Well-Protected Cat Naps 

I've been in a wheelchair since an accident in 1998. Of the many things I deal with are violent spasms in my legs, especially when I'm being moved from bed into my chair. I've found that valerian root capsules help almost immediately, but I also take them for anxiety and to help me sleep every night. I know they work, but my question is how much is too much?

--Kathy

You seem to have discovered the many medical uses of valerian, but have missed my favorite Wiccan application: protection against lightning. Some occultists sew this plant material into a packet and believe it keeps lightning strikes away. I suppose one could easily demonstrate that no one carrying around a valerian sachet has ever been struck, but I won't be convinced until electrical-storm-defying golfers start stitching the stuff into the crown of their Nike caps.

Valeriana officinalis is a flowering plant that grows, among other places, in the marshy thickets of the English countryside. Its roots have been collected, dried and used for therapeutic purposes since at least the 14th century. The plant itself has had many other names including the optimistic All-Heal and Phu, the latter presumably because the root has a distinctive and repulsive odor almost always compared to dirty socks. Remarkably, it was also used to make perfume in the 1500s, but given the hygiene of the time, that was likely a significant improvement.

A caution to cat-owning gardeners: Though offensive to humans, this smelly stuff's catnip-type affect on felines will result in immediate destruction of your cultivated valerian patch. Rats are said to be attracted in the same way, and valerian is sometimes given credit for the success of the Pied Piper. My own theory involves the coincidental opening of a new perfume factory outside Hamelin.

Valerian is approved for use as a sedative in several places in Europe, which makes it of great interest to the large number of Americans affected by insomnia. Many studies on this herb suffer design flaws such as lack of standard formulations, variations in dosage used, or inadequate numbers of participants. However, good and bad studies alike seem to show that valerian both helps people get to sleep faster and improves quality of sleep. Some of the better trials have also shown that when taken regularly, valerian is much more effective than a single, one-time dose. And, unlike prescription and other non-prescription sleep aids, dependency and rebound restlessness does not seem to occur.

In fact, valerian root has shown promise as a way to wean the addicted off benzodiazepines, the group of sedatives and anti-anxiety medications (like Xanax, Halcion and Valium) most often prescribed for stress-related conditions. This does not mean, of course, that there is no controversy over valerian's usefulness; a new study published in the journal Medicine did not show sleep benefits of this herbal remedy. Smart consumers know to never base conclusions on a single trial, especially in this case since all the participants were chosen over the Internet (of course they're overwrought and sleepless--they're playing online poker). New U.S. government studies are now under way to look at valerian's usefulness in cancer patients, Parkinson's patients and just plain older folks.

The margin of safety of valerian root is pretty wide; there are very few side effects at the recommended levels. Normal dosage as a dietary supplement is 500mg (half a gram) in tablet or capsule form, although 2-3 grams of dried root makes an equivalent cup of foul-smelling tea. It is considered safe to take this amount up to 3 or 4 times a day, but a double dose at bedtime can leave you groggy in the morning. You should not take valerian root at the same time as prescription sedatives or antidepressants, alcohol, or if you are undergoing anesthesia anytime soon. Ironically, upcoming surgery might make anyone an anxious insomniac.

It is also important to note supplements are unregulated, so the printed contents of a given bottle may not be accurate. Consumerlabs.com recently examined 17 valerian products and found almost half of them were either lacking in the potency advertised or failed to contain the herb altogether (leaving you vulnerable, no doubt, to lightning). Be sure to buy products that are labeled "standardized valerian root extract," or check Consumerlabs' Web site for laboratory tested brands.

Kathy, it sounds like valerian root is just the thing for you. But, how much is too much? By not exceeding what I've recommended you're still well into the safety zone. And even if electrical storms are forecast, I still wouldn't increase the dose. On the other hand, if you suddenly find yourself attracting more cats and rats than usual, I'd cut back.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Health-related questions and strident disagreements may be sent to theantidote@edrabin.com (www.edrabin.com).

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