Kava root is most commonly used to calm anxiety, stress, restlessness and treat insomnia. It’s also used for ADHD symptoms, epilepsy, psychosis, depression, migraines and other headaches, chronic fatigue syndrome, common cold and other respiratory tract infections, tuberculosis, muscle pain, and cancer prevention. Urinary tract infections (UTIs), pain and swelling of the uterus, venereal disease, menstrual discomfort, and sexual arousal are other uses of kava root. The list continues, with kava root being applied to the skin for skin diseases like leprosy, to promote wound healing, used as a painkiller and to help with eye-related health issues.
It’s also used as a mouthwash for canker sores and toothaches. With so many uses, it’s confusing as to why this herbal remedy has become known as a less than desirable treatment, yet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning that using kava supplements has been linked to a risk of severe liver damage. It’s for this reason that it’s important you the learn the facts.
1. Helps Fight Cancer
Flavokawains are secondary metabolites found in kava root that may have anticancer properties. Studies compared the toxicity of kava and monitored the results of cellular adaptation in the human hepatocyte cell line. To test for subsequent resistance to oxidative stress, cells were pretreated, and some results showed significant cell death, giving reason to believe that kava root has potential as a chemopreventive or chemotherapeutic agent.
2. May Reduce Size of Tumors Found in the Prostate
A study published in Oncotarget was conducted demonstrating that elements within the kava plant may inhibit the growth of certain deficient cell lines. Further studies have demonstrated that dietary feeding of the autochthonous transgenic adenocarcinoma of the mouse prostate (TRAMP) with kava inhibited the formation of lesions and prostate adenocarcinomas, reduced the tumor, and completely abolished distant organ metastasis. The findings suggests that agents found in kava may be a promising inhibitor for targeting degradation in prostate cancer prevention and treatment.
This makes kava root an excellent addition to improve prostate health overall and reduce the chances of prostate cancer in particular.
3. Boosts Immune System
Flavokawains extracts have been found to possess potential anti-inflammation properties. One study hoped to find agents that can enhance the functionality of the immune system without disturbing the homeostatic balance while determining the toxicity and immunomodulatory effects of flavokawain A and flavokawain B, agents found in kava root, on Balb/c mice. Based on the results, all mice were observed normal after the treatment period, and it seemed as though it did not cause any toxicity. (9)
Thus, kava root may be an immune system booster for humans in a similar way it is for mice.
4. Helps Combat Breast Cancer
Kava kava has been reported to possess anticancer and anti-inflammatory activities. We are well aware that the state of the immune system and the inflammatory process that can develop both play vital roles in the progression of cancer.
A study was conducted in Malaysia with the intention of understanding how kava root can help regulate and enhance the immune system as well as impede the inflammatory process in breast cancer-challenged mice. Notably, there was a decrease in the weight and volume of the tumor following kava treatment. Inflammation in the kava-treated mice had reduced levels as well. Overall, these results show that kava root has the potential to not only enhance antitumor immunity, but also prevents the inflammatory process in a cancer-prone microenvironment.
5. Reduces Anxiety
Generalized anxiety disorder is a chronic and pervasive condition that generates high levels of psychological stress and is typically difficult to treat long term. Some studies claim that kava root is a nonaddictive and a non-hypnotic anxiolytic with the potential to treat anxiety.
More research has been reported by Cochrane assessing the evidence for or against the effectiveness of kava root extract for working as a natural remedy for anxiety. Twenty-two potentially relevant, double-blind, placebo-controlled RCTs were identified. Twelve trials met the inclusion criteria and were in favor of kava extract as an aid in reducing anxiety. Few adverse events were reported, and of those reported, they were all mild. This data notes that kava extract might be an effective symptomatic treatment for anxiety.
6. Promotes Better Sleep
Kava first became popular in the 1990s as an herbal remedy for people who can’t sleep and have anxiety. (13) We know that sleep is a big problem for about 50 percent of the population at some point in their lifetimes. Plant-based remedies are becoming more and more desired to help treat sleep disorders and general insomnia, including kava root.
In a study conduct at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, six commonly used plant-based sleep therapeutics were investigated to include caffeine, chamomile, cherries, kava kava, L-tryptophan, marijuana and valerian root. Though no mind-blowing results were reported, kava and kava drinks have been known to provide sedative effects.
4 Kava Root Side Effects and Risks
1. Drug Abuse
Because kava is known to provide some very deep relaxation benefits, there’s potential for drug abuse, though this problem seems to be low in most areas. Kava is marketed as an herbal anxiolytic in several countries and is consumed recreationally in high doses in many indigenous Pacific and Australian Aboriginal communities. Suggested dosage for treatment of non-psychotic anxiety is 105 to 210 milligrams daily for three to four weeks. (15) The most common side effects of kava are headache, dizziness, drowsiness, depression, diarrhea and occasionally dermatologic manifestations. Precautions should be taken.
