Stressed and anxious? How about this intoxicating pepper?! Kava kava (or kava for short) is a tropical plant steeped centuries deep in the social, cultural, and medicinal traditions of the South Pacific. Well-known for its ability to ease anxiety and improve sleep, it has quickly become a plant of increasing interest all over the world. Let’s face it, we’re stressed out, losing sleep, and could use all the help we can get! And while the health benefits of kava are much needed, kava comes with potential side effects everyone should be aware of before consuming this powerful medicinal.
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What is Kava Kava?
Meet kava kava, often referred to as kava and many other local names in the tropical places it grows. Kava (Piper methysticum) is a plant indigenous to the South Pacific islands such as Fiji and Tonga with a long history of use as an anti-anxiety due to its psychotropic effects on the central nervous system.
- Kava’s Latin name literally translates to “intoxicating pepper.” In local language and culture, “kava” means “something bitter.”
- The word “kava” is used to refer to both the plant and the slightly pungent beverage (or tea) made from its roots.
- As a member of the Piperaceae family, kava is related to black pepper (Piper nigrum).
- Kava is a tropical, understory perennial shrub that thrives in the Pacific islands including Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, Somoas, and Hawaii. It doesn’t require a whole lot of sunshine, but it does like hot and humid air.
- Because kava fruit pollination isn’t very productive, kava is typically cultivated by stem cuttings. And there are over 100 varieties in cultivation today.
- It takes about 4 years before kava is ready for harvest. The concentration of medicinal phytochemicals increases as the plant ages.
- There are two basic varieties of kava that the beverage is typically prepared from: noble and two-day (also “tu dei”). The tradtitional beverages are typically made from noble kava. Two-day kava is known to have more intense and longer-lasting psychotropic effects.
Traditional Uses of Kava Root
For centuries, kava root has been used by many South Pacific islanders for social, cultural, and medicinal purposes. Centuries!
It wasn’t until about the 20th century that kava became popular in Western cultures for its calming psychoactive properties that can help to relieve anxiety and insomnia. And more recently, kava has become popular as a recreational beverage in kava bars.
Traditionally, fresh or dried kava root was ground or pounded into a powder and then mixed with cold (or room temperature) water or coconut milk. The mixture was then agitated and strained into a communal bowl. Kava was used to restore vigor, fight fungal infections, cure stomachaches, and more. It was also used largely in many of the same ways it’s used today to treat anxiety and insomnia.
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12 Science-Supported Health Benefits of Kava
The most notorious medicinal compounds found in kava root are called kavalactones and flavokavains. These two related compounds are given credit for nearly all the health benefits of kava root. Although, there is still a lot of mystery around exactly how these compounds work in the human body.
Nonetheless, they seem to be working! Here are 12 science-backed health benefits of kava root:
1. Kava as an Anti-Inflammatory
Whenever I see plants with anti-inflammatory properties, I drop to my knees in gratitude. (It’s a metaphorical drop, not a literal one… but it could be a literal one!) With rampant inflammation at the root of so many of the chronic health problems we face today, we need all the anti-inflammatory herbs we can get!
Kava contains many plant compounds that are known anti-inflammatories. Specifically, an extract of a compound from kava called kavain is being studied for its beneficial effects on inflammation.
For example, studies have found that due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties kava may be a beneficial additive to functional cosmetics like anti-aging skincare products, sunscreen, and more. And it’s also been found to be an effective anti-inflammatory in treating periodontitis, an inflammatory gum disease.
2. Kava May Help with Anxiety Disorders
A 2018 review on the evidence of kava as a treatment for anxiety showed mixed results and concluded that there’s still not enough evidence to confirm that kava is any more helpful in treating anxiety disorders than a placebo.
However, in digging deeper, other studies have proven kava an acceptable short-term treatment for anxiety disorder, but not as a replacement for long-term anti-anxiety treatment due to its potential for liver toxicity.
