Valerian essential oil is obtained by steam distilling the roots and rhizomes of the perennial herb Valeriana officinalis. The resulting essential oil is an amber-brown that gets darker with age. It is often grown and distilled for its essence in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia and China. The plant is classified as one of the approximately 200 species in the Valerianaceae family and found throughout temperate parts of Europe and Northern Asia. Although it appreciates damp soil, it produces more volatile oil and is shown to be more “medicinal” when it is not pampered; as is the case with many volatile oil producing plants.
A perennial, valerian takes time to become established—reminding us that patience is often needed for healing to occur. It grows from a small rhizome with fibrous roots and propagates by stolons (a.k.a., daughter plants—similar to the way strawberries propagate) and seeds. Once established, one stem arises from each rhizome, which attains a towering height of 3 to 5 feet. Each round, grooved and hollow stem supports whitish to pink-tinged flowers that may bloom from June to September.
Valerian is noted for its particular odiferous and fetid aroma no matter which part of the plant is crushed or bruised. As such, it was knowns as “phu” in the times of Dioscorides and Galen to convey its curiously “offending” aroma. Another common name for the plant is “all heal.” There are several citations extolling the medicinal properties of the plant from preparations made via water or solvent (alcohol) extraction.
Speaking of aromas, valerian is related to the ancient and revered spikenards (Nardostachys jatamansi/Valeriana jatamansi and Nardostachys grandiflora) of the East. In the Middle Ages, valerian root was not only considered a medicine but also a spice and perfume—as was spikenard. According to Grieve1, it was customary to have the roots lying around clothing as an aromatic perfume. Interestingly, this plant is very attractive to cats and rats and supposedly what the Pied Piper rubbed on himself to lure the rats down to the river and their demise2.
This revered herb seduced the likes of Dioscorides, Galen, Culpeper and others. Although it may assist with many ailments, it is most noticeably a potent nervine. Its seductive quality is curious; what comes across as decay and animalistic evolves into something pleasantly comforting, and musky. It is quite hard to pull away from it. Valerian beckons you with gentle arms to the realm of deep relaxation and opens doors to peace and dreams.
From an aromatherapy perspective valerian is antispasmodic, bactericidal, carminative, and nervine-sedative. It shines when the nervous system is on over-drive and is wearing on the mind and body. As the oil is from an aromatic plant, we can look at indications from an herbalists perspective as well, where according to Hoffmann3, “this herb may be safely used for any situation in which tension and anxiety cause problems, either psychological or physical.”
I have found valerian essential oil to be incredibly heart-centering. The molecules gently and swiftly move down my throat and thorax where I easefully breathe into the heart and literally feel its concentrated pulse. It’s wild. The center of centering. This is valerian pointedly exposing the self and relatedness to others through the heart.
Following are core indications to consider regarding Valerian essential oil:
|Circulatory||High blood pressure (hypotensive)|
|Digestive||Colic, nervous indigestion|
|Musculoskeletal||Cramp/spasm, aches & pains|
|Nervous4||Insomnia, restlessness, migraine, tension|
|Emotional||Anxiety, nervous tension, relaxing, stabilizing, supportive, grounding|
As with most plants: the chemical composition of Valeriana officinalis may vary depending on where it grows. Overall, it is well represented by the functional groups: esters (Bornyl acetate; upwards of 34%), ketones (Valeranone), alcohols (Valerianol) and aldehydes (Valeranal). It is incredibly complex—having several components in small amounts—possibly upwards of 50 components.
Is Valerian Essential Oil Safe?
Yes, Valerian essential oil is generally regarded as safe (GRAS) when used therapeutically via olfactory, respiratory and dermal routes, though it may be sensitizing if used for long periods of time.
Blending with Valerian Essential Oil:
Patience brings great reward when working with Valerian. When released from the bottle it first comes out wet with a soft bite and a touch of acridity, as if a cousin of artisanal vinegar. A deceptively sweet smell of decaying mulch follows—damp brown bark and dried grass with notes of a new band-aid. Moldering organic matter is the back-bone; balsamic aromas of musky-dry-wood pervade the dry-down. It is warm and comforting whilst animalistic and musky and quite reminiscent of the sensual Santa Maria Novella’s “Patchouli” after it has evaporated off the skin. There is a constancy about valerian—a steady partner who easefully walks beside you. Yet it is strong enough to pull you to the soul-side, the raw side of you. Which may at first be uncomfortable but eventually you may ease into yourself just as you may ease into the oil. Contentment.
