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What is it? Overview Usage Side Effects and Warnings

What is Kava?

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Kava is a member of the pepper family that has long been cultivated by Pacific Islanders for use as a social and ceremonial drink. The first description of kava came to the West from Captain James Cook on his celebrated voyages through the South Seas. Cook reported that on occasions when village elders and chieftains gathered together for significant meetings, they would hold an elaborate kava ceremony. Typically, each participant would drink two or three bowls of chewed kava mixed with coconut milk. Kava was also drunk in less formal social settings as a mild intoxicant.

When they learned about kava's effects, European scientists set to work trying to isolate its active ingredients. However, it wasn't until 1966 that substances named kavalactones were isolated and found to be effective...

In 1990, Germany's Commission E authorized the use of kava for relieving "states of nervous anxiety, tension, and agitation," based on evidence from several double-blind studies . 1 However, case reports of liver damage later led Germany and other countries to ban the sale of kava. See Safety Issues below.

Like other anxiety-reducing drugs, kava could be useful for insomnia , but most of the supporting evidence for this use remains highly preliminary. 2 One small, double-blind study found that daily use of kava reduced sleep disturbances linked to anxiety . 3 However, a larger study failed to find benefits in people with both insomnia and anxiety. 4 One animal study suggests that kava may also have value as an aid to alcohol withdrawal . 5 (However, individuals who abuse...

Safety Issues

Until recently, kava had been considered a safe herb. Animal studies have shown that kava dosages of up to 4 times the normal amount cause no health problems, and 13 times the normal dosage causes only mild problems in rats. 6 A study of 4,049 people who took a rather low dose of kava (70 mg of kavalactones daily) for 7 weeks found side effects in 1.5% of cases. These were mostly mild gastrointestinal complaints and allergic rashes. 7 A 4-week study of 3,029 people given 240 mg of kavalactones daily showed a 2.3% incidence of basically the same side effects. 8 One review of the literature concluded that "the data support the safety of kava in treating anxiety at 280 mg kava lactones daily for 4 weeks." 9 However, a growing number of case reports have...