A 2020 study confirmed this with a 16-week trial using standardized kava root extracts to treat generalized anxiety disorder. The results of the study found that liver abnormalities were significantly more present in the treatment group receiving kava. This led to the conclusion that kava is effective as an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), but is perhaps best suited as a “situational” short-term anti-anxiety treatment.
3. Kava May Help to Relieve Pain
Even the NFL is on board with the pain-relieving benefits of kava! Due to its pain-relieving properties, kava is being extensively studied as a potential replacement for conventional pharmaceutical pain killers. This is especially important research because kava doesn’t come with the risk of addiction associated with pharmaceutical pain killers.
Kava may be an effective replacement for over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Asprin) and ibuprofen in acute pain situations. Studies have shown kava to have pain-relieving effects similar to morphine.
4. Kava May Help to Relieve Muscle Tension
The sedative properties of kava may also help to relieve the stress-related symptoms of muscle tension and/or muscle spasms. Athletes have started picking up on the health benefits of kava and its potential to help improve their performance. The same plant compounds in kava that help to relieve anxiety and pain can also work their magic on our muscles.
For athletes, loose and relaxed muscles can make them more limber and prepared for action. And since muscle repair naturally happens when our muscles are in a relaxed state, kava can buy time for muscles to repair themselves, preventing muscle fatigue and soreness.
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5. Kava May Help Treat Neurodegenerative Diseases
Some studies have found kava to have neuroprotective properties and that it may be beneficial in the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other central nervous system disorders. A 2020 review of 10 studies found kava extracts to help reduce oxidative stress and the neuroinflammation characteristic of many neurodegenerative diseases. With these considerations, studies conclude that kava may be helpful as an addition or alternative to conventional drugs, helping to prolong the quality of life.
6. Kava May Help to Prevent Seizures
Another benefit of the non-narcotic sedative properties of kava is its potential to help prevent seizures. A 2014 study on rats found that kava extract enhanced the anti-seizure effect of a synthetic drug (diazepam) commonly used in patients with epilepsy. Because of the health risks associated with the long-term use of anti-seizure drugs, kava may prove useful in lowering health risks when used in combination with synthetic drugs.
7. Kava May Help with PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome)
PMS symptoms can range from barely noticeable to incredibly debilitating. Much of the menstruating population rely on over-the-counter pain relievers to help relieve uterine cramping, nausea, and more. Due to its antispasmodic and pain-relieving qualities, kava may be beneficial in helping to relieve annoying, painful, and debilitating symptoms of PMS.
Dr. Aviva Romm lists kava as one of her favorite herbs for relieving symptoms of PMS. Although due to its potential for toxicity, she recommends no more than 1 ml of kava extract twice daily for the week prior to menstruation, and then to discontinue its use.
8. Kava May Help with Sleep Disorders
Anxiety is a huge barrier to restful sleep and sometimes to any sleep at all! When we’re relaxed, we sleep better. It’s not really rocket science, is it? However, stress and anxiety have become such a part of our “normal” that sometimes figuring out how to de-stress does seem quite like rocket science.
A 2015 review notes that while more studies are needed to determine kava’s effectiveness in treating insomnia, preliminary studies have shown positive results.
9. Kava May Be Helpful in the Treatment of Cancer
While kavalactones get all the credit, another group of compounds in kava known as flavokawains have demonstrated an ability to kill cancer cells.
A 2005 study on mice found that a flavokawain extract was able to both kill bladder cancer cells and prevent new cancer cells from forming, effectively suppressing tumor growth. And in a 2013 study, an extract of kava also demonstrated anti-tumor activity both in vitro and in vivo in regards to osteosarcoma (bone cancer).
10. Kava May Help with Depression
Kava is effective in the treatment of anxiety because of its ability to slow down the messages traveling between the central nervous system and the body. For this same reason, kava may be helpful in the treatment of depression as well, especially since anxiety and depression often occur together. However, it’s unclear whether the antidepressive effects of kava are due solely to the anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects or are due to some other mechanism.
