What is kava-kava?
Kava-kava (most people just call it kava) is an herb with an exotic history. For centuries it has been used in the islands of the South Pacific. The root of this herb is made into a bitter, mouth-numbing beverage that people drink at social gatherings, religious ceremonies, and as a way to welcome important guests. (Even Pope John Paul II sampled kava on a visit to Fiji.) In the cultures of the South Pacific, kava has long been used to promote relaxation, as well as to treat certain health conditions. Here in the West, kava—which is sold in health-food stores in standardized extracts and other forms—has become very popular recently because of its reputation for reducing stress and anxiety.
What is it used for?
Studies done in Europe show that kava is helpful in easing the symptoms of certain anxiety disorders. Prescription anti-anxiety drugs can be highly addictive. Kava doesn’t usually cause major side effects and is not considered to be addictive. Health professionals in Europe, and occasionally in the United States, sometimes prescribe kava instead of standard anti-anxiety medication to their patients with anxiety disorders. Many people are taking kava on their own as a kind of "chill pill" to help them relax.
Should I try kava if I’m feeling anxious or stressed out?
There are a number of reasons why it’s not a good idea to treat yourself with kava. First of all, feeling anxious or stressed once in a while is not the same thing as having an anxiety disorder. If you are trying to reduce everyday anxiety and stress, there are other, more effective (and longer-lasting) approaches than popping a pill. You could try breath control, progressive relaxation, yoga, meditation, and visualization, to name a few.
On the other hand, if your anxiety is so severe that it’s interfering with your daily life, you don’t want to fool around with trying to treat yourself with medicine. (Yes, kava is medicine, even though it’s "natural.") True anxiety disorders are serious stuff. They are best treated by a health professional who can help you decide what therapy is best for you and then follow up to be sure that it’s helping.
Another reason not to experiment with kava is that even herbal experts have concerns about its safety. The American Herbal Products Association has recommended that kava products be labeled: "Caution: Not for use by persons under the age of 18." They warn that kava can interfere with prescription drugs and other herbs and that it has unknown effects during pregnancy.
Finally, the kava you buy in the United States can be unpredictable in terms of quality. In the South Pacific, people have control over the strength and purity of kava because they’ve been preparing it themselves for centuries. They are also experts at recognizing the kava plant. In the United States, kava is sold as pills, tinctures, and teas that are not regulated by the government in the same way as other over-the-counter drugs. There’s no guarantee that the kava sold in your health-food store even contains what the bottle says it does. And when you’re dealing with a substance that affects your brain, that’s a pretty big gamble to take.
What about kava in juice or food?
Juices and other food products that contain herbs such as kava are known as "functional foods." You’ve probably noticed that these have become very popular, in part because their labels claim that they will have a positive effect on your mood or your health. These claims are often not backed up by any evidence. The effects may depend on how much kava is actually in the product. One manufacturer even boasts that drinking a juice containing kava will "enlighten your senses"—an odd claim to make, given that several people who have taken too much kava have been arrested for driving with their senses impaired by this herb.
If you like to drink juices or eat foods containing kava (or any other herb), try to keep it an occasional thing. Be aware that their labels are often misleading. They may contain varying amounts of the herb. And they may combine herbs that don’t work well together. Herbal juices also tend to be loaded with calories and are very expensive—a good way to lighten your wallet, if not enlighten your senses.
Long-time excessive use of kava has been known to cause yellowing of the skin, nails, and hair. These effects will go away when you stop using the herb. In rare cases, kava can cause allergic skin reactions. Other reported side effects include stomach or digestive problems, headaches, and dizziness. Other warnings about kava:
- Kava may decrease alertness. It should not be used before driving.
- Kava should never be taken with alcohol or with certain prescription medications, especially medications for the mind. These include antipsychotics, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, sedatives, sleeping pills, or drugs used for general anesthesia. Kava may dangerously increase the effects of these drugs.
- Kava taken together with alprazolam (Xanax) may cause deep sleep or even coma.
- People with depression should not take kava. It may make their condition worse.