Kava For a Brighter Outlook

Dorian Holmes, ND

A favoured herb for the treatment of anxiety and depression is known as Kava.  The Latin name for Kava is Piper methysticum, it is of the Piperaceae (or pepper) family. Kava a green broad-leaf dioecious shrub traditionally used herb for sacred rituals in cultures throughout the Pacific Islands and even in Hawaii. Some might equate kava to what tea rituals are in China and Japan or to what wine is for some Europeans. Kava has been celebrated and used to welcome visitors from outside the village as well as to discuss differences instead of war. But how might this plant be effective for those that suffer from anxiety and/or depression?

Here’s what is known.

General anxiety disorder can manifest as chronic worry, anticipation of outcomes, disturbances of sleep, restlessness, irritability, fatigue, and muscular tension. Similarly, depression shares similar characteristics with anxiety and are often co-existing within individuals. Depression also includes poor memory or difficulty with concentration, a loss of appetite and even pain.   With symptoms such as these, it is no wonder that Kava is now being examined more closely amongst researchers for its key constituents help resolve many of the symptoms that plague anxiety and depression sufferers. Kava is not a band-aid but its active constituent, kavalactones, can be used to promote calm or sleep, reduce anxiety and stress, relieve or induce insensitivity to pain. Kava also is helpful to prevent convulsions and to protect the nervous system from injury or degeneration.

The measurement of neurotransmitters can often provide explanation in those that experience anxiety or depression. Neurotransmitters are specialized messengers made within the brain from amino acids within our diet. They help to us perform everyday functions and affect the way behave and feel. When certain neurotransmitters are imbalanced, anxiety and depression are prevalent. For example when people have lower levels of gamma-aminobutryic acid (GABA) and higher levels of an enzyme, monoamine oxidase (MAO), they tend to experience anxiety. Deficiencies in neurotransmitters, dopamine or serotonin, are more prevalent in those with depression. Both anxiety and depression can be difficult to treat long term. Even with the designated pharmaceutical medications, full recovery remains elusive. The botanical Kava, unlike many pharmaceuticals used does not produce undesirable side effects or tolerance. As more research is accumulates, there is increasing support of Kava for the treatment of anxiety and depression.

In one double-blind study, Kava was compared to oxazepam (a benzodiazepine used for the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, and to control symptoms of alcohol withdrawal) and it was found that Kava was equally effective and safe. A twenty-five week study of 101 participants showed that Kava decreased anxiety disorders faster than the placebo comparator. The first human study, Kava Anxiety Depression Spectrum Study, a three-week placebo-controlled, double-blind crossover of 60 participants with general anxiety disorder, again proved to significantly reduce anxiety but also depression without serious adverse effects or clinical hepatotoxicity. This study in particular used an water-extract.

Hot-water-extracted use of Kava is actually very important to note; it is this version that is least toxic. For a time, it was thought that Kava was very toxic and damaging to the liver.   The first Kava band was initiated 2001 by the German Health Authority because more than the mild, reversible side effects of excessive use such as seborrhea – scaly patches and red skin, itchiness, and inflamed pimples were observed. Instead there were observations of quite adverse effects ranging from pulmonary hypertension and neurotoxicity to several deaths. In the following years banding continued to infiltrate the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, and Japan. Canada, in August 2002, Kava was discontinued for therapeutic purposes.

This was ritualistic plant that had been used therapeutically for centuries by many cultures for soothing toothaches and sore rheumatic muscles and improving genito-urinary dysfunctions like cystitis, prostatitis, gonorrhea, yeast infections and even fluid retention. Eventually such organizations such as the World Health Organization realized that traditionally Kava’s powerful properties were extracted by water. Research was underway to look at the difference of water versus ethanol extracted kava. Eventually it was discovered that the improper preparation and use of Kava built these negative claims. Kava bands have now been lifted.

In order to avoid potential hepatotoxicity several considerations should be adhered to:

  1. Only the inner rhizome of the kava plant should be used as ethanol extraction primes the liver to exchange helpful kavalactones into harmful epoxides.
  2. Hot water extraction of the kavalactones is best to receive the greatest value of this helpful medicinal constituent.
  3. Kava should not be used in conjunction with alcohol or with other medications.
  4. Kava’s kavalactones in excess of 250 mg, or for greater than six weeks should not be used without the guidance of a licensed health practitioner.

If you suffer from anxiety or depression, talk to your Naturopathic Doctors at Sage Clinic to see if Kava may be right for you.

Works Cited:

Deed, G., G. Byrne, K. M. Bone, J. Adams, J. Sarris, and D. J. Kavanagh. “The Kava Anxiety Depression Spectrum Study (KADSS): A Randomized, Placebo-controlled Crossover Trial Using an Aqueous Extract of Piper Methysticum.” Psychopharmacology. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 9 May 2009. Web. 15 Jan. 2017. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19430766>


Gounder, R. “Kava Consumption and Its Health Effects.” Pacific Health Dialog. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2017. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18181402>.


Rivers, Z., C. Xing, and S. Narayanapilla. “Kava as a Pharmacotherapy of Anxiety Disorders: Promises and Concerns.” OMICS International. Medicinal Chemistry, 9 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Jan. 2017. <https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/kava-as-a-pharmacotherapy-of-anxiety-disorders-promises-and-concerns-2161-0444-1000329.php?aid=68591>.


Savage, K.M., C.K. Stough, G.J. Byrne, A Scholey, C Bousman, J Murphy, P Macdonald, C Suo, M Hughes, S Thomas, R Teschke, C Xing, and J Sarris. “Kava for the Treatment of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (K-GAD): Study Protocol for a Randomised Controlled Trial.” Trials. BioMed Central, 2 Nov. 2015. Web. 15 Jan. 2017. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4630875/>.


Singh, Y. N., and N. N. Singh. “Therapeutic Potential of Kava in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.” CNS Drugs. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2017. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12383029>.


Volz, H. P., and M. Kieser. “Therapeutic Potential of Kava in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.” CNS Drugs. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2017. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12383029>.