Less Than 25% of Valerian Herbal Sleep Supplements Pass Tests For Quality

Long-time readers of this blog know of my admiration for ConsumerLab.com, a leading provider of consumer information and independent evaluations of natural medications (herbs, vitamins and supplements). In fact, I use their findings almost daily in my practice to recommend natural medications to my patients.

In its most recent evaluation of a natural medication, valerian, ConsumerLab found that MOST of the valerian herbal supplements tested contained less of the herb than expected and/or were contaminated with lead.

Valerian is a popular herbal sleep aid used by approximately 6% of the U.S. population. Valerian accounted for $68 million in sales in the U.S. in 2009, up 10% from the prior year, according to Nutrition Business Journal.

Among nine leading and best-selling products selected by ConsumerLab.com for review, only TWO passed testing.

Of the seven that failed, one contained no detectable key valerian compounds and four others had only 26.7% to 82.5% of amounts expected from ingredient listings.

One of these products was found to be contaminated with lead, as were two other products. These results were confirmed in independent laboratories. Lead is a heavy metal that can impair mental functioning and may affect blood pressure. The amounts of lead found in the products (which ranged up to 3.5 mcg of lead per daily serving) are not likely to cause toxicity alone, but it is best to avoid unnecessary lead exposure.

Lead contamination was found to be an issue in products consisting primarily of valerian root powder as opposed to valerian root extract. The extraction process removes heavy metals.

“Valerian may help some people with sleep problems, although the evidence is mixed,” said Tod Cooperman, M.D., President of ConsumerLab.com. “Unfortunately, it appears that many people may not be giving valerian a fair try because the brand they buy lacks the expected ingredient. And some brands unnecessarily increase one’s exposure to lead.”

ConsumerLab.com found similar problems in earlier reviews of valerian supplements in 2001, 2004, and 2006. Dr. Cooperman added, “If you use valerian, it would seem prudent to choose a product that passed ConsumerLab.com’s testing.”

The complete report is available here. The report includes results for ten products. ConsumerLab.com selected nine. One other product was tested at the request of its manufacturer through CL’s Voluntary Certification Program and is included for having passed testing.

Brands included are:

  • A. Vogel (Bioforce),
  • Bluebonnet,
  • CVS,
  • Douglas Laboratories,
  • Genestra (Seroyal),
  • Mason,
  • Nature’s Answer,
  • Shaklee,
  • Solaray, and
  • Solgar.

Another of my favorite Internet-based sites for information on natural medications, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, rates valerian as POSSIBLY EFFECTIVE for insomnia. The Database says:

Most research shows that taking valerian orally reduces the time to sleep onset (sleep latency), and improves subjective sleep quality. The greatest benefit is usually seen in patients using 400-900 mg valerian extract up to 2 hours before bedtime.

Valerian does not relieve insomnia as fast as benzodiazepines. Continuous nightly use for several days to four weeks might be needed for significant effect.

Some research suggests that valerian is not as effective as temazepam (Restoril) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for causing sedation in elderly people.

Valerian is often used in combination with other sedative herbs. Taking a combination product containing valerian extract 187 mg plus hops extract 41.9 mg per tablet, two tablets at bedtime, seems to modestly improve subjective sleep measures including subjective sleep latency compared to placebo after 28 days of treatment; however it was not significantly better than placebo after only 14 days of treatment (15018). A combination of valerian with lemon balm might also improve the quality and quantity of sleep in healthy people.

Valerian also seems to improve the sleep quality of insomniacs who have recently withdrawn from benzodiazepines. After tapering the benzodiazepine over two weeks, 300 mg valerian extract in three divided daily doses might subjectively improve sleep quality.

There is also preliminary clinical research that suggests valerian also might help improve sleep in intellectually impaired children.

Not all evidence is positive. Some evidence suggests that valerian does not significantly improve insomnia compared to placebo.

Valerian does not relieve insomnia as fast as benzodiazepines (6480). Continuous nightly use for several days to four weeks might be needed for significant effect (6249,10209).
Some research suggests that valerian is not as effective as temazepam (Restoril) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for causing sedation in elderly people (10424).
Valerian is often used in combination with other sedative herbs. Taking a combination product containing valerian extract 187 mg plus hops extract 41.9 mg per tablet, two tablets at bedtime, seems to modestly improve subjective sleep measures including subjective sleep latency compared to placebo after 28 days of treatment; however it was not significantly better than placebo after only 14 days of treatment (15018). A combination of valerian with lemon balm might also improve the quality and quantity of sleep in healthy people (10423).
Valerian also seems to improve the sleep quality of insomniacs who have recently withdrawn from benzodiazepines. After tapering the benzodiazepine over two weeks, 300 mg valerian extract in three divided daily doses might subjectively improve sleep quality (8006).
There is also preliminary clinical research that suggests valerian also might help improve sleep in intellectually impaired children (10207).
Not all evidence is positive. Some evidence suggests that valerian does not significantly improve insomnia compared to placebo (15046).

The Natural Medicines Database also rates valerian as POSSIBLY SAFE “when used orally and appropriately, short-term. Clinical studies have reported safe use of valerian for medicinal purposes in over 12,000 patients in trials lasting up to 28 day.” However, “the safety of long-term use is unknown.”

So, for my patients with occasional insomnia, I simply print off the ConsumerLab.com list of valerian products that have passed quality testing and say, “Buy the least expensive one and don’t use it more than a month at a time.”

The three products on the current “approved” list include:

  • Bluebonnet Herbals Valerian Extract (1 vegetable capsule, 1 per day)
  • Shaklee® Gentle Sleep Complex (3 tablets, 3 per day)
  • Solgar® Standardized Valerian Root Extract (1 vegetable capsule, up to 3 per day)
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