Is Kava the Cure for Anxiety?

While many people with anxiety may turn to a glass of wine or a few fingers of Scotch to ease their shaky nerves, kava may have some added benefits that Johnny Walker can’t provide.

Kava, also known as kava-kava, has been used by Pacific Island cultures for centuries for its relaxing properties. It’s also used for various religious rites and ceremonies. 

The root of the Piper methysticum plant is chewed, ground, or pulverized to make drinks or teas that can ease a person’s mind while maintaining clarity. It’s used for temporary relief from anxiety, stress, and insomnia.

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.

Kava is prepared in tinctures, teas, and also comes in pill and powder forms. For those looking to be social about their treatments, kava bars — where patrons can sample and sip kava just like they would a microbrew IPA — are slowly popping up across the United States.

Read the evidence for ignatia as an anxiety treatment »

What Does It Do?

Studies show that kava can be effective at elevating mood related to anxiety and depression.

One major benefit of using kava to treat anxiety is that it doesn’t appear to have much of an effect on your reaction time. For example, while common anti-anxiety medications like oxazepam can slow your reaction time when you’re driving, a 2012 study suggests that a 180 milligrams (mg) dose of medicinal kava doesn’t impair a person’s driving ability.

There appear to be few other side effects, especially compared to other anti-anxiety medications. One study showed that daily doses of kava extract ranging from 120 to 240 mg significantly reduced participants’ anxiety without causing any damage to the liver. The most common side effect experience by the 75 study participants was headache.

Additionally, while a decreased sex drive is one adverse effect of depression, research shows that kava can significantly boost sex drive in women.

But kava is no miracle cure. Like alcohol, use of kava has been linked to problems with the liver.

Health Concerns in Using Kava

The use of kava is tightly regulated in some countries due to concerns over toxicity, specifically its damaging effects to the liver. Kava is banned in the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, and France because of liver toxicity concerns.

Kava is legal for sale in the U.S. when marketed as a nutritional supplement. There have been cases of liver damage and even some deaths reported with kava use. For this reason, you should be sure to talk to your doctor about kava and discuss the appropriate dose recommended before you take this herb.

Recently, Germany has repealed the ban due to the claim that the ban was “unlawful and inappropriate.” German health authorities are currently appealing the ban.

The long-term and historic use of kava in Pacific cultures — under strict ritual preparation — have also shown it to be safe.

Still, the scientific and regulatory communities agree that further research is needed to determine whether or not the root itself is toxic to the liver, or if it is the processing methods that affect toxicity.

The FDA warns that people with liver disease or liver problems should consult their doctor before taking supplements containing kava.