2. Viral Resistance
Health care professionals have been given so much literature on herb-drug interactions that it often makes it difficult to separate experimental and potential interactions from those deemed clinically relevant. For example, there is a need for conclusive information to guide pharmacotherapy in HIV/AIDS.
In a review conducted at the University of Mississippi’s School of Pharmacy, the bases for potential interaction of medicinal herbs with specific antiretroviral drugs were presented while several botanicals were discussed regarding relevant interactions in humans. This research suggests avoidance of many herbal medicines while taking certain antiviral drugs, such as St. John’s wort, black pepper and grapefruit juice, as well as the African potato, ginkgo, ginseng, garlic, goldenseal and kava kava. This is important to know in order to avoid an herb-induced risk that can lead to viral resistance.
3. Liver Damage
Kava may be unsafe when taken by mouth. Serious illness, including liver damage, has occurred even with short-term use of normal doses. It’s been reported that the use of kava, for as little as one to three months, has resulted in the need for liver transplants and even death. Early symptoms of liver damage include yellowed eyes and skin known as jaundice, fatigue, and dark urine.
It’s wise to acquire frequent liver tests should you decide to take kava. The severity of liver injury ranges from moderate enzyme elevations to to acute liver failure. In most cases, the liver injury subsides within one to three months of discontinuing the herbal product, but there have been reports of liver transplants in some patients. (17)
4. May Not Be Safe While Driving
Using kava can make you unable to drive or operate machinery safely. Do not take kava before you plan on driving. Driving-under-the-influence citations have been issued to people driving erratically after drinking large amounts of kava tea.
A study conducted at the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health in New Zealand reviewed the published literature examining the association between kava use and motor vehicle crashes, related injuries or driving performance. However, no studies quantifying the effects of kava while operating a motor vehicle or related injury were located.
Four experimental studies using computer-based driving simulation examined the effects of pharmacological doses of kavalactones on cognitive and visuomotor performance, finding weak evidence of a slowed reaction time. However, one study found the visuomotor performance on driving simulation to be significantly impaired when kava was consumed with alcohol.
Kava Root vs. Kratom
While we have learned a lot about kava, kratom is a similar herb with many of the same effects. Kava and kratom are often compared since they both exude feelings of relaxation, but kratom is known more for boosting energy or calming the mind while kava is more known for its intoxicating, euphoric feelings. Both grow in Southeastern Asia, and while kava comes from the root of the plant, kratom comes from the leaves and are often made into a tea referred to as kava tea or kratom tea.
Because they have different mechanisms of action, using both together has been found to offer more potent effects, particularly since both:
Promote feelings of contentment
Here’s how the two stack up:
Improves mood, eases anxiety and boosts sociability
Influences GABA receptors
Stimulates dopamine receptors
Comes from the root of the plant
Works as a stimulant in small doses and a sedative in high doses
Induces feelings of calm
Stimulates the mu and delta opioid receptors
Influences serotonin and norepinephrine receptors
Comes from the leaves of the plant
History and Origin of Kava Root
Kava or kava kava (Piper methysticum: Latin “pepper” + Latinized Greek “intoxicating”) is a crop of the western Pacific. The name kava is from Tongan and Marquesan cultures; other names for kava include ‘awa (Hawaiʻi), ava (Samoa), yaqona (Fiji), sakau (Pohnpei), and malok or malogu (parts of Vanuatu).
The roots of the plant are used to produce a drink with sedative anesthetic and entheogenic properties. Kava is consumed throughout the Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia, including Hawaii, Vanuatu, Melanesia and some parts of Micronesia. Its active ingredients are called kavalactones.
Kava was named by the explorer Captain Cook, who chose a name that meant “intoxicating pepper.” While Captain Cook may have named kava, he didn’t discover it. Kava has been used for thousands of years by Pacific Islanders.
Today in the South Pacific, kava is a popular social drink, similar to alcohol in Western societies. It also still has a role in rituals and ceremonies. One study reported that kava drinking is strongly linked to many of the ceremonial, social and cultural obligations that are deeply embedded within the Tongan culture.
The positive uses of kava include medicinal purposes, male bonding, an alternative to alcohol consumption, and reaffirming and establishing relationships among other Tongan men. The men interviewed in the study also stated negative uses of kava, such as the feeling of laziness, feeling of being too tired to go to work or have sexual interaction with their partners, and the fact that it’s very expensive to buy in New Zealand.
However, kava is one of the most important social pillars of Melanesian societies. It’s been used for more than 1,000 years in social gatherings for the preparation of kava drinks with relaxing effects. It was during the colonial period when extract preparations found their way into Western medicinal systems to treat situational anxiety dating back more than 100 years. However, upon publishing a series of case reports of liver toxicity in 1999–2000, major concerns have been noted.