Using Kava for Anxiety and Stress

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Using kava for anxiety and stress is well established. Learn how to use kava as a supplement and a tea, as well as kava’s benefits, dosing, and safety.

Kava is a traditional drink of the South Pacific that promotes quick relaxation.

It’s also sold as an herbal remedy for anxiety, stress, and insomnia.

Research shows it to be effective for treating anxiety — on par with prescription tranquilizers.

Yet there has been concern that it could pose some health risks.

So, what’s the truth about kava?

Traditional Uses for Kava

Many societies have a non-alcoholic, mood-altering drink that’s an important part of the culture.

Argentina has yerba mate, Japan has matcha, and the South Pacific has kava (also called kava-kava).

The people of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Hawaii have been making a ceremonial drink from the root of the kava plant for thousands of years.

Kava extract comes from a plant that’s a member of the pepper family.

" Kava’s effectiveness at treating anxiety is on a par with prescription anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax, but without the side effects.

Its scientific name, Piper methysticum, means “intoxicating pepper” and it is renowned for bringing about a state of deep relaxation. (1)

It’s consumed at milestone events like weddings, funerals, and initiation ceremonies. (2)

It’s used during healing and religious ceremonies to achieve a “higher level of consciousness.”

Kava is most commonly taken medicinally to treat stress and anxiety, but it is also used for insomnia, fatigue, headaches, depression, colds, urinary infections, and symptoms of menopause. (3)

What to Expect When Drinking Kava

Most people think kava tea looks, smells, and tastes a little like mud.

But no one drinks kava for the taste, they drink it for the way it makes them feel.

The first sip pleasantly numbs your mouth.

Shortly, a warm relaxed feeling spreads throughout your body, creating a sensation similar to that of a full body massage.

Mentally, you feel like all is right with the world, calm and pleasantly relaxed, but still clear-headed.

Your anxieties melt away and you feel a kinship with your fellow humans.

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Benefits of Kava for Anxiety

Fast-forward to the 21st century wherein researchers have examined the safety and effectiveness of kava for treating anxiety.

The active ingredients in kava are a group of compounds called kavalactones.

So far, 18 kavalactones have been identified and each promotes relaxation by varying means. (4)

Some work by increasing GABA, the neurotransmitter of calm and relaxation. (5)

Others protect brain cells from free radical damage and inflammation. (6)

Kava is so effective at reducing anxiety that it’s been called “nature’s Valium.”

Numerous studies have concluded that kava is a safe and effective alternative to antidepressants and tranquilizers for anxiety disorders. (78910, 11)

Kava’s effectiveness at treating anxiety is on a par with prescription anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax, but without the side effects.

Anti-anxiety medications have many serious side effects, including being highly addictive, and should not be mixed with alcohol or other drugs, whether prescription, OTC, or recreational.

Kava can increase overall well-being, cheerfulness, and sleep quality while reducing aggression and stress. (12)

Kava excels at improving mental wellness in menopausal women — especially for depression and anxiety — without disrupting their estrogen levels. (13, 14)

Because some of the kavalactones bind to brain receptors associated with addictions and cravings, kava shows potential for treating substance abuse of all kinds, including alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and heroin. (15)

How to Use Kava for Anxiety

Anyone who has taken part in a traditional kava ceremony will tell you that it’s a unique experience.

You can try to replicate it with commercially available kava powder to make your own tea at home.

Put your kava powder in a cloth strainer bag, add water, and then knead the bag until the tea reaches the desired consistency.

Then, ideally, consume it with friends.

But this is not very convenient, and since kava’s taste is not a selling point, most people looking for anxiety relief prefer kava supplements.

Kava supplements are available as capsules, tablets, liquid extracts, and even herbal sprays which are marketed as natural remedies for anxiety, stress, and insomnia.

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Kava Dosing for Anxiety

A good dosage to start with is 250 mg of kava per day.

Numerous studies have used daily doses of 250 to 300 mg of kava to treat anxiety safely and effectively. (161718)

Many experts agree that you should not exceed 250 mg of total kavalactones. (1920)

When you buy a kava supplement, be sure to check for the total milligrams of kavalactones in the dose so as to not exceed this amount.

kava supplement label
Typical kava supplement label.

In the label shown, notice that each capsule contains 200 mg kava extract and 60 mg kavalactones.

Since kava can make you drowsy, start by taking it in the evening and “do not use while operating heavy machinery.”

Be aware that kava supplements do not work immediately for everyone.

