Kava, also known as kava-kava, is a plant that has been used by Pacific Island cultures for hundreds of years to induce calm and combat anxiety. The islanders peel the root of the Piper methysticum plant and only use water-soluble extract of the root (not extracted with alcohol).
Kavalactones are the active chemical ingredients of the kava root. Research shows that they can affect brain chemistry in ways similar to prescription antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.
What Does the Research Say?
- This study in Psychopharmacology found that the scientific evidence supports the use of kava in treatment of anxiety with a significant result occurring in four out of six studies reviewed. It’s important to use only water soluble extracts of the root though, and it’s also important to avoid using it with alcohol. Caution should also be taken when combining it with other psychotropic medications.
- This study tested water-extracted kava on 60 people over a 3-week period. Participants took five Kava tablets per day which contained a total of 250 mg of kavalactones/day. The results showed that those taking Kava reduced their Hamilton Anxiety Scale score by a “highly significant” amount.Depression ratings also decreased in the Kava-takers. The aqueous extract was found to be safe, with no serious adverse effects and no clinical liver toxicity. The researchers found that “Kava appears equally effective in cases where anxiety is accompanied by depression.”
- This study reviewed seven published experiments on the effectiveness of Kava to relieve anxiety. “Superiority of kava extract over placebo was suggested by all seven reviewed trials. The meta-analysis of three trials suggests a significant difference in the reduction of the total score on the Hamilton Rating Scale for Anxiety in favor of kava extract”.
- This study tested Kava’s ability to reduce anxiety in 101 outpatients over a period of 25 weeks. They found that Kava was superior to placebo in reducing anxiety from week 8 on. The researchers concluded that Kava has a “proven long-term efficacy with none of the tolerance problems associated with tricyclics and benzodiazepines”.
- This study tested the ability of Kava to reduce anxiety in perimenopausal women over a 3-month period. The results showed that the women taking Kava had reductions in anxiety levels “significantly greater” than the control group. They concluded that “The present data indicate that, in perimenopausal women, administration of Kava–Kava induces an improvement of mood, particularly of anxiety”.
- This study tested Kava on 75 people with Generalized Anxiety disorder for 6 weeks (120/240 mg of kavalactones per day). Results revealed a significant reduction in anxiety for the kava group compared with the placebo group. Among participants with moderate to severe Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders–diagnosed GAD, this effect was larger. At conclusion of the controlled phase, 26% of the kava group were classified as remitted compared with 6% of the placebo group. Kava was well tolerated, and aside from more headaches reported in the kava group, no other significant differences between groups occurred for any other adverse effects, nor for liver function tests.
There has been some concern about a possible link between Kava use and liver toxicity. In 2007, a safety panel of the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a possible link between kava use and seven deaths and 14 liver transplants, mostly in Europe. As a result, Kava supplements were banned in Canada, Germany, France, and the U.K.
But the WHO report suggested that liver toxicity may be limited to kava formulations that used the whole kava plant, instead of just the root, or used acetone and ethanol to extract the active ingredient from the plant instead of water. It’s important to note that the Pacific Islanders have been using Kava for centuries with no known instances of liver problems. “But they only use water-soluble extract and they only use the peeled root of the plant.”
If you’re going to use Kava, it’s a good idea to mention it to your doctor. Since the supplement industry is generally unregulated, it can be difficult to know exactly what you’re getting or how it has been processed. It’s important to avoid supplements that have been extracted with an alcohol, and it’s important that you get just the root – not the whole plant. Little is known (in scientific studies) about long-term use, so it’s best to stick to short-term use (3 months or less) just to be safe. Then you can take a break and do it again later if you want. Discuss it with your doctor and do your own research.
If you need help finding water-extracted Kava root, here’s one:
It only contains 50mg of kavalactones per tablet so to get the amount used in some of the scientific studies listed above (120mg/240 mg) you’d have to take at least 2 tablets.
What do you think? Have you used Kava? Did it work for you? Share in the comments below.