Does Kava Work for Anxiety?

Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is from a plant that grows in the Pacific Islands. The people there have found that if they chew the root, their mouth gets red, and their attitude relaxes. Popularity for kava has spread to the U.S. where it is a common, inexpensive, over-the-counter resource for anxiety.

Going Native with Kava Kava

The kava plant is a shrub. It grows naturally in places like Fiji, Samoa and Hawaii. It has been used in native ceremonies for more than 3,000 years. Kava kava is sometimes chewed for its calming effects. Chewing the root delivers the strongest dose. When chewed it can create a numbness or tingling in the tongue. It is also pounded and made into a drink, offered like a cocktail.

Benefits of Kava

Proponents of kava claim benefits beyond it being an anxiolytic. They claim that this substance can help with sleep and pain reduction. While a replacement for alcohol in some cultures, they claim kava does not cloud the mind as alcohol does, but instead helps clarify thoughts. Claims have also been made that kava helps with urinary problems. It can be applied topically to ease skin disorders. Some even say that it helps with gonorrhea. These claims, however, they have not been verified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Getting High with Kava

For most people who buy kava over the counter and take the doses prescribed, kava does not produce a high or any other psychoactive properties. Some people may feel the “edge” of their anxiety is gone; some may feel no change whatsoever. For those sensitive to it, the relaxation may lead to other pleasant feelings. But this is not a hallucinogenic at any level.

Warnings

It’s the FDA's job to make sure things that we ingest are safe. The FDA issued a consumer advisory in March of 2002 about kava. There was some evidence that it caused liver damage such as hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver failure. Studies have not been complete as to whether it interacts with another substance to cause the damage or whether it was the dosage that left some people with the liver problems. High doses over time can also cause skin and hair problems and possibly even affect hearing.

Conclusions

As with other herbal remedies, kava should be taken with a doctor’s supervision. If taken, it should be on a short-term basis and in limited doses only. It can be taken in pill or liquid form from a pharmacy or health store, or it can be used in a natural form, although the dose would be difficult to determine. It should not be taken when pregnant or nursing, nor should it be taken with any other combination of medications including alcohol. Anyone with liver problems should avoid it altogether. If anxiety is mild, and no other medications are being taken, it might be a good first step to feeling calmer, but again, always consult with your doctor before taking kava or any other drugs or supplements, natural or not.

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