Herbal Sedatives: Valerian & Kava kava

Select herbs available in oral supplements may be useful as sedatives in individuals with RA who have trouble sleeping because of joint symptoms.

As with any supplement, whether vitamins, minerals, herbal or chemical products, consult with your doctor before you start taking an herbal supplement. There may be health risks associated with use of any supplement, including interactions with medications that you are taking, and negative effects associated with health conditions you may have. Your doctor is in the best position to determine the proper and safe dosage for any supplement.



The herbal supplement valerian is made from the roots of a perennial flowering plant and has been used for medicinal purposes for more than 1,000 years. Valerian is used for the symptomatic treatment of insomnia. Claims that it is also effective in mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, have not been substantiated. Results from studies suggest that Valerian may be more effective if used on an ongoing basis as opposed to a single dose. For insomnia, valerian has traditionally been given as an infusion (in the form of a tea), with 1.5 to 3 grams of root steeped in 150 ml boiling water for 5-10 minutes, taken 30 to 60 minutes before bed. It may also be taken in capsule form (powdered), with dosages ranging from 300 to 1,800 mg (also taken 30 to 60 minutes before bed).1

Results from studies in which valerian was given for up to 6 weeks suggest that the supplement is safe and well tolerated. There were low rates of side effects, including dizziness, headache, or hangover, and that given at recommended doses, it had minimal effect on coordination, reaction time, and concentrations, compared with benzodiazepines.1


Kava kava

Kava kava is an herbal treatment taken from the root of the kava plant (Piper methysticum) that is used to treat anxiety. A beverage made from the kava root has been used for social and ceremonial purposed for centuries by various cultures in the South Pacific (Fiji, Futuna, Somoa). Kava kava works in a similar manner to benzodiazepines, which are indicated for the treatment of anxiety, by targeting a receptor in the brain called the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor. When this receptor is stimulated, it produces a sedative effect. A number of studies have shown kava kava to be effective in treating mild anxiety. Improvements in anxiety symptoms were observed after 1 to 2 doses, with progressive improvement in symptoms occurring over a period of 1 to 4 weeks. Kava has also been studied as a treatment for insomnia.2

Kava kava has been associated with liver toxicity that can cause liver damage and even death. This safety issue has resulted in kava kava being banned in Canada and Europe.2

Written by: Jonathan Simmons | Last reviewed: September 2013.
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