Origin

This is the root of Valeriana officinalis, a European herbaceous perennial from two to four feet high, with branches terminating in clusters of small sweet-scented (lowers. The plant is now cultivated in this country for medical use. The root is collected preferably in the autumn after the decay of the leaves, or early in the spring before they appear.

Properties

The root consists of a small tuberculated head, sending forth numerous long cylindrical fibres or radicles, and bears no inconsiderable resemblance to Virginia snakeroot. The colour of the radicles is externally yellowish or brownish, internally white; that of the powder yellowish-gray. The odour, which in the fresh root is slight, is, in the dried, strong, somewhat aromatic, and highly peculiar. To sonic it is agreeable, to others the reverse. Cats are said to be extremely fond of it, and under its influence to experience a kind of intoxication. The taste is at first sweetish, afterwards bitterish, somewhat acrid, and disagreeable.

Active Principles

The active principles are a peculiar volatile oil, and probably an extractive matter of a sweetish and slightly bitter taste called valerianin. Upon the former depend the stimulant properties of the root; the latter may be slightly tonic. The oil of valerian, being one of the officinal preparations of the root, will be noticed more particularly below.

Effects on the System

Different opinions are held as to the stimulant influence of valerian on the circulation; some believing it to have such an influence, others denying it altogether. I am among those who consider it as in general very moderately stimulant, though its effects in this respect are somewhat uncertain. Upon the stomach it also produces a slightly excitant impression, which, when it is largely taken, often amounts to irritation. Upon the nervous system, however, its action is more decided. This is shown, in the ordinary medicinal doses, rather by its influence in composing nervous disorder, than by any decided disturbance of the nervous functions in health, unless, perhaps, in certain very susceptible persons. But in very large doses, it produces, even in robust individuals, some degree of headache, vertigo, and disturbance of sight and hearing; and in others of a more nervous temperament, may superadd to these effects more or less mental excitement, visual illusion, general agitation, and even involuntary muscular movement. It never, however, causes positive delirium or coma; and is probably incapable, in any quantity, of acting as a poison. It sometimes disturbs the bowels.

Therapeutic Application

We have no proof that valerian was employed by the ancients. Much more efficacy has been ascribed to it by many writers than it is now generally believed to possess. I have never, myself, seen from it anything more than very moderate remedial influences. It was brought into notice by Fabius Columna, a Neapolitan of high birth, who, labouring himself under epilepsy, and searching eagerly in the field of botany for a remedy, thought he had found it in valerian. Many reports have since then been made of its efficiency in that disease; but the credit of curing epilepsy is one which it must share with numerous other substances, not a few of which are much more inert than itself. In this disease, the mental condition of the patient has great influence; and anything which strongly excites his confidence or his hopes, may, for a time, and occasionally does, for a considerable time, suspend the recurrence of the paroxysms. If, in the mean time, the cause which sustained the disease should have ceased, a permanent cure might seem to have been effected by what is in itself wholly useless. Nevertheless, it would not be proper to deny all efficiency to valerian in epilepsy. In some purely functional cases, before the disease had become firmly seated in the habits, if not in the structure of the brain, it may possibly have set it aside; and it may be exhibited, with some hope of benefit, as an adjuvant of more powerful remedies; but no curative effect can be expected from it, unless freely given and long persevered with; and reliance should never be placed upon its exclusive use. To the cure of fixed epilepsy it is quite inadequate.

The morbid conditions to which valerian is most appropriate are the milder forms of hysteria and hypochondriasis, in which the indication is to obviate depression of spirits, or to control the slighter nervous irregularities, which, in countless diversity, are springing up in the course of the former disease. Even under such circumstances, it is probably more used as an adjuvant to other remedies intended to make a permanent and curative impression than exclusively for its own effects. Thus, in a case of chlorosis, while the disease is pursuing a regular march towards health, under the use of the chalybeates and a good diet, valerian may sometimes be employed advantageously to quiet palpitations, relieve unpleasant cerebral sensations, or general uneasiness, and obviate irregular muscular movements of various kinds.

Not unfrequently, dyspepsia is accompanied with much nervous discomposure, especially in women, and in those, too, who have shown no tendency to hysteria. Valerian may often be usefully associated, in such cases, with the bitter tonics, laxatives, etc., which may be employed to meet more important indications. The same may be said of its use in other diseases of depression or debility, in which nervous disorder is a mere attendant phenomenon, having no important signification, but nevertheless often very annoying to the patient. Its application to the relief of wakefulness, restlessness, general uneasiness, muscular tremors, etc., complicating low febrile diseases, would come into this category; though the same ends may generally be better attained by the use of Hoffmann's anodyne, sweet spirit of nitre, camphor water, etc.. than by valerian. Dr. D. Leasure, of New Castle, Pennsylvania, speaks very favourably of oil of valerian, in typhoid fever, alternated with oil of turpentine. (Transact. of the Med. Soc. of the State of Pa., 1856, p. 102).