Although, kava may be contraindicated with the use of other pharmaceutical and herbal anti-depressants due to its potential to exacerbate drowsiness.
11. Kava May Be Used As An Alternative To Alcohol
Over the years, whether or not kava may be used as an alternative to drinking alcohol has become a popular topic. Alcohol’s negative side effects have spurred a growing sober-curious movement. And because kava is non-addictive and does not affect the central nervous system as alcohol does, many people are turning to non-alcoholic herbal beverages like kava to help them de-stress and relax.
But because kava can inhibit alcohol metabolism, it’s advised to never consume kava and alcohol together or within a short time period of consuming one or the other.
12. Kava May Be Helpful in Treating Substance Addiction
It’s been found that kava contains phytochemicals that bind to the same receptors in our brains that are associated with addiction and cravings. Accordingly, preliminary studies suggest that kava could be very useful in treating substance addiction.
With all the negative side effects of drugs like opioids and benzodiazepines, kava and its kavalactones that are non-addictive and affect the central nervous system in a different way could be incredibly useful in treating addiction and addictive behaviors.
Potential Side Effects of Kava
Kava is an amazing plant with powerful medicinal properties and a long history of traditional use. There is little evidence of negative health effects associated with traditional moderate levels of consumption. In fact, kava is generally well-tolerated, however, there have been many reports of negative side effects due to overconsumption.
On the less serious side, overconsumption of kava may cause loss of balance, sleepiness, headaches, restlessness, and scaly dry skin. Although, these symptoms, generally associated with chronic and long-term use, typically go away as soon as kava consumption is stopped.
And on the more serious side, there have been hundreds of reports of liver toxicity and even liver failure as a result of long-term kava consumption.
While kava is legal for personal use and as a herbal supplement in the United States, these negative side effects and reports of toxicity have led many countries to ban or restrict the use of kava.
Regarding the Potential for Liver Damage
The loudest word on the street in terms of the potential side effects of kava concerns its potential liver toxicity. In fact, there have been several hundred reports of kava-induced liver damage, some of which have necessitated liver transplants.
One case study, while it showed no evidence of over-dosage, concluded that kava consumption was indeed responsible for liver toxicity and failure. And there have been many other similar reports of kava toxicity such as this cyclist who experienced near kidney failure and muscle breakdown that doctors attributed to his kava consumption.
High Potential for Herb-Drug Interactions
There is always the potential for negative interaction with prescription medications. Likewise, it’s generally advised that if you are taking prescription medications that you consult with a licensed health practitioner before introducing kava to your diet or as an herbal supplement.
In fact, studies have shown that the active chemical compounds in kava can prevent the metabolism of many pharmaceuticals by inhibiting specific enzymes (P450 enzymes). These enzymes are responsible for helping our bodies process over 90% of pharmaceutical drugs on the market!
How Quality Control, Cultivar, & Type of Product May Matter
As stated, kava is a powerful plant medicine that can be incredibly beneficial to health, but there may be risks involved. Not all kava is equal when it comes to efficacy and safety.
One of the things that can affect safety and efficacy is how the root is processed for consumption or medicine and the kind of quality control measures it passes through.
For example, kava leaves and stem peelings contain a toxic compound known as pipermethysticine (PM) that can contaminate kava products during production. A study showed that human liver cells exposed to PM demonstrated 65% cell death.
Interestingly, it was previously thought that toxicity was associated more with the use of alcohol extracts (tinctures) than water extracts (tea). However, it’s been found that the potential for negative health effects is perhaps more dependent on the age of the plant, part used, cultivar, where it’s grown, and the growth conditions.
It’s important to keep in mind that kava production is still largely unregulated. With the increase in demand for social and recreational use, production has the potential to get sloppy.
Is kava a drug?
Kava is a plant with powerful and effective psychoactive and medicinal properties. I draw the line at calling plants drugs, however, it’d be really silly not to acknowledge that there’s a giant grey area when it comes to the comparison (or distinction) of plant medicines and drugs.
