Kava is a medicinal plant with a strong history of use as a natural anti-anxiety treatment.
In this article, we will look at the health benefits of Kava, its safety, and its history.
Table of Contents
What is Kava-kava?
Kava is a long-lived perennial plant native to the islands throughout the Pacific Ocean.
The Latin name for this herb is Piper methysticum. It is also called kava-kava, or simply kava.
For thousands of years, kava has been commonly used as a traditional symbolic beverage among Pacific Islanders during rituals and social gatherings.
This kava drink was made by grinding kava roots into a paste. Traditionally, this was done by chewing the roots and spitting them out. Now, it’s typically done by hand.
After that, the fine paste is combined with water, strained, and consumed.
Throughout Europe and America, it is used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders, support brain function, and may have anti-cancer properties.
The active phytochemicals in this herb are called “kavalactones” and account for 3–20% of the weight of the root of the plant.
Health Benefits of Kava-kava:
Below are the top researched-backed kava benefits for health.
1. May Improve Sleep
Research shows that kava-kava benefits sleep quality.
It’s estimated that one-third of the world’s population suffers from insomnia. Lack of sleep can significantly impact overall health and well-being and lead to a variety of negative health conditions.
A double-blind clinical trial studied the efficacy and safety of kava in individuals with sleep issues associated with anxiety. Over four weeks, the kava extract was found to be well-tolerated without adverse side effects. The kava extract had a significant impact on the patients’ sleep by improving the quality of their sleep and reducing sleep-related anxiety.
A study analyzed the effects of kava and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) in individuals with stress-induced insomnia. The treatment consisted of only kava for the first six weeks of the study, then a 2-week break, and then only valerian for another six weeks. Results showed no significant difference between the two herbs, as they both had a notable impact on insomnia and stress levels. This shows kava’s potential as a beneficial herb for stress.
A clinical study investigated the effects of an herbal treatment combination of kava, black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), valerian, hops (Humulus lupulus), green tea (Camellia sinensis), Panax ginseng, and soy extract on sleep in menopausal women. Results suggested that this formula reduces sleep disturbances and improves overall sleep quality associated with menopause.
In addition, this herbal formula also showed a reduction in other menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and feelings of depression, anxiety, and irritability.
Summary:Research indicates that kava may help to improve overall sleep quality.
2. May Reduce Anxiety
One of the top health benefits of kava-kava is that it may work to reduce anxiety.
Commission E, a German governmental health agency, approves the use of kava-kava for nervous anxiety, stress, and restlessness.
Additionally, research shows that kava may be helpful for those with anxiety.
In a 25-week double-blind placebo-controlled study involving 101 participants, researchers concluded that kava-kava extract can significantly reduce anxiety and can be used as a safe alternative to anti-depressant medications.
General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is the most common type of anxiety. GAD is characterized as excessive anxiety or extreme nervousness that interferes with daily functioning. There are many pharmaceutical treatments for GAD; however, researchers are studying alternative treatments using botanicals such as kava-kava.
Kava extract showed a noteworthy reduction in anxiety for those with GAD and with other comorbid anxiety disorders in a six-week double-blind trial of 75 participants.
Buspirone and Opipramol are common anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications for individuals with GAD. In a double-blind study, researchers compared the effectiveness of these medications with kava-kava extract on those with GAD. Findings showed that kava was as effective as pharmaceutical medications in treating GAD (both groups saw a reduction in anxiety levels).
Summary:Various studies, as well as governmental agencies, indicate that kava may help to reduce anxiety.
3. May Support Brain Health
There are several studies that demonstrate the brain-supporting benefit of kava-kava.
A double-blind study investigated the emotional and cognitive effects of kava on healthy participants. The results showed that kava had an impact on mood by increasing cheerfulness and by enhancing cognitive performance.
In an animal study, researchers studied kava extract and its constituents: kawain, dihydrokawin, methysticin, dihydromethysticin, and yangonin to determine its brain protection benefits. Findings indicated that the plant constituent methysticin had the most active neuroprotective effects.
Another animal study showed that methysticin positively affects the brain’s hippocampus and cortex by reducing neuroinflammation and oxidative damage and improving memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease.
Summary:Small-scale trials show that kava may be able to support brain health. Larger-scale human clinical trials are needed to verify these findings.
4. Anti-Cancer Properties
The health benefits of kava have shown promise towards supporting individuals with cancer.
Research has shown that countries (i.e., Vanuatu, Fiji, and Western Samoa) with high kava consumption have a lower incidence of several cancers than non-kava drinking countries.
