The Spartan Guide to Kava
The Claim: Usually delivered in beverage or pill for, kava is made from a plant that grows naturally in the western Pacific islands. People take it orally to treat anxiety, stress, insomnia, ADHD, and headaches.
The Evidence: In the South Pacific, kava is often consumed socially as a drink—akin to alcohol in Western culture. Also like alcohol, kava is responsible for many instances of liver damage and even a few deaths. In fact, it’s banned from European and Canadian markets, though you can still buy it in the U.S.
But kava isn’t without benefits. Compounds called kava-lactones seem to act on the brain and other parts of the central nervous system. “I prescribe kava in combination with other herbs to help reduce anxiety and anxiety-induced insomnia as well as to help relax muscles and relieve muscle tension and spasm,” says Janelle Louis, a functional medicine practitioner at Focus Integrative Healthcare in Overland Park, Kansas. And she’s careful to monitor how much they’re taking. “High doses can lead to intoxication-like symptoms as well as a dry rash,” she says.
A decent amount of evidence shows that kava extracts that clock in at 70 percent kava-lactone can decrease anxiety—and may even work as well as prescription anti-anxiety meds. Reserach hints that the herb may work better in those with severe anxiety, female patients, and younger patients. And although more hard studies are needed, some link kava with better sleep and lower levels of stress.
How to Use It: Because of health concerns, you should talk to your doctor before going on kava. You should also avoid it when you're drinking alcohol, since both increase the risk of liver damage and decreased reaction time. And because it can alter the effect of dopamine, Louis also recommends avoiding it if you have a personal or family history with Parkinson’s disease.
If you're going to take it, look for products that contain kava root instead of other parts of the plant. “Kava stem and other plant parts have been associated with liver damage, but this hasn’t been the case with the root,“ Louis says. “Still, as a precaution, I don’t recommend kava to patients with liver disease or otherwise impaired liver function.”