Nature’s Most Potent Stress Buster?
It sounds like something out of National Geographic: On a remote South Pacific island, villagers form a circle. Some members of the group chew small pieces of a root, spit them into a bowl, and then add coconut milk. After the brew has been strained, it’s poured into another bowl and passed around the circle, where villagers sip its contents.
This sacred ceremony has taken place for thousands of years, a ritual that encourages relaxation and bonding.
And now, research suggests that the stress-busting benefits of the mystical root involved in this ceremony may be as close as your supermarket’s supplement aisle. This root shows incredible promise as a natural alternative to anti-anxiety drugs.
But is it safe?
A Relaxing Ritual…
Kava has been used for millennia by inhabitants of Fiji and other islands in the South Pacific, who consume a drink made from the roots of this plant related to black pepper. This “kava ceremony” was traditionally used as form of social bonding, relaxing, honoring tribal elders, and seeking spiritual protection.
The islanders have also used kava as medicine for centuries, brewing decoctions made from its roots to treat urinary infections, menstrual problems, migraines, insomnia, and other conditions. Yet the plant was unknown to the Western world until Captain James Cook discovered it during his travels in the 18th century.
Today, capsules and tablets of kava (saliva-free, thankfully) are marketed as a natural way to calm nerves, combat anxiety and panic, and relieve stress and insomnia – and a slew of studies seem to support such claims.
Kava’s effects may be due to its content of kavalactones, a group of compounds that appear to possess sedative, anti-anxiety, anti-stress, analgesic, local anesthetic, anticonvulsant, and neuroprotective properties.
It’s still not entirely clear how kava works, but researchers believe that kavalactones bind to receptors in an area of the brain called the amygdala, which regulates anxiety and fear, as well as heart rate, blood pressure, and sleep cycles – all of which are closely related to mood, emotions, and stress.
Once the kavalactones bind to these receptors, they may influence levels of neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, such as norepinephrine, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), dopamine, and serotonin.
And all those actions could go a long way to helping us feel calm, cool, and collected.
But how does the human research play out?
Proven Fix for Frazzled Nerves…
When it comes to plant-based remedies, kava is well studied. There’s no shortage of randomized, controlled studies looking at its effects, especially on anxiety.
For example, researchers gave 50 people with anxiety disorders either 150 mg of a kava extract or a placebo pill daily. After four weeks, those who took kava supplements saw their anxiety symptoms improve more than those who took the placebo.1
A similar study in 141 men and women found that 73 percent of those who took kava experienced a reduction in anxiety, compared to just 56 percent of those who took a placebo.2
And in a meta-analysis review of seven scientific studies, researchers concluded that a standardized kava extract was significantly more effective than placebo in treating anxiety.3 Another study found that kava substantially improved symptoms after only 1 week of treatment.3
What’s more, kava may be just as effective as prescription medications at easing anxiety. See, kava appears to affect the brain similarly to the drug diazepam (Valium). But unlike diazepam, kava doesn’t alter the chemical makeup of the brain – plus, it isn’t addictive.
In fact, one study of 129 people with generalized anxiety disorder compared kava to the prescription medications opipramol and buspirone. It showed that kava’s just as effective at decreasing anxiety as these potent drugs.4
Stressful Side Effect?
With benefits like these, what’s not to like?
Well, there’s just one problem – and it could be a big one.
For all its promise in treating anxiety, some experts worry that kava may not be so safe.
That’s because there have been some reports of severe liver injury, hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver failure in people who take high amounts of kava. As a result, kava has been banned in Switzerland and France, and temporarily banned in Canada and Germany. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning about kava.
So does that mean kava is a no-go?
Not so fast.
A review of patients with suspected kava-related liver damage confirmed that the supplement is indeed potentially toxic to the liver.5 But it may not be that clear-cut: Most of the patients also had other risk factors for liver damage, including use of alcohol or other drugs and herbs.
In fact, a review of 82 cases of hepatitis reported over a 12-year period in people taking kava found that 20 were unrelated to kava, 21 were due to other medications taken at the same time, 7 were possibly related to kava, and the remainder did not have enough information to determine if kava was the cause of the liver toxicity. Other studies have concluded that those cases of hepatitis related to kava occurred only after chronic consumption of “enormous” doses.6
Plus, the kava extracts used appear to have been made with solvents like alcohol or acetone, not water. And there have been no conclusive reports of liver damage during kava’s centuries of traditional use.
Keep Calm and Try Kava…
All this suggests that short-term use of kava (for 2 or 3 months) is safe. Most experts recommend a daily dose of 150 mg to treat anxiety. Looks for products standardized to contain 70 percent kavalactones.
Of course, don’t take kava if you have liver problems or take medications that can affect the liver, and don’t drink alcohol while taking the supplement. You should also pass on kava if you already take anti-anxiety medications, as it can intensify their effects.
Stop taking kava and seek emergency medical attention if you have symptoms such as nausea, stomach pain, loss of appetite, itching, dark urine, clay-colored stools, or jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes) – all signs of liver damage.
You should also stop taking kava if you experience a rash, trouble breathing, or other signs of an allergic reaction. In some people, kava can trigger side effects like gastrointestinal problems, headaches, dry mouth, dizziness, drowsiness, and dry, scaly skin.
Otherwise, if you suffer from chronic anxiety, it’s worth giving kava a try.
And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1Geier FP, Konstantinowicz T. Kava treatment in patients with anxiety. Phytother Res. 2004 Apr;18(4):297-300.
2Gastpar M, Klimm HD. Treatment of anxiety, tension and restlessness states with Kava special extract WS 1490 in general practice: a randomized placebo-controlled double-blind multicenter trial. Phytomedicine. 2003 Nov;10(8):631-9.
3A.D.A.M, Inc. Kava kava. June 23, 2011.
4 Boerner RJ, Sommer H, Berger W, et al. Kava-Kava extract LI 150 is as effective as Opipramol and Buspirone in Generalised Anxiety Disorder–an 8-week randomized, double-blind multi-centre clinical trial in 129 out-patients.
5Teschke R. Kava hepatotoxicity–a clinical review. Ann Hepatol. 2010 Jul-Sep;9(3):251-65.
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