As someone who struggles with anxiety, kava tea was recommended to me by numerous people…
After trying it for the first time, I almost immediately felt a noticeable improvement in my anxiety and overall felt more relaxed.
So, I got curious about the origins of kava and what the research really says about its benefits.
What is Kava?
Kava is hardly new. The root has been used for centuries in the South Pacific. Kava is becoming more popular in the Western world in recent years and comes in several forms: most commonly as a supplement, tea, and powder.
I drink kava in tea form. Yogi Tea makes a kava tea that can be purchased at Whole Foods and other health food stores (I’ve yet to see it at major grocery stores or drug stores, but you can also click the link above to find out where to get it!). I usually drink the tea right before bed, and it definitely makes me feel relaxed and sleepy. I’ve tried other teas and supplements that are known to improve relaxation (chamomile, l-theanine, lavender, lemon balm, etc.), but kava has a much more immediate and noticeable effect for me.
Personally, I wouldn’t want to drink it during the day as it does make me feel prettyyy drowsy (think of it like melatonin light).
What are the benefits of Kava?
The most evidence is behind reducing anxiety. One systematic literature review (that looked at evidence from 12 double-blind randomized controlled trials) found that short-term use of kava is effective at reducing anxiety. Other research shows that kava may be as effective as some anti-anxiety medications and that it calms the mind in a similar way to Valium or Xanax by increasing the level of the relaxing brain chemical GABA.
Kava can also improve sleep, reduce stress, and stress-related symptoms like muscle tension.
Some also say that kava can give you a “buzz” and has been commonly turned to as people attempt to quit drinking alcohol.
Are there side-effects?
Maybe. In 2002, the FDA issued a warning of the potential risk of severe liver injury associated with the use of kava supplements. This was prompted by several studies showing a link to liver damage.
Then again… That said, these studies are limited in number and there haven’t been many high-quality, robust studies to really demonstrate the impact kava has on the liver. Kava also has a long history of usage and there have been few cases of liver damage.
In a scientific review, the New Zealand and Australian governments (where kava use is more common) found that while consumption of kava may result in minor and reversible side effects, they found “no evidence that occasional use of kava is associated with any long-term adverse effects, including effects on the liver.”
Another more recent study points out – “Only a fraction of the handful of cases reviewed for liver toxicity could be, with any certainty, linked to kava consumption and most of those involved the co-ingestion of other medications/supplements. That means that the incident rate of liver toxicity due to kava is one in 60-125 million patients.”
Where do we stand?
All that said … it’s hard to say if the cases of reported liver damage were really caused by kava OR if they were caused by another factor that wasn’t controlled for.
Kava is regulated by most European countries and has some restrictions. Germany overturned their previous ban on Kava in 2002 and now regulates it as a pharmaceutical drug. In Australia, you must be 18+ and can only have certain amounts of kava.
In the US, it’s completely legal, but there is an FDA warning out about the potential for liver damage. However, this warning is from 2002 and hasn’t been reevaluated since.
Where I Stand.
I still drink kava, but in moderation.
I can’t lie, I love kava tea. I do think it’s effective, at least for me. That said, there are other ways I’m able to manage my anxiety that don’t have the potential for liver damage, so… I’ve made an effort to try and mostly use alternatives until we have a better understanding of kava’s impact on our bodies.
Bottom line: Since kava has not been studied extensively, we really aren’t sure of its impact. So, it’s probably best to use it with some caution, but everything in moderation, ya know?
Fun fact! Kava bars have become trendy in recent years with spots like Kavasutra in New York and Kava Lounge SF in San Franciso. Personally, I’m not sure how long I could hang out at one of these places before severely needing a nap!