The stress-fighting herbs valerian root and ashwagandha have been getting rave reviews for the past few years, but according to wellness gurus and naturopaths alike, there’s another under-the-radar herbal superstar ready to take you straight to relaxation station: kava. We’ve got everything you need to know here.
What Is Kava?
To start, kava (also known as ‘kava kava’) is hardly new. Made from the roots and stems of the Piper methysticum plant (a member of the pepper family), kava has been used medicinally by islanders in the South Pacific for thousands of years. In fact, “warring tribes would ceremoniously drink a beverage made of kava and water, sit down, and work out their difference,” says naturopathic medicine practitioner Steven Ehrlich, N.M.D., Chief Medical Officer at Solutions Acupuncture and Naturopathic Medicine.
In recent decades, though, the ingredient has started popping up in DIY elixirs, capsules, and tinctures.
Kava’s All-Star Compounds
Kava’s claim to fame is its purported ability to ease anxiety and promote a sense of calm—and that power comes from a specific type of compound it contains.
“Kava contains kavalactones, which have been shown to interact with your GABA-A receptors,” explains nutritional consultant Caleb Backe. GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, prevents our neurons from over-firing or being over-stimulated—which is essential for brain function and mood regulation. Through their interaction with these GABA-A receptors, kava’s kavalactones have an overall calming and relaxing effect.
The Benefits of Kava
In addition to supporting relaxation, kava is also known for promoting restful sleep. Here’s some more information about the herb’s two main benefits—and how they help boost general mental well-being.
1. Eases Anxiety
According to more than two decades of research, kava has significant benefits for those dealing with feelings of anxiety.
The first long-term study on the subject, published in Pharmacopsychiatry in 1997, found that people with anxiety who took a concentrated kava extract for 25 weeks experienced decreased symptoms. The researchers also highlighted that kava helped without causing dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal issues.
Since then, a number of smaller studies (like this one, this one, and this one) have also found kava extracts to be helpful for feelings of anxiety.
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In 2013, a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study (the most definitive type of study in the book) published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology sealed the deal, finding kava to be effective for soothing anxiety.
2. Promotes Restful Sleep
Because of its calming effects, kava has also been studied for its ability to improve occasional sleeplessness.
Though some research has focused specifically on its sleep benefits for people dealing with anxiety, other evidence suggests it can help even if you’re anxiety-free.
In fact, one 2015 review on natural sleep aids published in Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found ample evidence that kava helps improve sleep.
Though kava offers notable short-term benefits, long-term use may not be safe. Back in 2002, The U.S Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory to consumers about a link between long-term kava consumption and liver toxicity. For that reason, some countries in Europe have rolled out stricter regulations on the supplement.
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However, it’s worth noting that the FDA does state that kava-related liver damage appears to be rare. According to the National Institutes of Health, “The frequency of clinically apparent liver injury due to kava is less than 1:1,000,000 daily doses.”
The Best Way To Take Kava
That said, this herb can be an incredibly helpful temporary part of your wellness routine if you’re dealing with a particularly stressful or sleepless period. You just have to understand and respect its power.
“Taking kava is not like taking magnesium, which has a subtle and gradual effect, to support stress,” says Ehrlich. “It has a direct pharmacologic effect.”
Since everyone reacts differently to different herbs, and kava may also interact with certain drugs for depression, anxiety, or liver function, talk to your healthcare provider about whether it’s a good fit for your needs, says dietitian Stacy K. Leung, R.D.N.
Once you’ve got the green light, start off with half the recommended dosage of kava root extract (typically 100 milligrams) per day, says Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. If you don’t experience any side effects—which can include headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, low mood, or stomach upset—then go ahead and consume the full 100 milligram dosage, says Leung.
Valdez recommends taking kava for up to three to four weeks (and no more) at a time.
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