Kava is a wildly popular herbal drink that hails from the Pacific Islands. This beverage is consumed similarly to alcohol and is also a staple in traditional herbal medicine. Kava extracts are largely used due to their anti-anxiety benefits and their ability to improve sleep.
Kava is also extremely controversial in the Western world. The herb has been banned in many countries and some researchers warn against its use due to serious liver side effects. Find out more about kava including its potential benefits and associated side effects right here.
What Is Kava?
Kava is a drink made of extracts derived from the kava plant known by the botanical name Piper methysticum. The plant is native to the South Pacific region and is commonly enjoyed as an herbal supplement and social drink there. Many Pacific Islanders enjoy this drink similarly to the way alcohol is enjoyed in the Western world.
Kava goes by many different names across the South Pacific and Polynesian Islands. In Vanuatu, kava is known as malok while it is called yaqona in Fiji. In Hawaii, kava is known by the name “awa”.
Kawakawa is a separate plant that looks similar to kava and is valued by the Maori people. It should not be confused with kava as it does not offer any psychoactive properties and comes from a different plant genus.
Throughout Micronesia and the South Pacific, awa is used for its sedative effects. It is also exported to many countries as herbal medicine.
Uses and Benefits of Kava
Malok is largely used to treat anxiety disorders thanks to its psychoactive and sedative properties. Millions of Americans suffer from anxiety disorders and many of these individuals are looking for natural medicines to treat their symptoms. Holistic healthcare practitioners often prescribe kava to help reduce symptoms of anxiety and stress.
A systematic review of the plant in the treatment of anxiety was published in the Cochrane Database in 2003. Researchers examined 11 randomized, controlled clinical trials that used malok extracts and consisted of 645 participants. Researchers found that six of the studies demonstrated a significant reduction in anxiety for participants who took the plant extract. The researchers found that short-term use — between 1 to 24 weeks — showed little adverse side effects and helped to improve feelings of wellbeing (1).
The sedative effects of malok may help people achieve better sleep. To date, most research on the sleep-improving qualities of kava has focused on participants with sleep problems due to anxiety or stress. The effects of the plant on normal sleep patterns are still largely unknown.
A study published in Human Psychopharmacology examined the effects of kava and valerian root on sleep in stressed individuals. The study consisted of 24 participants who received either kava or a placebo for six weeks. Researchers found that both ingredients decreased anxiety and improved sleep (2).
A second study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders examined the impacts of this extract on sleep disturbances caused by anxiety disorders. There were 61 participants in the study who received either a placebo or kava dietary supplements for four weeks. Researchers found that malok significantly reduces anxiety and improve sleep in people with anxiety disorders that were not psychotic in nature (3).
Side Effects of Kava
While malok is often touted as an herbal remedy, it has also been associated with many severe side effects. Results from early studies that indicated serious side effects led to a ban on the plant extracts in European Union countries and Canada. Australia regulates how much can enter the country. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also warns of the danger of liver problems with prolonged use (4). Always seek medical advice from a qualified healthcare provider before consuming supplements or kava tea or coffee.
Early studies show that excessive or continued use of kava may cause liver injury (5). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a consumer advisory on its use after research from Europe connected kava to 25 cases of liver toxicity. These events included liver diseases such as cirrhosis and liver failure (6). While the FDA has documented safety concerns, this plant extract is still available in the United States.
Researchers still don’t fully understand why kava increases the risk of liver damage and more research is needed to establish the safety of continued use.
Research published in Phytomedicine by Rolf Teschke argues for better standardization of kava supplements, kava bars, and kava drinks (7). Due to potential kava hepatotoxicity, consult a healthcare professional before using kava — especially if you already suffer from diminished liver function.
Kava has major interactions with depression medications such as Xanax. Do not take this substance if you are already taking another antidepressant. The plant also has adverse effects when combined with central nervous system depressants such as powerful sedatives. Malok may also interact with medications for liver problems. Additionally, research shows drug interactions between kava and levodopa and other drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease, since both compounds increase dopamine in the brain.
Other Side Effects
Other side effects of prolonged kava use include allergic reactions, scaly skin, weight loss, and loss of appetite. Do not take if you are allergic to the malok plant or its relatives.
The Bottom Line on Kava
Malok is still relatively new in the medical research world. The herb has been used historically to treat depression, anxiety, and sleeplessness. Most negative side effects have been associated with long-term use of the plant. Consult a qualified healthcare practitioner before using or consuming kava. Limit use to less than 24 weeks to avoid serious side effects. Remember that more research is needed to establish widespread use in treating anxiety and other disorders.