Kava-kava, an herb with certain effects similar to alcohol, has long been used and reserved for ceremonial purposes in the Pacific Islands. These days you can find kava-kava, also simply referred to as kava, as a supplement in your local health food store. It's also available in beverages in a number of trendy kava bars across the United States. While it is sought after because of its relaxing effects and other potential health benefits, kava may cause some potentially serious side effects. Always consult your doctor for guidance before using kava-kava or other medicinal herbs.
Kava-kava provides relief from some forms of stress and anxiety without being addictive or causing other undesirable side effects, such as drowsiness, according to a double-blind study published in the August 2009 issue of the journal "Psychopharmacology." Three weeks of kava supplementation in participants with generalized anxiety resulted in significant symptom improvement and was safe and well tolerated. Participants took five doses per day, totaling 250 milligrams of kavalactones, the active compound in the herb. Researchers also noted that kava relieved symptoms of depression along with alleviating anxiety.
High doses of kava may help take the edge off tense muscles and decrease pain, according to New York University's Langone Medical Center, which notes that the herb may have similar activity to valium but affect different parts of the brain. A laboratory animal study published in the October 2000 issue of the journal "Planta Medica" found that kava relaxed airway muscles and this suggests use for managing asthma. However, this was an in vitro study; therefore, its potential use in humans for this purpose would require much more clinical research. Also note that kava may impair voluntary muscle movement and you should not use kava if you have a neurological disorder, according to nutritionist Phyllis Balch, author of the book "Prescription for Herbal Healing, 2nd Edition: An Easy-to-Use A-to-Z Reference to Hundreds of Common Disorders and Their Herbal Remedies."
Kava calms your nerves while keeping you alert, according to a review of previously published research that appeared in the March 2011 issue of the journal "Human Psychopharmacology." No negative effects of kava on cognitive function were found and in some studies cognitive function received a boost from kava in the form of improved visual attention and working memory. However, kava caused certain physical side effects, such as body sway and decreased ability to maintain visual focus during particularly challenging cognitive tests. Kava's ability to regulate the activity of neurotransmitter noradrenaline, particularly in brain areas responsible for critical thinking, may account for its cognitive benefits.
Stress-induced insomnia responded well to kava in a study published in the September 2001 issue of the journal "Phytotherapy Research." Participants took 120 milligrams of kava per day for six weeks and noticed that it took significantly less time to fall asleep, they slept longer and they were in a better mood when they woke up. In a second phase of the study, two weeks after discontinuing kava, volunteers took 600 milligrams of valerian root per day for six weeks. Results showed that kava and valerian were equally effective at relieving symptoms of stress and decreasing insomnia. However, 12 percent of the volunteers experienced dizziness as a side effect of kava.
- Vanderbilt University: Kava-Kava: The Solution to Today's Problems of Stress and Anxiety?
- Psychopharmacology: The Kava Anxiety Depression Spectrum Study (Kadss): A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Crossover Trial Using an Aqueous Extract of Piper Methysticum
- NYU Langone Medical Center: Kava
- Planta Medica: Kavain Inhibits Murine Airway Smooth Muscle Contraction
- Prescription for Herbal Healing, 2nd Edition: An Easy-to-Use A-to-Z Reference for Hundreds of Common Disorders and Their Herbal Remedies; Phyllis Balch
- Human Psychopharmacology: Neurocognitive Effects of Kava (Piper Methysticum): A Systematic Review
- Phytotherapy Research: Kava and Valerian in the Treatment of Stress-Induced Insomnia
- USA Today: FDA Concerned About Trendy Brew
Tracey Roizman, DC is a writer and speaker on natural and preventive health care and a practicing chiropractor. She also holds a B.S. in nutritional biochemistry.