Kava, an extract made from the Piper methysticum shrub, has been a popular drink for hundreds of years, particularly for its calming and relaxing properties. It can be consumed in various forms, including a beverage, supplement, or extract. Kava, which is typically found in the South Pacific, is still used today as part of traditional ceremonies and cultural practices and is increasingly promoted as a dietary supplement to enhance mood, well-being, and contentment.
While kava can be deemed as a medicinal beverage with healing components, it can also have dangerous consequences and should always be taken with caution.
The roots of the South Pacific plant compounds — called kavalactones — have pain-relieving properties and are responsible for the majority of the plant's benefits.
Kava is available in many forms, including capsules, powders, and liquids. Make sure to check the dosage of your kava before consumption, as it can differ depending on the form.
Studies have also suggested that kava may be beneficial in treating anxiety, insomnia, and other nervous disorders.
What is kava and how does it work?
Kava is an extract made from the Piper methysticum shrub. Commonly known for its calming effects, kava contains a group of active compounds called kavalactones, which are believed to be responsible for the effects. Studies have shown that kavalactones have short-term effects such as reducing convulsions, promoting sleep, and relaxing muscles in animals. Additionally, kavalactones have pain-relieving properties, evidenced by the tingling and numbness sensation when chewing the root.
Although the exact mechanism of how kavalactones produce these effects is still largely unknown, research suggests that they may affect neurotransmitters in the brain, such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). By decreasing the activity of nerves, kavalactones can potentially reduce anxiety and help create a calming atmosphere.
Health benefits of kava:
Kava is known for a number of benefits that can boost your overall health including.
Relieves stress and anxiety
While the evidence behind it isn’t strong, several studies claim that kava can reduce stress and anxiety levels. In addition, research has found that kava may effectively treat anxiety symptoms.
One study demonstrated that kava and diazepam (Valium) cause similar changes in brain wave activity, suggesting they could both potentially be effective in calming the mind.
Another study found that a single dose of Kava extract (300 mg) increased state cheerfulness but did not impact bad mood. These studies demonstrate the potential for kava to be an effective and natural alternative for managing anxiety symptoms.
Aids in sleep
Thanks to their content of GABA, kavalactones are known to have a sedative effect, effectively slowing down brain activity. Preliminary research indicates that taking kava may help improve sleep quality and decrease the time it takes to fall asleep. One study examined the efficacy and safety of kava special extract use in sleep disturbances associated with anxiety, tension, and restlessness. Results showed that rats given 300 mg/kg of the extract fell asleep faster, without affecting total waking or non-REM sleep time.
In addition, the Kava extract increased delta activity during non-REM sleep, while flunitrazepam had the opposite effect. These findings suggest that kavalactones may be an effective option for those struggling with sleep disturbances.
Provides anti-inflammation and anti-cancer properties
Kava is well known for its relaxing effects and for being able to help with anxiety and insomnia, but it offers so much more. In addition to being a pain reliever and muscle relaxant, kava also offers medicinal effects.
Some of the first research found on kava dates back to 1965 demonstrating its anti-inflammatory potential, showing significant inhibitory effects on edema induced by formalin, serotonin, carrageenan, dextran, and UV light-induced inflammation of the rat skin. Furthermore, studies have reported the anti-inflammatory activities of kava and its compounds, making it a potential treatment for inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases.
Kava and kavalactones have been reported to have neuroprotective benefits, such as the ability of methysticin to activate the anti-oxidative Nrf2 pathway in mouse hippocampi and cortex. This activation has been found to improve cognitive deficits in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, demonstrating the potential for kava and kavalactones to have a beneficial effect in cases of cognitive decline.
Recommended kava dosage
Traditional kava use can vary substantially depending on the region, with doses ranging from 750 to 8000 mg of kavalactones per day. Clinical trials have shown that kava can be effective for mild and moderate anxiety within the daily dose range of 20–300 mg kavalactones. As such, the optimal daily dose of kava may vary based on the person and the severity of their anxiety symptoms. It is important to consult with a medical professional to determine the right dose for you.
Side effects of kava
Compared to participants taking a placebo, kava extract has shown to be an effective symptomatic treatment option for anxiety and insomnia. Data from reviewed studies suggest that kava is relatively safe for short-term treatment (1 to 24 weeks) as long as it comes in small doses. However, there is serious concern about the long-term use of kava, as it can lead to a range of health problems, such as malnutrition, weight loss, and apathy.
Additionally, there have been more than 30 cases of liver damage reported in Europe and four deaths linked to the use of kava extracts. As a result, the European Union and Canada have taken kava off the market, and the US FDA has issued cautions and advisories regarding its use. If you choose to take kava, it is important to only do so under the close supervision of a doctor, and you should avoid it altogether if you have any kind of liver disease.
Other (non-serious) side effects of consuming Kava can include:
- Digestive upset
The level of severity can differ based on weight, familiarity with the consumption of Kava and the dosage taken.
Kava has been around for centuries and serves as a ritual beverage that holds several medicinal properties. While it is safe in most instances, you should proceed cautiously as it can cause unwanted side effects or even more severe consequences like liver failure or death.
Always consult your doctor before taking anything new like kava, and take extra caution while consuming the plant.
- Alcohol and Drug Foundation. Kava.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Kava.
- PLoS One. Kavain, the Major Constituent of the Anxiolytic Kava Extract, Potentiates s GABAA Receptors: Functional Characteristics and Molecular Mechanism.
- Journal of Advanced Research. Enhanced Efficacy and Reduced Side Effects of Diazepam by Kava Combination.
- Human Psychopharmacology. Enhanced Cognitive Performance and Cheerful Mood by Standardized Extracts of Piper Methysticum (Kava-Kava).
Show all references
- Nutrients MDPI. Kava as a Clinical Nutrient: Promises and Challenges.
- Cochrane Library. Kava Extract for Treating Anxiety.
- Psychopharmacology (Berl). Effects of Kava-Kava Extract on the Sleep-Wake Cycle in Sleep-Disturbed Rats.
- Journal of Effective Disorders. Clinical Efficacy of Kava Extract WS 1490 in Sleep Disturbances Associated With Anxiety Disorders. Results of a Multicenter, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Double-Blind Clinical Trial.