Kava Kava

Botanical name(s):

Piper methysticum, Piperis methystici rhizoma. Family: Piperaceae

Other name(s):

ava, awa, gea gi, kava, kava-kava, kawa kawa, methysticum, yaqona (pronounced yangona)

General description

The kava plant is native to the South Pacific, where it is still widely used. It is a tall, upright bush with large leaves. The rhizome is the portion of the plant that contains the active ingredient. Some European manufacturers use top cuttings from the kava plant. This material has very little psychoactive property.

Kava contains six major kava lactones, which act on the nervous system to produce drowsiness or a mild anti-anxiety effect. Kava is used most commonly as a sedative, a muscle relaxant, and to reduce stress and anxiety.

Medically valid uses

There is some scientific evidence that kava is a mild sedative and helps to treat stress and anxiety. The active ingredients may also have muscle-relaxant properties. Contradictory evidence suggests that kava does not significantly decrease anxiety compared to placebo.

Animal studies suggest that kava may also act as a mild anticonvulsant and anti-spasmodic.

However, the FDA has issued a warning that kava supplements have been linked to a risk of severe liver damage. As a result, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has suspended further testing of kava kava.

Unsubstantiated claims

Please note that this section reports on claims that have NOT yet been substantiated through scientific studies.

Not yet substantiated claims include using kava to relieve the pain of gonorrhea and other urinary tract conditions such as cystitis and urethritis. Kava is used as a diuretic, and as a topical rubefacient and antimicrobial.

Kava is also used in sacred, formal ceremonies to welcome visitors, resolve disputes, and reinforce the social structure. In informal ceremonies, it is used to develop and reinforce social ties among peers. Finally, kava is used to access the spiritual and higher self, including lucid dreaming.

Dosing format

Kava is available as tinctures, extracts, tablets, and capsules.

Side effects, toxicity, and interactions

In August 2002, Canada banned the sale of kava products because of related liver toxicity. In light of reports of severe liver toxicity, the FDA recommends that people who have liver disease or liver problems, or people who are taking drugs that can affect the liver, should consult a physician before using kava-containing supplements.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use kava.

People with depression or bipolar personalities should not use kava as it may exacerbate depression.

People who operate dangerous machinery or function in other situations requiring reflex and coordination should not use kava. Kava may interfere with the ability to drive a car safely.

Kava may increase the effects of central nervous system drugs, particularly depressants such as alcohol, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines.

Coma has been reported following the use of kava with alprazolam.

Additional information

Click here for a list of reputable websites with general information on nutrition.