Plants offer a wide variety of medicinal benefits in addition to their nutritional content. The fruits, flowers, leaves and roots of plants contain various phytochemicals, and ancient indigenous peoples discovered that plants could be used to combat numerous health problems. They learned, for example, that valerian root displayed sedative properties and helped with anxiety, insomnia and pain. Valerian root tea -- or, more accurately, herbal infusion -- is the most popular way to enjoy the benefits of the plant, although you should be careful when preparing it so as not to reduce its effectiveness.
Valerian root, also known as Valerian officianalis, is grown in North America, Europe and Asia, and it has a long history of use as an herbal folk remedy. Valerian root was well known in ancient Greece and China, where it was consumed to calm nervousness, reduce stomach upset, relax sore muscles and promote deep sleep, according to "Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica." Traditionally, valerian root was commonly consumed as a hot herbal infusion, but nowadays it is available in the form of extracts, tinctures and pills.
Certain phytochemicals in valerian root stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers relaxation and reduces stress, according to "Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine." Specifically, these plant chemicals interact with a brain chemical called gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, which is involved with regulating anxiety, depression and related moods. Some prescription medications -- Valium, for example -- work in similar fashion. Due to its properties, valerian root is commonly used as a natural sleep aid and an anti-anxiety remedy. Valerian root is not intended to replace anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications, however, so consult with your doctor if you have been diagnosed with these conditions.
Valerian root is sometimes combined with other complementary herbs, such as chamomile, but plant interactions are complex so you should avoid mixing herbs until you become aware of how you react to each one. Like any herb, valerian root tea is best prepared fresh, although drying the root and grinding it into powder is how the vast majority of commercial producers prepare it. An important point with all herbal teas is to not use boiling water because some of the phytochemicals are sensitive to heat and may be destroyed. Consequently, the best way to prepare and drink valerian root tea is with warm water at about 85 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the "PDR for Herbal Medicines." Furthermore, you should steep all herbal infusions for at least 10 minutes, if not for 30 minutes, to ensure that all of the beneficial components are released from the plant and infuse the warm water. Some people find valerian root bitter, so you may want to add honey or some other sweetener when drinking it.
Valerian root tea has a long history of use and is considered safe, although allergic reactions are possible, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Large doses of valerian root tea may lead to headaches or drowsiness, so you shouldn't drink if you are going to be driving or operating machinery. Valerian is not physically addictive, but it may be possible to develop a psychological dependence on it because of its relaxing effects. Consult with your doctor before consuming valerian root.