Herb of the Month

Valerian smells like dirty socks, but calms

By Rob Hawley is co-owner of Taos Herb Company
Posted 8/8/19

Valerian, Fragrant Valerian Spanish: Valeriana Family: Valerianaceae Genus & Species Valeriana acutiloba, Valeriana arizonica, Valeriana edulis Valerian is one of the best-known medicinal herbs, …

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Herb of the Month

Valerian smells like dirty socks, but calms

Posted

Valerian, Fragrant Valerian

Spanish: Valeriana

Family: Valerianaceae

Genus & Species Valeriana acutiloba, Valeriana arizonica, Valeriana edulis

Valerian is one of the best-known medicinal herbs, and we have three species growing in the mountains here in Northern New Mexico. Valerian has small white to pink flowers in branched clusters and leaves growing from the base of the stalk. The singular identifying characteristic of our alerians is a pair of opposite leaves on the flower stalk that appear to be barbed. In our mountains, we have two species of medicinal valerian, V. acutiloba and V. arizonica, and one species that is edible, named V. edulis.

Valerian is an herb with a variety of uses due to its calming nature, and in fact, the benzodiazepine drug Valium takes its name from valerian due to the long history and well-known properties of valerian as a sedating herb. The roots are the most often used and are useful in promoting sleep and calming jangled nerves, but perhaps valerian is most useful due to its effect of relaxing the smooth muscle of the intestines and uterus when stomach or menstrual cramps are causing discomfort. As effective as Valerian is on smooth muscle cramping, it has little to no effect on striated muscle (skeletal muscle) and for some unknown reason it has a paradoxically stimulating effect on up to 30 percent of people who use it, making it a poor choice for these individuals as a remedy for sleep or sedation.

The plant can be used in the dry form as capsules or tea, but the most effective way to use valerian is in the form of an extract of the fresh plant. As valerian dries, a stinky substance called isovaleric acid forms that smells something like dirty socks. Isovaleric acid, if used everyday, can contribute to depression. For this reason, the fresh form of the plant as liquid extract is the most effective and preferred medicine.

I use the whole fresh plant (of the wild species of Valeriana acutiloba or V. arizonica) harvested in the late spring or early summer

Consult your health-care practitioner about the use of herbs or supplements, especially if you are pregnant, taking prescription medication, or administering herbs to children.

Rob Hawley is co-owner of Taos Herb Company.

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