or make any changes to your existing medication and supplement routine. This is not medical advice, but it is information you can use as a conversation-starter with your physician at your next appointment.
Valerian and hops dosing
The following doses are based on amounts that have been investigated in scientific studies. In general, it is recommended that users begin with the smallest suggested dose, and gradually increase until it has an effect.
For sleep, restlessness and anxiety:
Valerian on its own: 400-900mg
Valerian in combination with hops: 187-250mg valerian, 42-60mg hops. Talk with your doctor about the right combination for your individual needs.
Hops on its own: 300-500mg (Keep in mind, research suggests that hops may be more effective when used in combination with valerian.)
Possible side effects of valerian and hops
Side effects: valerian
Valerian is generally well tolerated by healthy adults. There are side effects that can occur when taking valerian, including:
• Restlessness or uneasiness
• Morning drowsiness, particularly if taking a higher dose
• Vivid dreams
Because of its sedating effects, it is recommended that people not drive or operate dangerous machinery after taking valerian.
People with the following conditions should consult with a physician before using a valerian supplement:
• Pregnancy or breast feeding
• Surgery patients (Valerian can interact with anesthesia and other medications used in surgery. It is recommended that people stop taking valerian a minimum of two weeks before scheduled surgery.)
Side effects: hops
Hops is generally well tolerated by healthy adults.
People with the following conditions should consult with a physician before using a hops supplement:
• Pregnancy and breast feeding
• Depression (Hops may exacerbate depression. It’s recommended that people with depression not use hops.)
• Hormone-sensitive conditions, including hormone-sensitive cancers
• Surgery patients (Hops can interact with anesthesia and other medications used in surgery. It is recommended that people stop taking hops a minimum of two weeks before scheduled surgery.)
Valerian and hops interactions
The following medications and other supplements may interact with valerian. Effects may include increasing or decreasing sleepiness and drowsiness, interfering with the effectiveness of the medications or supplements, and interfering with the condition that is being treated by the medication or supplement. These are lists of commonly used medications and supplements that have scientifically identified interactions with valerian and hops. People who take these or any other medications and supplements should consult with a physician before beginning to use valerian and hops as supplements.
Both valerian and hops interact with alcohol. Alcohol can bring about drowsiness. Excessive sleepiness may occur when alcohol is used in combination with valerian or hops.
Interactions with medications: valerian
• Anti-anxiety medicines
• Medications altered or broken down by the liver
Interactions with other supplements: valerian
Valerian used in combination with other herbs that function as sedatives may lead to excessive sleepiness, and may also increase side effects of valerian. Some of these herbs include:
• California poppy
• Jamaican dogwood
• St. John’s wort
Interactions with medications: hops
• Medications broken down or altered by the liver
Interactions with other supplements: hops
Hops used in combination with other herbs that function as sedatives may lead to excessive sleepiness, and may also increase side effects of hops. Some of these herbs include:
• California poppy
• Jamaican dogwood
• St. John’s wort
• Yerba mansa
How valerian and hops can work with your chronotype
All four chronotypes—Lions, Bears, Wolves, and Dolphins—may benefit from using valerian on its own or with hops to relax and feel less anxious and to sleep better. Dolphins, in particular, may find these herbs useful. Dolphins are high-energy types, and their energy tends to be high at night. Dolphins often also have a tough time keeping anxiety levels in check. Insomnia is commonplace for Dolphins—it’s a sleep problem that often goes hand in hand with this chronotype. The anti-anxiety and sedative effects of valerian—and its frequent partner, hops—may be especially helpful to this wired-at-night, restless-sleeping chronotype.
Whether you’re a tightly-wound Dolphin or another chronotype that sometimes struggles with sleep problems, especially in conjunction with stress or anxiety, valerian and hops may offer help and relief. These herbs may have been in use for centuries, but we’re still learning about just how effective and potent they may be in improving sleep and health.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
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