Technically, kava is not classified as a drug. However, there are drugs being synthesized either using extracts of kava’s medicinal chemical compounds or inspired by these compounds and how they work in the body. Nonetheless, kava is hard to cultivate, especially outside of the tropics. It can take years to reach maturity making it difficult for researchers to get a large enough quantity of kavalactones for investigations or clinical trials.
How do you make kava tea?
Kava tea is made by steeping the ground or crushed roots in water. Traditional or ceremonial preparations typically involve pounding in grinding the fresh or dried root and then mixing with water or coconut milk.
However, in non-Pacific Island countries, kava is almost always prepared from the dried powder of the root. The powder is mixed with water (typically cold or warm), at a concentration of ~ 1 tablespoon powder per cup of water. It’s most typically steeped and agitated for 10-30 minutes before being strained and then enjoyed chilled or at room temperature.
Is it safe to drink kava every day?
The general consensus is that kava is generally safe to drink. However, most sources note that it’s not meant to be consumed daily. It’s a strong plant medicine that does have a potential for toxicity, especially with long-term use.
The American Botanical Council states that 60 to 120 mg of kavapyrones (or kavalactones) is a safe and potentially effective range for short-term daily consumption. Most resources suggest limiting consumption to less than 8 weeks or 3 months for safety.
And a 2016 report issued by the World Health Organization states that studies indicate that negative health effects typically seem to appear with an average consumption of 240-440g kava powder per week.
Why is kava banned?
In the early 2000s, the reports of liver toxicity starting in the late 1990s, however rare, led many countries to ban kava. Starting with Germany in 2002, Britain and many other countries followed suit. However, as science caught up, most countries have either over-turned or loosened the restrictions on kava and kava products.
Is kava really bad for your liver?
It could be. There have been reports of liver toxicity associated with kava consumption. Most sources recommend limiting consumption to a period of no more than 8 weeks at a time. However, liver toxicity has been reported in as little as 1 month.
While kava is generally considered to be safe and liver toxicity is rare, it is still a medicinal plant with psychoactive properties and potential side effects. Ensure the kava you are consuming is high-quality and from a trusted source, as poor quality kava can contain contaminants that could increase its toxic potential.
If you have liver disease, use alcohol excessively, or are taking prescription medications, it’s generally advised to avoid kava due to its effect on liver metabolism.
Is kava worse than alcohol?
For a long time, kava carried the reputation of being a highly addictive, alcohol-like substance. It’s thought that this reputation began in the late 1700s/early 1800s when kava was given the Latin name Piper methysticum meaning “intoxicating pepper”.
For whatever reason, folks back in the early 1800s were adamant that kava was alcohol. They even compared it to opium! It was thought that in the traditional brewing of kava, the starches in the root turned to sugar and were then fermented into an alcoholic beverage. However, in reality, kava is not a fermented beverage.
Nonetheless, the myth persisted and its given name literally translating to “intoxicating pepper” didn’t help. However, science (and better observation) has proven over and over again that kava, while psychoactive in nature, is far from being alcohol.
So, is kava worse than alcohol? Kava is a non-addictive plant medicine with many health benefits and the same can not be said for alcohol.
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Resources & Further Reading
You can find many of the sources cited within the text of this article. Here are some general resources for your further reading.
- How The Kava Plant Produces Its Pain-Relieving & Anti-Anxiety Molecules, Greta Friar (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
- Kava: Inside the All-Natural High That’s Sweeping America, Annamarya Scaccia (Rolling Stone)
- Kava: A Review of the Safety of Tradtional and Recreational Beverage Consumption, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization
- Is Kava Legal Where I Live? Kava Laws Around the World, KavaGuides.com
- Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth, Dr. Sharol Marie Tilgner
DISCLAIMER: The information given in this article is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before consuming certain herbs & medicinal foods, especially if pregnant, nursing, or taking any prescription medications.