The use of kava for anxiety is well founded. Kava is effective as both a supplement and a tea. Learn about its benefits, safety, dosing, and interactions.
Kava is a traditional drink in 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’s concern that it could pose some serious health risks.
Temporary bans have been put on kava in Europe, North America, and Australia.
So what’s the truth about kava?
Today I’m going to tell you what you need to know before trying kava as an anti-anxiety remedy.
You’ll learn how safe and effective it is, how much to take, possible side effects, and interactions to watch out for.
Traditional Uses for Kava
Many societies have a non-alcoholic, mood-altering drink that’s an important part of the culture.
South America 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, a member of the pepper family, for 3,000 years.
It’s scientific name, Piper methysticum, means “intoxicating pepper.” (1)
To make the drink, the root is pounded with water until it reaches the desired consistency.
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 experienced from a full body massage.
Mentally you’ll feel like all is right with the world, calm and pleasantly relaxed but still clear-headed.
Your anxieties will melt away and you feel a kinship with your fellow man.
Besides being a ceremonial drink, kava has also traditionally been used medicinally to treat insomnia, fatigue, asthma, urinary infection, and mood swings associated with menopause. (2)
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Proven Mental Health Benefits of Kava
Kava is so effective at reducing anxiety it’s been called “nature’s Valium.” (3)
The active ingredients in kava are a group of phytonutrients called kavalactones.
Because some of the kavalactones bind to brain receptors associated with addictions and cravings, it shows potential for treating substance abuse of all kinds including alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and heroin. (4)
Numerous studies consistently find kava effective at treating anxiety without the side effects of prescription drugs. (5)
More research needs to be done but kava shows promise for treating ADHD. (10)
Besides treating anxiety, other studies show kava to increase overall well-being, cheerfulness, and sleep quality while reducing aggression and stress. (13)
How to Use Kava for Anxiety
Anyone who has taken part in the traditional kava ceremony will tell you it’s a unique experience.
You can try to replicate it with commercially available kava powder to make your own tea at home.
You put it in a cloth bag, add to water, and squeeze and knead the bag until the tea reaches the desired consistency.
This is not very convenient and since kava’s taste is not its main selling point, most people looking for anxiety relief prefer kava supplements.
Kava supplements are available in capsule, tablet, liquid extract, and even herbal sprays which are marketed as natural remedies for anxiety, stress, and insomnia.
Kava Dosage for Anxiety
A cross section of studies shows that the minimum dose needed to effectively treat anxiety ranges from 210-240 mg. (14)
University of Maryland’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide suggests 300 mg per day for anxiety. (15)
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Kava can make you drowsy so it’s recommended you start by taking it in the evening and, as they say, “do not use while operating heavy machinery.”
Kava does not alleviate anxiety immediately in everyone.
While some people feel more relaxed after one dose, for others it can take up to two months to experience the desired level of anxiety relief. (16)
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Kava Side Effects, Interactions, and Warnings
For all of its benefits, there are several circumstances where kava should be avoided.
Its safety has not been determined and so kava should be avoided by pregnant women, nursing moms, and children.
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 it.
Until then you can cross-check kava with your medications using this drug interaction checker.
Avoid taking kava with other anti-anxiety remedies such as 5-HTP, melatonin, or St. John’s wort. (17)
When taken together they can make you too drowsy.
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 use. (18)
This condition is fortunately reversible once kava use is discontinued.
Other occasional side effects of kava include allergic reaction, upset stomach, and loss of appetite. (19)
Kava and Liver Damage: A Look at the Facts
You may have heard 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 were 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 toxicity found no consensus as to what was behind this handful of cases.
One possible explanation is that there was something wrong with the product itself, such as preparation methods or product contamination.
There’s reason to believe that manufacturers were not following traditional extraction methods.
They were using parts of the plant besides the root and using alcohol rather than water extraction. (20)
Renowned herbalist Dr. John Christopher has this to say about why kava, which has been safely used for thousands of years, has suddenly become “toxic”.
“If you don’t respect traditional use or people who learn by experience then you will get yourself in trouble.” (21)
When you consider that prescription drugs are now the fourth leading cause of death in the US causing over 100,000 deaths per year, it makes the reaction to kava seem overblown, if not downright hysterical. (24, 25)
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.
According to the US National Library of Medicine’s LiverTox database, your risk of liver damage from taking a kava supplement is less than 1 in 1,000,000.
Can You Buy Kava? The 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 is readily available.
You can buy kava tea and supplements online or at health food stores.
You can also buy kava-containing relaxation drinks that bill themselves as the “antidote to energy drinks.” (26)
Watch out Starbucks!
Some cities have kava bars where you can enjoy drinking kava the traditional way — communally with your friends.
Interested in checking one out?
You’ll find an interactive map of kava bars here.
Unfortunately, in many other countries the regulation of kava is more restricted and less straightforward.
If you are wondering about the status of kava where you live, a good place to start is Kona Kava Farm’s blog post Kava Worldwide Legal Status.
This kava distributor is located in the US and ships kava to most of the world, so they have real world expertise about where kava can and can’t be shipped.
Their success rate for shipping to Canada, the UK, France and Germany is over 90%, but is only 50% to Australia.
Currently it looks like Poland is the only country with an outright ban on kava, making it illegal to even have it in your possession.
Another place to find up-to-date information on the legal status of kava in your country is at Kava.guru.
Kava for Anxiety: The Bottom Line
Kava, both as a traditional drink and as a modern-day supplement, is well established as an effective remedy for anxiety.
And while the safety of kava was brought into question by a scare that it could cause liver damage, this concern is largely unfounded.
If you decide to try kava for anxiety, 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 use of kava immediately.