The psychoactive plant compound kava, usually served as a drink or in baked goods, can improve symptoms in chronic anxiety sufferers, Australian scientists demonstrated in a clinical trial.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a group of conditions characterized by constant worry, agitation, and trouble sleeping. Lead researcher Dr. Jerome Sarris of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne says that current antidepressant and antianxiety medications for GAD are only somewhat effective and that their use may have unintended consequences.

“Based on previous work we have recognized that plant-based medicines may be a viable treatment for patients with chronic anxiety,” Sarris said in a press release. “In this study we’ve been able to show that Kava offers a potential natural alternative for the treatment of chronic clinical anxiety. Unlike some other options, it has less risk of dependency and less potential for side effects.”

In addition to reducing anxiety in GAD patients, the researchers stumbled on another, more unexpected effect of kava use. Women in the experimental study group who took kava for six weeks reported an increase in their sex drive. However, the researchers concluded that the effect was caused by a reduction in the women’s anxiety, not because the plant is an aphrodisiac.

Kava has been used for generations on the South Pacific islands for social and ceremonial purposes. Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning in 2002 linking kava to rare cases of liver damage and liver failure, the drug can be legally sold in the U.S. as a dietary supplement.

Researchers enrolled 75 patients with diagnosed GAD in an eight-week trial, and the subjects were given either tablets of kava root extract or a placebo twice a day. The researchers assessed patient anxiety levels before, during, and after the trial period, and found that the people taking kava saw a significant reduction in their anxiety symptoms.

At the end of the trial, 26 percent of the study group taking kava was classified as “in remission” from their symptoms, compared to six percent of the placebo group.

Liver function tests showed no discernible difference between the two groups, and no adverse reactions or addiction and withdrawal symptoms were reported. The study was funded by the Australian government’s National Health and Medical Research Council and Integria Healthcare, which manufactures some kava products. It was published last week in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology.

So, have a sip of kava tea and relax.