What is kava?

Kava is a plant that grows in tropical climates, particularly on the islands of the Pacific Ocean. It takes the shape of a shrub. It grows low to the ground, with light green, heart-shaped leaves.

Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, and the Republic of Vanuatu all carefully cultivate kava plants. The kava plant has traditionally been used to brew a ceremonial drink and as an herbal remedy by people native to those areas.

Kava is known to produce pleasant sensations and have a calming, relaxing effect on people that use it.

Because of its calming qualities, kava has come to the attention of the medical community as a possible treatment for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). But kava’s history as a largely unregulated substance has made its use somewhat controversial. Research into the medicinal use of kava is ongoing.

Kava has been used as an unregulated herbal treatment for generations. But it was only recently that researchers isolated an active ingredient, called “kavain,” that affects mood receptors and helps people with anxiety.

Researchers don’t completely understand the interaction between kavain and suppressing anxiety. However, this new research shows that the herb can be used in a nonalcoholic beverage to help treat GAD.

Pros and cons

Kava brings on feelings of relaxation and sometimes euphoria. A high enough dose might even help you sleep if your anxiety is keeping you awake. It appears to be less addictive or intrusive than some antianxiety and sleep medications, but this assertion isn’t proven.

The main drawback of using kava to treat anxiety is that we don’t know enough about it. Some recreational use of kava has been reported to cause liver injury in the user. For several years, the sale of kava was banned in Germany because its safety could not be confirmed. Kava was also banned in the United Kingdom for some time.

Since kava interacts with the dopamine levels in your body, it could be habit-forming. People who have battled substance abuse or addiction in the past might be discouraged from using kava to treat anxiety.

Kava causes dopamine levels in your body to rise and gives the user a feeling of relaxation and calm. Because of this, kava may make it difficult to operate heavy machinery.

One study concluded that driving after recreational use of kava could increase your potential to be in a serious accident. You may also experience fatigue that feels like a “hangover” the morning after using kava before bed.

Children under 18, women who are breastfeeding, and people on prescription medication should avoid kava or at least speak to a medical professional before using it.

Kava is available in tea, powder, capsule, and liquid form. Though more research is needed, it’s generally agreed that daily intake should not exceed 250 milligrams per day in any form. If you are considering taking kava as a supplement, consult your doctor to discuss your intentions.


Kava tea is sold in almost every health food store in America, under several different name brands. The tea is brewed in hot water and sometimes includes other herbs in a “relaxation” blend. Up to three cups of kava tea per day is advertised to be safe.


There is a potent smoky, whiskey-like taste in the liquid form of kava. The distilled root of kava is sold in small (two- to six-ounce) bottles. Though some people drink kava straight from the dropper, other people mix it with juice to disguise the strong taste.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not evaluated or recommended a safe dosage for liquid kava root.

Powder and capsules

Kava root can also be purchased in powder form and used to make a strong drink that you strain yourself. This is similar to the way that kava is brewed in its traditional cultural setting.

The powder can be ground and inserted into capsules, or kava capsules themselves can be purchased. Once again, safe dosage information for kava has yet to be determined.

Kava gives the user a relaxed feeling without the side effects of prescription medications. Its strength in comparison to FDA-approved antianxiety agents has not been established.

There are some reports suggesting a connection between use of uncertain quality kava and liver injury. However, more research is needed to demonstrate a clear link between kava and liver problems.

The main risk associated with drinking or using kava is interaction with antianxiety, antidepressant, or other prescription medications. There is no clinical research that shows how kava could interact with these drugs, but researchers estimate that the chances for a negative reaction are high.

Medications for Parkinson’s disease are particularly risky to mix with kava. Kava should not be mixed with alcoholic beverages.

For people with GAD, there are many treatment options. Most involve the assistance of a mental health professional, such as a counselor, psychiatrist, or psychologist. Prescription drugs such as Prozac and Celexa are commonly recommended.

For people who wish to avoid taking antianxiety medications, lifestyle changes are sometimes suggested. Dietary and exercise changes can help decrease the anxiety that a person feels.

But anxiety isn’t something a person can simply “think their way out of” or decide not to feel. Generalized anxiety disorder is a very real condition that needs to be addressed with the help of someone professionally trained to diagnose and treat it.

The science of herbal treatment for mental health conditions continues to evolve. Though much is unknown about the long-term use of kava for anxiety, there seems to be little cause for concern if you wish to try the remedy in small doses.

It may help you get more sleep, relax and wind down at night, or control anxiety attacks.

But be sure to consult with your doctor before trying kava. Discuss how it might affect any existing health issues. Your doctor may also examine you to be certain that your anxiety symptoms are not being caused by an underlying condition that needs to be treated.