In the treatment of hemicrania, it has enjoyed some reputation in connection with Peruvian bark or sulphate of quinia. I have repeatedly, in former times, seen this very troublesome affection yield, in two or three days, to an ounce or two of bark taken daily, in divided doses, in a pint or two of infusion of valerian. The first effect was generally somewhat to augment the pain; but it ceased at the end of the time specified. On making similar attempts more recently, with sulphate of quinia and oil of valerian,I have not been in an equal degree successful. It is not impossible that the oppression of stomach, produced by the bark in powder, may have had something to do with the result.

M. Rayer has found valerian efficacious in a case of excessive thirst in a boy, attended with a copious discharge of light-coloured, limpid, inodorous, and tastless urine. The quantity of liquid drank and discharged was enormous. The affection was looked on as nervous, and yielded in about a month to the powder of valerian, employed under this view of its nature.

Administration

Valerian is most effectively given in the form of powder, which should be preferred when a strong impression is desired. The dose is from thirty to ninety grains three or four times a day, and may be increased, if thought desirable, so that an ounce may be taken in twenty-four hours; the quantity being of course diminished if unpleasant cerebral phenomena should occur.

The Infusion (Infusum Valerianae, U. S., Br.) is officinal, and is directed to be made in the proportion of half an ounce to a pint of boiling water. The medicine is said to be less apt to irritate the bowels in this form, than in that of powder. The dose is two fluidounces.

There is also an officinal Tincture (Tinctura Valerianae, V. S., Br.), which has the virtues of the medicine, but unfortunately also the stimulant properties of alcohol, which, except under rare circumstances, should forbid its use. The danger of its abuse, when carelessly prescribed for slight nervous affections, is too obvious to require that more should be said to put the young practitioner on his guard. The dose of it is one or two fluidrachms.

The Ammoniated Tincture (Tinctura Valerianae Ammoniata, U.S., Br.) is a much more effective preparation, being made with aromatic spirit of ammonia instead of diluted alcohol. The dose is from thirty minims to a fluidrachm, which should be largely diluted. It is especially indicated in cases of hysteric spasm of the stomach, or troublesome flatulence having the same origin.

An Alcoholic Extract (Extractum Valerianae Alcoholicum, U. S.) is directed in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia, but, though prepared with every precaution to avoid the volatilization of the active principles of the root, is scarcely, I think, an eligible preparation; yet it has the advantage that it may be given in the pilular form. The dose is from ten to thirty grains.

The Fluid Extract of Valerian (Extractum Valerianae Fluidum, U. S.), which is peculiar to the U. S. Pharmacopoeia, is an elegant preparation, concentrating the virtues of the medicine in a small bulk, convenient for administration. The dose is about a fluidrachm.

The Volatile Oil (Oleum Valerianae, U. S.), which is supposed to have all the virtues of valerian as a nervous stimulant, is now much used as a substitute. It is obtained from the root by distillation with water. As first procured, it is of a pale-green colour, with a pungent odour of valerian, and a somewhat aromatic taste. By exposure, however, it becomes yellow and viscid, in consequence of the absorption of oxygen. Much importance has recently been attached to the fact, that this oil contains, associated with it, a peculiar volatile acid denominated valerianic acid, which may be separated by a chemical process. This acid is a colourless volatile liquid, having a very offensive odour, recalling that of valerian, yet quite different, and a sour disagreeable taste. It forms salts with the acids, and carries its odour in some degree with it in the combination. It has been supposed to be one of the active principles of valerian, if not the most active; but, when it is considered that, if it exist at all in valerian uncombined, it cannot be in any considerable proportion, this idea must be abandoned. It is the result of the oxidation of one of the two oils which conjointly constitute the oil of valerian, and may be much increased by the reagency of an alkali, which disposes to its formation, and then combines with it. The dose of the oil is from four to six drops.

Various salts of valerianic acid have been introduced into medicine, under the notion that this acid was the active principle of valerian, and would carry its peculiar virtues with it into the combinations it might form with salifiable bases. Hence the valerianates of iron, of zinc, and of quinia, which have been added to the list of medicinal preparations. Experience has not shown that they possess any peculiar advantages over the other salts of those bases respectively, while their repulsive odour and comparative cost are real objections. Valerianate of ammonia, however, has acquired a reputation which demands for it a particular consideration.