While some people feel more relaxed after just one dose, others may have to wait up to two months to experience maximum anxiety relief. (21)

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Kava Side Effects, Interactions, and Warnings

For all its benefits, there are some circumstances where kava should be avoided.

Its safety has not been determined for pregnant women, nursing moms, and children, so they should avoid it.

Kava does not mix well with other substances.

There are hundreds of drugs that interact negatively with kava.

If you take any prescription medications, you should talk to your doctor or pharmacist before trying kava.

Until then, you can cross-check kava with your medications by using a reputable online drug interaction checker.

Avoid taking kava with other natural relaxing remedies including 5-HTP, catnip, gotu kola, melatonin, St. John’s wort, skullcap, and valerian. (22)

When taken together, these remedies can make you too drowsy.

Other occasional side effects of kava include allergic reaction, upset stomach, and loss of appetite. 

There’s one strange side effect experienced by some people in the Pacific who use kava daily — kava dermopathy.

It’s a scaly rash similar to psoriasis and appears only after many months of heavy kava use. (23)

Fortunately, this condition is reversible once kava use is discontinued.

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Does Kava Cause Liver Damage? A Look at the Facts

You may read that kava can cause liver damage.

There are certainly enough scary warnings about kava’s dangers to be found online.

But is it as dangerous as it’s made out to be?

Let’s take a look at the facts surrounding this controversy.

A handful of cases of liver damage in kava users was reported in 2000.

While liver damage sounds serious, a look at the numbers should turn off any alarms in your head.

There were 30 cases reported in Europe, but it’s never been clearly established whether it was kava itself that caused liver damage or some other factor.

A review of 85 scientific studies on kava safety found no single cause of kava toxicity, but a few theories have emerged. (24)

One explanation is that there may have been extenuating circumstances among the victims, such as existing health problems or their combining kava with alcohol, drugs, or other herbs.

Apparently, 64% of the patients who experienced kava toxicity used up to 20 various drugs and supplements which may have reacted with kava. (25)

Supplement Quality Is Important

Another theory is that the quality of the kava supplements was to blame.

Scientists from the University of Hawaii report that supplement manufacturers took a lot of shortcuts and did not use traditional extraction methods. (26)

Leaves, stems, and bark, which are considered waste products, were used by supplement companies as a cheap source of kava extract.

Manufacturers used alcohol or acetone to extract kavalactones, rather than soaking the root in water the traditional way. (27)

Additionally, there’s speculation that some manufacturers weren’t even using the correct plant species!

When you consider that prescription drugs are now the fourth leading cause of death in the US, causing over 120,000 deaths per year, it makes the fear of using kava seem overblown. (2829)

According to the US National Library of Medicine’s LiverTox database, your risk of liver damage from taking a kava supplement is less than one in a million.

To put that in perspective, you are significantly more likely to be struck by lightning.

(The odds of that are 1 in 700,000, in case you’re wondering). (30)

As a common sense precaution, avoid kava if you have any liver problems, regularly drink alcohol, or take medications that put a burden on liver function.

And if you show any signs of jaundice — yellowing of the skin or eyes — discontinue kava use immediately.

Kava’s Current Legal Status Around the World

Since the liver damage scare, the legal status of kava around the world has been in constant flux.

Here in the United States, kava tea and supplements are readily available online or at health food stores.

You can also buy kava-containing relaxation drinks that bill themselves as the “antidote to energy drinks.”

Some cities have kava bars where you can enjoy drinking kava the traditional way — together with friends.

Interested in checking one out?

You’ll find lists or maps of kava bars in the US on KavaGuides.com, Kava.guru, or KalmWithKava.com.

However, the regulation of kava is more restrictive and less straightforward in many other countries.

In 2015, a 15-year ban on kava in Germany was finally lifted, while kava restrictions in the United Kingdom were tightened. (3132)

One way to learn if kava is available where you live is to contact any ecommerce store that sells kava to see if they ship to your country.

Additionally, you can find current information on the legal status of kava around the world at Kava Guides or on Wikipedia.

Kava for Anxiety: Take the Next Step

Kava is a traditional drink and a modern-day supplement.

It is well established as an effective remedy for anxiety that works as well as anti-anxiety drugs, with fewer side effects.

And while the safety of kava was brought into question by a scare that it could cause liver damage, this concern has proven to be largely unfounded.

If you try kava for anxiety or stress, take some common sense precautions.

Don’t mix it with alcohol, drugs, or supplements known to cause liver problems.

And if you exhibit any side effects, discontinue its use immediately.

There are numerous other natural remedies that can effectively reduce stress.