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Kava kava is an herbal remedy for treatment of anxiety, insomnia, and related nervous disorders. Learn about the usage, dosage, side-effects of Kava kava.

Botanical Name:Piper methysticum
Kava kava is an herbal remedy for treatment of anxiety, insomnia, and related nervous disorders. Learn about the usage, dosage, side-effects of Kava kava.Common Names:Awa, Kava 


Kava kava (Piper methysticum) has been used as a ceremonial beverage in the Pacific Islands for thousands of years. The roots are chewed or ground into a pulp and added to cold water. The resulting thick brew, which has been compared to the social equivalent of wine in France, is typically offered to guests and dignitaries visiting the Pacific Islands.

In addition to its ceremonial purposes, kava is perhaps best known for its relaxing qualities. Kava is said to elevate mood, well-being, and contentment, and produce a feeling of relaxation. Several studies have found that kava may be useful in the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, and related nervous disorders.

However, new reports linking kava with severe liver damage has prompted regulatory agencies in Europe and Canada to warn consumers of the potential risks associated with this herb and even remove kava-containing products from the market. Based on these and other reports in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a consumer advisory in March of 2002 regarding the "rare," but potential risk of liver failure associated with kava-containing products. Be sure to visit the Precautions section for further information about the potential dangers associated with kava.

Due to these potential dangers, kava should be used only under the guidance of a qualified healthcare practitioner. Kava has been extensively studied, however, and evidence suggests that (under proper supervision) it may be helpful for the following health problems:

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Kava for Anxiety
In a recent review of seven scientific studies, researchers concluded that kava extract is significantly more effective than placebo in treating anxiety. One study found that kava substantially improved symptoms after only one week of treatment. Results of clinical studies and the experiences of people using kava suggest that this herb may be as effective as certain anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. In fact, according to one recent study, kava and diazepam (a medication frequently used for anxiety) cause matching changes in brain wave activity, suggesting that they may work very similarly to calm the mind.

Some experts suggest that kava be considered for use when anxiety and/or stress accompany certain medical illnesses. For example, such feelings are not uncommon when being treated for cancer. In one recent survey, as many as 25% of prostate cancer patients felt depressed or anxious. The authors of this particular survey suggested that kava be considered to help relieve the feelings of such men with prostate cancer.

Kava for Insomnia
Short-term studies suggest that kava is effective for insomnia, particularly in terms of improving sleep quality and decreasing the amount of time needed to fall asleep.

In addition to its anxiety-reducing (anxiolytic) and sedative properties, active compounds in kava are reputed to help prevent seizures and relieve muscle spasms. Although kava has not been studied for these purposes, some professional herbalists may recommend this herb to help relieve these and related health problems.

Plant Description

Kava root (which is used in medicinal preparations) comes from a tall shrub that grows in the islands of the Pacific Ocean. This shrub produces large, green, heart-shaped leaves that grow thickly on the branches. Long, slender flowers grow where the branches meet the stems. The roots look like bundles of woody, hairy branches.

What's It Made Of?

The main active ingredients in kava root are called kava pyrones (or kava lactones). The primary kava pyrones (including kawain and methysticum) have been extensively studied in laboratory and animal studies. These substances have been found to reduce convulsions, promote sleep, and relax muscles in animals. They also have pain-relieving properties, which explains why chewing kava root tends to cause a temporary numbness and tingling sensation on the tongue.

Available Forms

In some parts of the world, whole kava roots are chewed for their medicinal value. Kava is also available in liquid form, as tinctures or extracts, and powdered or crushed in capsules or tablets.