Used by South Pacific Islanders and Hawaiians for over 3,000 years, Kava kava (Piper methysticum) began its colorful history as a ceremonial herb. Today it’s widely used all over the Pacific Islands.
In Hawaii, Tonga, and Fiji, healers make a potent drink from an extraction of the pulverized roots. This kava beverage, known as grog or yaqona, is consumed in large quantities socially and in celebrations throughout local villages.
In Fiji, kava is the national drink. Attending a kava ceremony is truly a deep honor for outsiders who have been welcomed into traditional villages.
In America, Kava has become the herbal answer to chronic stress. Numerous clinical studies show kava extract is effective for anxiety relief.
A 2013 double blind, placebo controlled study finds kava significantly reduces anxiety for people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder without affecting liver function.
Kava calms the mind and relaxes the muscles without causing oversedation or addiction like tranquilizing drugs. It’s an excellent tool to ease panic attacks and insomnia caused by stress.
Kava is also used to aid meditation practice and to enhance reflectiveness and focus.
Kava can produce a temporary enhancement of eyesight and hearing. It’s a mood elevator for mild depression, and can ease irritability.
Kava is a great herb to relax the body after a long day of work. Kava helps relax the muscles, soothing symptoms like back or neck aches, or tension headaches.
Reports surfaced in 2002 suggesting that kava causes liver damage. Both consumers and government agencies went into panic mode, leading to kava bans in Europe and Canada.
Yet, in the South Pacific where kava is used regularly in high doses, there are few reports of toxicity. What’s the real story?
Today, this controversial kava research has largely been debunked. Evidence from the International Kava Council and other herb research organizations showed that kava may have been unfairly blamed.
Evidence shows that in 27 of the 30 reported cases the people were using other medications, or had a history of alcoholism, which contributed to the liver toxicity.
Today, the kava ban has been overturned in most places, including Germany and Canada.
The case of kava kava is a prime example of why it’s important to follow the traditional use of an herb.
A study by the University of Manoa found an alkaloid, pipermethystine, found in kava’s stem peelings has toxic effects in vitro. Yet, traditional healers use only the root in extract preparations.
Widespread industrial production of kava during its peak of popularity meant that some manufacturers improperly used stem peelings and leaves due to the much cheaper costs.
Herbalists speculate this misuse as well as existing liver problems or alcohol abuse may actually have led to the reports of liver damage with kava.
Kava kava root is recommended at a maximum dosage amount of 290 milligrams a day. While kava is safe when used as directed, it’s important to avoid kava if you drink alcohol or use sedative drugs (it intensifies the effects).
Additionally, until we know more, don’t use kava if you have liver problems, if you take drugs that affect the liver, or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
Like other potent sedative herbs, only small amounts of kava are needed to support nervous system health. A small dose of kava in combination with other nervine herbs works fast to calm strong emotions during stressful moments.
You may notice kava mildly numbs the mouth, but the effect is temporary. You may also feel kava working, as a calm sensation moves throughout your body.
I have used kava kava in herbal formulas for years. I have personally never seen any problems when kava is used properly as directed. Kava tastes a bit muddy and bitter, but most people become accustomed to it.
For me, kava calms feelings of panic or anxiety fast. It’s an excellent herb for focus, and is one of the most powerful natural stress relieversavailable.
Blumenthal, M. (2002) Kava safety questioned due to case reports of liver toxicity. HerbalGram, 55, 26-32. Retrieved from http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue55/article2147.html
Global response to kava reintroduction proposal. (2011, April). HerbalEGram, 8(4). Retrieved from http://cms.herbalgram.org/heg/volume8/04April/kavaproposal.html
Kealoha, M. (2009, Nov) What is the legal status of kava? Retrieved from https://kava.com/is-kava-legal-in-the-u-s/
Sarris, J., Stough, C., Bousman, C., Wahid, Z., Murray, G., Teschke, R., et al. (2013, Oct.) Kava in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder: A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study.Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 33(5), 643-648. Retrieved from
Teschke, R., Schwarzenboeck, A., & Hennermann, K.H. (2008) Kava hepatotoxicity: a clinical survey and critical analysis of 26 suspected cases. European Journal of Gastroenterology Hepatology, 20, 1182-1193. Retrieved from http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbclip/368/review120381-368.html