It is highly recommended to blend Valerian essential oil in low doses. If used too much, in large doses, it may become stupefying and overpowering. As with all aromatherapy: less is indeed more.
Valerian essential oil blends well with clarifying oils such as Frankincense (Boswellia sacra), Black pepper (Piper nigrum), the Conifers (e.g., Pinus sylvestris, P. edulis, Tsuga canadensis), Citrus family (peel and leaf) (Citrus hystrix, C. limon) and Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). It also gets along quite nicely with other nervines such as: Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana), Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin), Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi), Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanoides) and the “woods” (Cedrus atlantica, Cedrus deodara, Santalum album).
Creating Wellness Products with Valerian
Soporific Slumber Synergy
Invite lucidity and centering into a calming sleep blend by incorporating the deep, grounding oils of valerian, spikenard and hops. I feel these oils offer a mature palate and balance the sweet chamomiles and lavenders.
Blend the essential oils listed below into a bottle large enough to fit 120 drops of oil. Need some ideas? Drop 1 drop of the blend onto a tissue or cotton ball and put it on your pillow. Add 20 drops to an aromatic spritzer. Make a slumber oil by adding 20 drops of synergy to a fixed oil of your choice (e.g., fill a one-ounce bottle with jojoba oil and add 20 drops of the synergy). Use nightly when experiencing insomnia or a mind that “just won’t shut off.”
- 5 to 105 drops Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
- 12 drops Cape chamomile (Eriocephalus punctulatus)
- 15 drops Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi)
- 20 drops Hops (Humulus lupus)
- 65 drops Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Easeful Bath and Salve Plan
Embrace the seemingly paradoxical nature of many of the aromatics: elevating yet relaxing. Many of the below essential oils help soothe pain and inflammation whilst being nervine. The following essential oils are warming overall and may feel wonderful on achy spots as the days get shorter and the nights get cooler. Consider soaking in a tub and applying a salve containing the below synergy to sore muscles, tissues and joints directly after. (This blend is at 5% dilution for a 2 ounce container.)
- 5 drops Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
- 10 drops Clary sage (Salvia sclarea)
- 10 drops Sweet marjoram (Origanum marjorana)
- 15 drops Black pepper (Piper nigrum)
- 20 drops Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
Click here for information on salve making.
Following are guidelines for the “perfect bath”:
- Draw a bath where the water is 100°-110° F
- Ensure there is enough water in the tub so a full-body immersion is possible; where the water is up to your neck and covering your heart.
- 1-2 cups Magnesium Chloride or Magnesium Sulfate
- 1-2 cups Dead Sea Salt
- EOs of your choice put into a dispersing agent6 (5-10 drops of essential oil are more than enough for a bath)
- Spend 15-20 Minutes soaking in the tub.
- Follow-up your bath with an aromatic salve or aloe rub; applying to sore spots.
Valerian. Wow. Many people may stay away from this and spikenard because of their unique aromas. Over the years I have challenged myself and many others to consider the “like” and “dislike” way of experiencing life. From a young age I remember being flummoxed when asked to name my “favorite” ice cream, color or music genre. Why make such tight declarations? Why not “like” (i.e., appreciate) all of them? If you can sit with valerian and appreciate its “suchness,” it is possible to feel what the oil communicates and understand it for what it is. Aromatics’ qualities are such that they bridge the mind and body—and “liking” or “loving” an aromatic is vital to incorporating it into practice. Yet if we get past rigid dualities such as “like” vs. “dislike,” so many more doors open up to us. There are so many friends to get to know.
3Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester: Healing Arts Press; 2003: 592.
4According to Schnaubelt, the sedative actions of valerian have led to further studying its effects on GABA receptors in the brain. Schnaubelt, Kurt. Medical Aromatherapy: Healing with Essential oils. Berkley: Frog Books; 1999: 99.
5Tip: start with 5 to 6 drops of valerian then add more after smelling the blend 2 to 3 days later.
6*Essential oils are lipophilic by nature, meaning they are not readily soluble in water. Some essential oils, like peppermint, may be dermal and mucus membrane irritants. For safety purposes, it is best to disperse and solubilize EOs in fatty/lipid substances like a nut/seed oil, powdered or liquid milk (coconut milk is a lovely option), honey or into bath salts. TIP: Always put your EOs into the carrier mixture FIRST and then stir the mixture around in the bath water as you go into the bath.