Kava—or kava kava—is a root found on South Pacific islands. Islanders have used kava as medicine and in ceremonies for centuries.
Kava has a calming effect, producing brain wave changes similar to changes that occur with calming medicines such as diazepam (Valium, for example). Kava also can prevent convulsions and relax muscles. Although kava is not addictive, its effect may decrease with use.
Traditionally prepared as a tea, kava root is also available as a dietary supplement in powder and tincture (extract in alcohol) forms.
Research has shown that kava's calming effect relieves anxiety, restlessness, sleeplessness, and stress-related symptoms such as muscle tension or spasm. You can also use kava as a pain medicine (analgesic).1
When taken for anxiety or stress, kava does not interfere with mental sharpness. When taken for sleep problems, kava promotes deep sleep without affecting restful REM sleep.
Kava may be used instead of prescription antianxiety drugs, such as benzodiazepines and tricyclic antidepressants. Kava should never be taken with these prescription drugs. Avoid using alcohol when taking kava.
Kava may have severe side effects and should not be used by everyone. Kava has caused liver failure in previously healthy people. You should not use kava for longer than 3 months without consulting your doctor.
Before you use kava, consider that it:
Long-term kava use may result in:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has investigated whether using dietary supplements containing kava is associated with liver illness. Reports from Germany and Switzerland about kava causing serious liver problems have led to the recent removal of these products from shelves in Britain. Other countries have advised consumers to avoid using kava until further information is available.
In the United States, the FDA advises people who have liver disease or liver problems, or people who are taking medicines that can affect the liver, to consult a doctor or pharmacist before using products that contain kava. People who use a dietary supplement that contains kava and experience signs of illness should consult a doctor. Symptoms of serious liver disease include brown urine as well as yellowing of the skin or of the whites of the eyes. Other symptoms of liver disease may include nausea, vomiting, light-colored stools, unusual tiredness, weakness, stomach or abdominal pain, and loss of appetite.
The FDA does not regulate dietary supplements in the same way it regulates medicine. A dietary supplement can be sold with limited or no research on how well it works.
Always tell your doctor if you are using a dietary supplement or if you are thinking about combining a dietary supplement with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on a dietary supplement. This is especially important for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.
When using dietary supplements, keep in mind the following:
- Pittler MH, et al. (2003). Kava extract versus placebo for treating anxiety. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
Other Works Consulted
- Kava (2009). In A DerMarderosian et al., eds., Review of Natural Products. St. Louis: Wolters Kluwer Health.
- Murray MT, Pizzorno JE Jr (2006). Piper methysticum (kava). In JE Pizzorno Jr, MT Murray, eds., Textbook of Natural Medicine, 3rd ed., pp. 1167–1172. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.
- Connor KM, et al. (2006). Kava in generalized anxiety disorder: Three placebo-controlled trials. International Clinical Psychopharmacology, 21(5): 249.
- Jacobs BP, et al. (2005). An Internet-based, randomized, placebo-controlled trial of kava and valerian for anxiety and insomnia. Medicine, 84(4): 197.
- Pittler MH, Ernst E (2000). Efficacy of kava extract for treating anxiety: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 20(1): 84.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Adam Husney, MD, MD - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Marc S. Micozzi, MD, PhD - Complementary and Alternative Medicine|
|Last Revised||June 29, 2011|
Last Revised: June 29, 2011
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