Kava is a leafy shrub whose roots can be brewed into a drink, with similar effects as alcohol. It has been used for centuries to help people sleep better, help with anxiety, give feelings of calm and reduced stress. However, it has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and may cause serious liver damage or other health problems.
The kava shrub grows on Pacific islands and has fast-growing heart-shaped leaves, though it is the root that contains the medicinal properties. The substance is also called kava-kava, ava pepper, kava root or by its formal name, Piper methysticum. The roots are mashed into a pulp and then mixed with cold water; kava has been used in various ceremonies over time.
Despite its ancient uses, kava is most popular for the state of relaxation it provides. The plant can bring on a positive mood and has been used in research studies as a possible treatment for anxiety or other similar disorders.
However, in Europe, several incidences of liver damage have been linked to kava – though it is unknown whether the kava itself initiated the damage, or if patients became ill from taking kava at the same time as alcohol or other substances.
Experts also disagree on the proper dosages of kava and it has become illegal in some countries. In the U.S., kava is still legally available, though the FDA has issued consumer warnings against the possibility of liver damage or liver function failure.
The components of kava that produce positive effects are chemicals known as kavalactones or kavapyrones. In animal studies, the chemicals helped encourage sleep and had muscle-relaxing effects. They are also known for reducing pain. Scientifically, additional studies have emerged exploring kava as an anti-anxiety treatment. In some studies, the extract treated anxiety more successfully than a placebo. The effects can happen quickly; in one case, kava is linked with reduced anxiety after only seven days of use. Other studies have compared kava to prescription drugs for anxiety, and have found it creates similar calming effects at the brain level.
Methods of administering kava vary, but some people chew the root in its whole form. Others consume kava as a liquid dose or as an extract found in tablets. It may take a few weeks to notice positive benefits of kava, but experts warn against taking the substance for more than three months without a break.
Side effects of kava can include dizziness, skin problems, loss of hair or reduced hearing abilities. The root may also be intoxicating, like alcohol, and people taking kava are not recommended to drive or use motor equipment. It may also heighten the effects of prescription medications for anxiety and other medications for personality disorders.
Herbs and medicinal plants like kava have been used for treating ailments since ancient times. However, the full health effects of kava are not yet known, and patients are urged not to use it without medical recommendation and monitoring.