Tension headaches, also called stress headaches, are the most common type of headache.1 And, with reports that people are feeling more stressed than ever, largely due to COVID-19,2 I only expect the number of people with tension headaches to rise. Fortunately, there are natural solutions, like valerian, that can help.
Previous studies have looked at whether or not valerian could help alleviate migraines, but a 2020 study published in the Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine wanted to see how it fared against tension headaches specifically.3
In the double-blind study, researchers used questionnaires to measure headache severity and how much headaches impacted daily life in 88 participants with tension headaches.
When the questionnaires were complete, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups — an intervention group and a control group. For one month, the intervention group was given 530 mg of valerian root extract daily, while the control group was given 500 mg of breadcrumbs.
After the study period, researchers used the same questionnaires to remeasure headache severity. The participants in the intervention group reported significant reductions in headache severity and headache disability — or how much the headache interfered with regular daily life.
What Causes Tension Headaches?
As the name implies, tension headaches develop when the muscles in your neck and scalp become tense or stay contracted. Different things can trigger a tension headache, but they’re typically brought on by stress. Lack of sleep and poor posture can make tension headaches worse.4
Researchers from a 2015 study in Cephalagia also connected tension headaches with decreased neck and shoulder strength. They compared 60 patients with frequent or chronic tension headaches to 30 healthy controls.
They found that the patients who experienced regular tension headaches had decreased strength in the exterior neck muscles, which cause a reduced cervical/flexion ratio when compared to the healthy subjects. The tension headache group also had decreased muscle strength in the shoulders.5 Other things that can contribute to tension headaches include:6
• Looking down at a computer or cell phone for extended periods of time
• Long drives without breaks
• Clenching your jaw
• Sleeping on your stomach
• Playing video games for an extended period of time
Unlike migraines, which cause a throbbing pain, tension headache pain is usually constant and aching.7 Typically, the pain associated with a tension headache is classified as mild to moderate. Many people describe tension headaches as feeling like they have a tight band or clamp around their head. Other symptoms of tension headaches include:8
- Tense neck and shoulder muscles that are sore to the touch
- Trouble concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
How Valerian Root Can Ease Tension Headaches
Valerian is classified as a sedative herb and an anxiolytic, or compound that helps reduce anxiety. The therapeutic effects of valerian are linked to volatile oils, monoterpenes, valepotriates and sesquiterpenes, specifically valerenic acid.9
In animal studies, valerenic acid has been found to act on gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, receptors by binding to them and producing a GABA-like effect.10 GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps keep a balance between nerve excitation and inhibition.11 When you’re stressed, GABA levels tend to drop.
When GABA levels rise, or when something like valerian binds to GABA receptors and makes your brain and body think GABA levels are increasing, it can help reduce stress and anxiety, alleviating tension headaches that come with it as well.
Other animal studies have found that valerian has a relaxing effect on the skeletal muscle. In a 2018 study in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, researchers gave two groups of mice either a dose of valerian extract or a dose of tetrazepam, a muscle relaxing drug often prescribed for tension headaches and/or back pain.12
Thirty minutes later, they measured muscle strength and muscle function. They found that, when compared to the muscle-relaxing drug, valerian produced a more pronounced decrease in muscle strength without any negative effects on muscle function. In other words, the mice were able to relax their muscles without losing the ability to use them.
Valerian May Help Improve Sleep Too
Valerian is also a natural sleep aid and one of the most commonly used herbal remedies for insomnia, which makes it even more beneficial if your tension headaches keep you up at night.
Studies have shown valerian can help you fall asleep faster, get into a deep sleep faster and improve your overall sleep quality.13 A 2011 study that focused on postmenopausal women found 30% of participants experienced improved sleep quality after taking 530 mg of valerian twice a day for four weeks.14
An earlier study, published in 2001, also found that people who are regularly kept awake at night, plagued by thoughts of work deadlines, relationship problems or other stressful life events might find relief from either valerian or kava.15
In that study, adults who had suffered from stress-induced insomnia for over 15 years first received 120 mg daily of kava for six weeks. Then, after two weeks off treatment, they received 600 mg of valerian daily for another six weeks.
Overall, participants reported that both herbs significantly relieved their symptoms of stress and insomnia. While the majority, 58%, reported no side effects from either treatment, 16% reported vivid dreams after taking valerian and 12% experienced dizziness with kava.
Side Effects and Contraindications
There have been very few adverse effects reported from taking valerian. The most commonly reported side effects are headaches, dizziness, digestive troubles and itchy skin, although it’s important to note that similar side effects were reported by people taking a placebo in clinical studies.16
Valerian does have the potential to interact with other medications and supplements though. Contraindications include the concomitant use of:17
Central nervous system depressants (morphine)
St. John’s wort
Also, do not take it with alcohol, and do not drive or use machinery within several hours of taking valerian. Valerian may also be contraindicated if you are pregnant or nursing or have liver problems. Valerian should not be given to children under the age of 3 because the potential risks have not been studied in children this young.
Other Things You Can Do to Relieve Tension Headaches
While valerian can be an effective remedy for tension headaches, other strategies that can help relax your muscles and alleviate stress that contributes to them include:
• Strength training — Because tension headaches may be connected to weak neck and shoulder muscles, strengthening those areas through weightlifting, stretching and/or working with a physical therapist may help. In addition to focusing on the neck and shoulder muscles, you’ll also want to correct imbalances in other areas, like your back, and work on strengthening your core and improving your posture.18
• Relaxation techniques and deep breathing exercises — All types of tension headaches can be relieved by finding effective ways to manage your stress and practicing different relaxation techniques,19 like deep breathing exercises, regularly. Cleveland Clinic offers other types of relaxation techniques, including progressive muscle relaxation, mental imagery relaxation and listening to relaxing music.
• Biofeedback — Biofeedback is another way to help you manage your stress levels. During a biofeedback session with a trained therapist, electrodes are connected to different areas of your body. These sensors measure things like muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure and then display the measurements on a screen.
These measurements help you and your therapist recognize when your body is tense and why. When you have this background information, you can work on figuring out effective ways to relax your muscles and release your tension over the course of several sessions.20
• Taking regular breaks — If you work on the computer all day or you have to go for a long car ride, take breaks and stretch. Avoid looking down at your phone for too long.
• Yoga — In addition to relieving stress and helping you focus on your breathing, yoga also helps you stretch your muscles. In a 2019 review in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers reported that yoga could improve headache frequency, headache duration and pain intensity in people with tension headaches.21