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Kava, a plant native to the South Pacific islands, has been valued for its calming properties since ancient times. Sipping on traditional kava tea may reduce tension while kava extract has been linked to increased cheerful mood, anxiety relief and more
Kava, a shrub native to the South Pacific islands, has been used for centuries as a ceremonial drink among people living in Oceania. A member of the pepper family, kava is derived from the roots of the Piper methysticum, or "intoxicating pepper," plant.[i]
Traditionally, the herbal kava beverage is prepared from the plant's roots, which are finely ground and added to water, and said to have a relaxing, euphoric effect, promoting a sense of calm while also supporting mental clarity.[ii]
It's now known that kava contains numerous kavapyrones, also known as kavalactones, which are among its most active constituents and believed to be responsible for its relaxing properties. Kava also has anti-anxiety properties and has been found to trigger a significant reduction in anxiety compared to placebo,[iii] while also leading to mood-boosting benefits.
Kava's Role in Boosting Your Mood
Kava's kavapyrones have anti-anxiety, pain-relieving, muscle-relaxing and anticonvulsant effects, which are thought to be mediated by effects on the brain's limbic system, which is involved in emotions.[iv]
Kavapyrones may also influence gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in your brain. Low levels of GABA have been linked to anxiety and mood disorders, while increasing GABA may improve mood and help with anxiety relief.[v] According to Australian researchers in the journal Trials:
"Kavalactones exert their anxiolytic effect through an array of neurobiological activity, primarily from modulation of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors via blockade of voltage-gated sodium ion channels, reduced excitatory neurotransmitter release via blockade of calcium ion channels, and enhanced ligand binding to GABA type A receptors."[vi]
Kava has also been found to help reduce tension by relaxing skeletal muscles,[vii] and may be particularly useful among women in perimenopause, who may suffer from mood disturbances such as anxiety and depression. While hormone replacement therapy and drugs are often recommended as conventional treatments, research suggests that kava improves mood, particularly anxiety, among this population.[viii]
Research even shows that a single dose of kava extract (300 milligrams) led to an increase in cheerful mood in a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial involving healthy volunteers.[ix] As an added bonus, it also enhanced cognitive performance.
"Thus, unlike conventional benzodiazepine-type anxiolytics, which tend to impair cognitive performance and to increase the occurrence of negative affective states," researchers noted in Human Psychopharmacology, "Kava is a potent anxiolytic agent, which, additionally, can facilitate cognitive functioning and can increase positive affectivity related to exhilaration."[x]
Kava for Anxiety Relief
The research in support of kava for anxiety relief is strong. In 1997, one of the first studies looking into kava extract for anxiety found it was superior to placebo from week eight on (the study lasted 25 weeks in all), with researchers suggesting it could be an effective treatment alternative to antidepressants and benzodiazepine anxiety medications.[xi]
Again in 2000, a meta-analysis of seven trials found that all of them suggested kava extract worked better than placebo for treating anxiety.[xii] In 2009, a study published in Psychopharmacology also revealed that an aqueous extract of kava produced significant anti-anxiety and antidepressant activity, while raising no safety concerns at the dose and duration studied -- five kava tablets, containing a total of 250 milligrams of kavalactones, per day.[xiii]
More recently, in 2018 a systematic review and analysis found kava to be more effective than placebo in three out of seven trials and it was suggested that it may be especially useful for short-term anxiety relief.[xiv] You can find even more about kava for anxiety relief at the GreenMedInfo.com database.
Is Kava Harmful to the Liver?
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the U.S., with 19.1% of adults affected.[xv] In generalized anxiety disorder, excessive worrying can make it difficult to carry out your daily activities and may lead to physical symptoms like headaches and nausea.
With anxiety so common, a safe and effective natural treatment is highly desirable, but kava does come with a caveat -- it's been linked to severe liver injury. In 2002, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned that kava-containing products have been associated with hepatitis, cirrhosis and liver failure,[xvi] and certain countries, including Switzerland, France, Australia and Canada, have banned or restricted its use as a result.
However, while Germany once banned kava, it reversed its decision after courts decided the ban "was inappropriate and even associated with an increased risk due to the higher risk inherent to the therapeutic alternatives."[xvii]
Kava Was Traditionally Consumed as a Tea
The evidence linking kava to liver disease is inconclusive, but kava may be a supplement best suited for shorter term use and caution may be warranted for people with existing liver problems. You should also avoid using kava along with alcohol, which may increase the risk of liver damage, or anti-anxiety medications, as kava may increase the effects of such drugs, leading to sedation.[xviii]
Kava may also influence the way other drugs are metabolized by your body, so it's best avoided if you're taking any prescription or over-the-counter medications.[xix]
It's also possible that some of the liver problems linked to kava were caused by adulterations in the supplements, including mixing in kava stems or leaves. Remember, kava has a history of safe usage among Pacific Islanders that goes back thousands of years -- but only the roots were traditionally consumed.
As noted in The Medical Journal of Australia, "[T]he kava used in Western countries is not the water extract of powdered roots that is traditional in the Pacific islands. Instead, in Western countries, kava is usually a dried ethanol or acetone extract of kava made up as capsules."[xx] The authors added:
"Some herbalists (and others) have argued that kava is sufficiently beneficial that rare cases of liver toxicity should be tolerated in the same manner that rare cases of liver toxicity caused by benzodiazepines are tolerated."[xxi]
Those who drink kava tea are sometimes said to become "mellow and reflective,"[xxii] and kava bars have even popped up across the U.S. at more than 180 locations, where customers enjoy the naturally relaxing drink.[xxiii]
If you want to enjoy kava according to tradition from the comfort of your own home, for anxiety relief or to boost your mood, you can make a tea out of kava powder and water. One simple preparation method is as follows:[xxiv]
- Add 2-4 Tablespoons of kava root powder to 8-12 ounces of hot water
- Add to a blender and blend on high for about four minutes
- Strain the mixture through a cloth strainer, chill and enjoy