Kava kava

Kava kava (Piper methysticum) has been used as a ceremonial drink in the Pacific Islands for hundreds of years. Some people report its effects are similar to alcohol.

The roots are chewed or ground into a pulp and added to cold water. The resulting thick brew, which has been compared to the social equivalent of wine in France, is offered to guests and dignitaries visiting the Pacific Islands.

In addition to its ceremonial uses, kava is best known for its relaxing qualities. Kava is said to elevate mood, well being, and contentment, and produce a feeling of relaxation. Several studies have found that kava may be useful in the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, and related nervous disorders.

However, there is serious concern that kava may cause liver damage. More than 30 cases of liver damage have been reported in Europe. However, researchers have not been able to confirm that kava is toxic to the liver. It is not clear whether kava itself causes liver damage, or whether taking kava in combination with other drugs or herbs is responsible. It is also not clear whether kava is dangerous at previously recommended doses, or only at higher doses. Some countries have taken kava off the market. It remains available in the United States. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a consumer advisory in March 2002 regarding the "rare" but potential risk of liver failure associated with kava-containing products.

It is impossible to say what, if any, dose of kava might be safe. You should not take kava unless you are under a doctor's close supervision.

Kava may cause liver damage. DO NOT take kava unless you are under a doctor's supervision. Evidence suggests kava may be helpful for the following health problems:

Anxiety

A number of clinical studies, though not all, have found kava to be effective in treating symptoms associated with anxiety. In a review of 7 scientific studies, researchers concluded that a standardized kava extract was significantly more effective than placebo in treating anxiety. Another study found that kava substantially improved symptoms after only 1 week of treatment. Other studies show that kava may be as effective as some prescription antianxiety medications. According to one study, kava and diazepam (Valium) cause similar changes in brain wave activity, suggesting they may work in the same ways to calm the mind.

Research on using kava for anxiety has decreased because of reports of liver toxicity.

A 2004 study found that 300 mg of kava may improve mood and cognitive performance. That is significant because some prescription drugs used to treat anxiety, such as benzodiazepines (like Valium and alprazolam or Xanax), tend to decrease cognitive function.

Insomnia

Preliminary evidence suggests that kava may help improve sleep quality and decrease the amount of time needed to fall asleep. Due to concerns about kava's safety, and the fact that other herbs can treat sleeplessness, kava is not the best choice for treating insomnia.

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Review Date: 1/1/2017  

Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by the A.D.A.M Editorial team.

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