Known by a variety of different names, Kava is a plant that is native to the South Pacific. Its root has been used in alternative medicine for thousands of years by the Pacific Islanders and is used in drink and ceremonial rites as well. Kava primarily affects parts of the central nervous system and the brain. The active ingredient, kavalactone, is the psychoactive component (affecting the mind) responsible for its effects.
Kava has most commonly been used to help with sleep and relaxation; it’s used to calm anxiety, restlessness, and stress, so it’s commonly used in those who are suffering from anti-anxiety medication withdrawal. However, there are also a variety of other uses that have been reported. It’s been used in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, migraines, epilepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, common colds, muscle pains, psychosis, tuberculosis, and even cancer prevention. Additionally, people have added a kava supplement to help treat urinary tract infection, uterus pain or swelling, menstrual discomfort, and sexual dysfunction. It’s been used as a paste to the skin to help heal open wounds and relieve pain, and it’s been used in a liquid mouthwash to help with canker sores too.
There are a plethora of websites and blogs that promote the use of Kava, which are focused on what it’s been used for in the past and its effectiveness. There are, however, some side effects and health risks that should be reviewed as well.
Side Effects and Health Risks
While the Kava root has plenty of uses and benefits, there is a major risk that comes with those benefits. The most critical and life-threatening effect of Kava has been liver damage. This has been seen even in short-term use at normal dosage levels. Some cases have led to the need of liver transplants after using for just a few months. Early symptoms of liver damage include:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
- Dark urine
If you are currently taking Kava by mouth and do not want to stop, it’s important to get regular liver function tests and be followed regularly by a health practitioner.
Those who are pregnant or nursing should not use oral Kava, as it may affect the uterus by causing inflammation and pain.
While Kava has been used effectively in some patients with depression, it may actually make symptoms worse, so should be avoided in those with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, or any other similar diagnosis.
Those who have a history of alcohol abuse and/or liver problems should not take Kava because it can cause damage even to healthy livers.
Since Kava affects the central nervous system, those who have recently undergone or will be undergoing surgery should avoid using Kava since it may increase the effects of anesthesia and other medications used during and after surgery. If you are scheduled to undergo surgery, you should stop using Kava at least two weeks before the date of surgery.
Efficacy of Kava
WebMD on Kava