Kava kava, or simply kava, has a long history of use in alternative medicine and traditional ceremonies. More recently, it has found a place in some clinical research studies.
People traditionally mix kava kava with water or boil it into a tea, but it can also come as a tablet.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), kava kava has a mild anxiety-reducing effect, but it may also cause severe liver damage.
It is still legal to sell kava kava in the United States, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggest that people should use it with caution.
Many researchers still advocate for its use and aim to establish safer ways of taking kava kava.
This article will explore the uses, benefits, and safety of kava kava.
What is kava kava?
Kava kava comes from the Piper methysticum plant, which is native to islands of the Pacific Ocean. Traditionally, people made a paste from the plant’s root and mixed it with water or coconut milk to create a drink.
People native to the South Pacific islands use this kava kava drink during cultural and religious ceremonies to create a state of altered consciousness. People can also make powder or tablets from the dried roots.
Consuming kava has a relaxing, euphoric effect. Scientists call drugs that have this calming effect anxiolytic. Alcohol, which has similar effects to kava, is another anxiolytic drug.
These properties are why many use it as a recreational drug and a medicine, as it can help reduce stress and anxiety.
Uses and possible health benefits
People use kava kava to relieve anxiety and promote sleep. Below, we look at what the research says.
The primary use of kava is reducing stress and anxiety. Research suggests that kava could help treat the symptoms of anxiety disorders.
In a randomized controlled trial from 2013, scientists gave 75 people with anxiety disorders either kava extract or a placebo drug over 6 weeks.
At the end of the study, they found that kava had a small but significant effect on reducing anxiety symptoms. Aside from headaches, the participants did not report liver problems or other side effects.
The authors suggest that kava could be a useful short-term option for treating anxiety disorders.
A review study from 2011 reports that kava kava may improve stress and anxiety. However, the authors say that more research about the safety and effectiveness is needed before it becomes a recommended therapy.
The NIH state that research studies about kava kava’s effectiveness produce mixed results. This makes it hard to draw any firm conclusions about how effective it really is at treating anxiety.
Research has suggested that kava kava may cause liver damage. It appears to be hepatoxic, meaning that it can damage liver cells.
Because of this, authorities in several countries, including Canada, Great Britain, and Germany, have restricted or banned kava kava.
Kava kava is still legal in the U.S. due to its possible uses as a treatment. However, in 2002, the FDA directly warned consumers that kava-based products could cause liver damage. Some of this damage, such as that caused by hepatitis and liver failure, can be severe.
There have been over 100 reports of serious liver damage related to kava kava. In these cases, symptoms included:
- jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes
- abnormal enzyme levels
If a person experiences these symptoms, they should stop using the product immediately and seek medical attention.
Despite efforts by researchers to develop safe methods of using kava, scientists are still not sure how kava damages the liver. Without this knowledge, it is difficult to know for certain whether kava is safe.
Until researchers know more about the safety of kava kava, people should be cautious when using it.
In high doses, the long-term use of kava could also cause:
- dry, scaly skin
- yellow skin
- heart problems
- eye problems
How to use kava kava
Traditionally, people make kava kava root into a paste and mix it with water or boil it into a tea. It is also possible to buy premade kava tea from some stores.
The drug can come in liquid form and mix with other drinks such as juice. There are also tablets and capsules of powdered kava kava available.
Research suggests that the optimum dose may be under 250 milligrams of kava per day.
Is kava kava safe to use during pregnancy?
There has been little research into the effects of kava in women who are pregnant. Until more definitive research is available on its safety, it may be best to avoid using kava during pregnancy.
Kava kava interacts with alcohol. Consuming alcohol while taking kava could increase a person’s risk of liver damage.
Kava kava can also interact with several other drugs, such as benzodiazepines and anti-depressants. For this reason, it is important to consult a doctor before making the decision to take kava kava.
Kava kava is an herbal remedy that people use to relieve anxiety and promote sleep. However, researchers are concerned about reports that kava kava can cause serious liver damage.
Several countries have banned products containing this ingredient, but it is still legal in the U.S. That said, the FDA have cautioned against its use.
Because of these concerns, people may want to try other herbal remedies and lifestyle changes to relieve anxiety and improve sleep.
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