A recent clinical study evaluated the impact of kava on active tobacco smokers. Kava showed an increased urinary excretion of NNAL, a chemical found in tobacco products, which indicates the process of detoxification and a reduction in cancer formation. In addition, kava showed a significant decrease in cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
A 30-week animal study examined the chemopreventive activity of kava on lung tumorigenesis. Results showed a 55.9% reduction in lung tumors with the kava treatment.
Another animal study examined the anti-cancer effects of kava extract on colon cancer, which revealed a reduction in precancerous lesions, thus reducing the risk of colon cancer.
Summary:Lab research shows that kava-kava may have anti-cancer properties. Human clinical trials are needed to verify these findings.
Safety Class: 2b, 2c
Interaction Class: B
The Botanical Safety Handbook puts kava-kava in the safety class of 2B/2C, meaning it should not be used during pregnancy or while nursing. It has an interaction class of “B” which suggests that clinically relevant adverse reactions could theoretically occur.
Kava may not be recommended for individuals with liver problems, those who consume alcohol regularly, or those taking drug products that affect the liver.
The combination of alcohol and large doses of kava has been shown to inhibit cognitive and motor function.
Yellowing of the skin may occur with excessive or extended consumption of kava. Skin color will resolve when kava use is discontinued.
Kava is recommended to be used for short-term durations, not more than 3 months, with breaks in between cycles.
Pregnancy & Lactation:
There have been no adverse effects reported with the use of kava during pregnancy or lactation.
However, due to its potential liver effects, kava is not recommended to be used during pregnancy or lactation unless under the supervision of a qualified health practitioner, according to the Botanical Safety Handbook.
Standard dosing for kava-kava is as follows:
Tea (infusion): Drink 4 to 8 oz. as needed.
Tincture (1:5): Take 1 to 5mL as needed.
Capsules: Take 500 to 1,000mg as needed.
Kava-kava is on the United Plant Saver’s “at-risk” list of plants that are sensitive to the impact of human activities. Thus, it is a high-risk plant (primarily only in Hawaii).
Naming & Taxonomy:
The kava plant belongs to the Piperaceae family of plants (pepper family).
The plant’s leaves are heart-shaped, smooth, and green. The roots often enlarge to a heavy knotted mass. The plant can grow up to 15 feet high.
In the late 1700s, the Swedish botanist, Daniel Scholander and Sydney Parkinson were the first Europeans to record the kava plant on the Captain James Cook voyage.
Johann Georg Forster named the kava plant “Piper methysticum” or “intoxicating pepper”.
Kava is rich in various phytochemicals, including:
- Kawain (Kavain)
- Chalcones (flavokavains A-C)
- Piperidine alkaloid
History & Traditional Use:
The traditional beverage of kava root has been consumed in the islands throughout the Pacific Ocean and is still populated there today.
Piper methysticum was first introduced to Europeans in the 18th century and used for anxiety and nervous disorders.
The island communities of the Pacific Ocean did not drink grain-based alcohol, therefore, kava was their symbolic drink of choice. Kava was consumed for almost all phases of life including as a social beverage for chiefs and noblemen, used to welcome visitors at formal gatherings, in preparing for a voyage, for the celebration of important births, marriages, deaths, for libation to the gods, and to cure illnesses or remove curses.
Kava consumption was also important to Hawaiians. It was commonly used by farmers and fishermen. It was used to relax the mind and body, soothe the nerves, aid in sleep and relaxation, support the urinary tract, for asthma, rheumatism, fatigue, and weight management.
The leaf of kava was used as a poultice for headaches, or to break a cold or fever.
Clinical research shows that kava-kava may be effective in improving sleep, reducing anxiety, and supporting cognitive function. However, this herb may not be suitable for everyone as there are several safety concerns.
As always, please consult with your doctor or healthcare practitioner before making any changes to your supplement routine.
American Botanical Council (1990). Kava kava. Commission E Approved Herbs. http://herbalgram.org/resources/commission-e-monographs/approved-herbs/kava-kava/
Blumenthal, M. & Singh, Y. N. (1997). Kava: An overview. Herbal Gram: The Journal of the American Botanical Council, 39, 33. https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/39/table-of-contents/article126/
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Gardner, Z. & McGuffin, M. (2013). Botanical safety handbook (2nd edition). American Herbal Products Association.
Hoffman, D. (2003). Medical herbalism: The science and practice of herbal medicine. Healing Arts Press: Rochester, VT.