Valerian against insomnia

Insomnia is a consequence of several kinds of indisposition, from chronic diseases, such as hypertension, hyperthyroidism and hepatic insufficiency, to acute and chronic intoxication and an excessive mental or physical activity. Finally, it can also be caused by severe emotional and affective traumas.The first step the patient has to take is obviously that of following all the hygienic and behavioural rules required by his/her case. If this is not enough, before taking hypnotic medicines, one can try vegetable-based sedatives, which often give extraordinary results.

Where to find it

Valerian blooms in late summer, in wet woods and along streams of mountain areas.The plant can grow as high as 1.5 m; its opposite pinnate leaves are divided into 5/11 pairs of linear and lanceolated segments. Rosy and white flowers form characteristic umbels. The useful part of this plant is its fibrous and long root, which, once dried, emanates a typical penetrating odour.

Healing properties

The late-Latin term valeriana derives from the verb valere, i.e. "to be strong", and it refers to the power this plant had of healing people. This consideration was often surrounded by a magic aura - as it often happened with medieval medical practices: "...nel settimo della luna - a medieval chronicle relates - avanti si levi il sole, vattene ad una pianta d'herba chiamata valeriana quando ha li fiori et tenendola in mano dirai così: in nomine patris quesivi te, in nomine filii inveni te, in nomine spiritus sancti conjuro te, in nomine sanctis trinitatis colligo te; et è bona a quella malattia che tu vuoi".

The famous Sienese physician Andrea Mattioli observed that valerian had strange effects on behaviour, especially on animals. He narrated how cats particularly liked it and were inebriated by it. These phenomena led to the conclusion that valerian someway acted on the nervous system and, soon, someone wanted to try it directly.

Indeed, the history of valerian is linked to the well-known 17th century physician Fabio Colonna who, suffering from epilepsy, wanted to cure himself with a powder obtained from this plant, thus discovering its anti-epileptic properties - unfortunately, he would not benefit from his own discovery, as he died mad shortly after.

In the same period, the renowned Montpellier physician Lazàre Rivière experimented the plant on his patients and came to the conclusion that valerian diminished nervous sensibility and it had an effective healing power as far as the nervous system was concerned. Consequently, it had to be considered a helpful remedy against epilepsy.

In fact, the discovery of the active substance of this plant subsequently confirmed that it actually acted on the nervous system, but it also proved that its abuse caused eyesight dimming and convulse contractions, so pharmacopoeia recommended its use as a mild sedative.

It has always been thought that the active substance responsible for the pharmacological action of valerian was valeric acid, but nowadays we know that it is the result of the joined action of different elements.

by dr. Ernesto Riva

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