by Mala Coomar
One of the primary reasons for the increased popularity of kava inside and outside the Pacific Islands is due to the overall relaxing effects it has on the body. For this reason, among others, it is celebrated as a social drink.
The growing prevalence of kava has led to increased interest in formal research on kava’s effects and reactions—especially outside of the Pacific Islands where there is great interest in marketing the non-addictive kava as an alternative to addictive benzodiazepines, like Valium and Xanax.
Different kavas can have different effects depending on the active ingredients—the kavalactones—present as well as how the kava is consumed and with what other substances the kava is consumed with. Arguably because of this, there is not general consensus in the academic community about the pharmacological effects of kava or the effects it may have on the body. The dominant view, however, is that kava is “benzodiazepine-like” in that kava is anxiety-reducing, hypnotic, sedative, and anticonvulsant.
In the Pacific Islands, drinkers of the traditionally prepared kava beverage report “a sense of relaxation and tranquility” and that the drink manifests a sociable attitude.
There are several anecdotal and personal accounts of the effect kava can have on reducing anxiety, stress, depression, and even curbing substance addiction. These accounts are supported by select scientific literature including one human clinical trial assessing the anxiolytic and antidepressant effectiveness of an aqueous (water-based) extract of kava. The trial was a 3-week placebo-controlled, double-blind crossover trial that recruited 60 adult participants with 1 month or more of elevated generalized anxiety. The participants were given five tablets per day containing an aqueous extract of kava and a total of 250 mg of kavalactones for three weeks when compared to the placebo group, the aqueous extract of kava resulted in a reduction in participants’ anxiety and depression levels. The aqueous kava extract was reported to be safe and there was no evidence of serious adverse health effects and no evidence of clinical hepatotoxicity or liver damage.
Although kava can be likened to benzodiazepines and have a relaxing effect, they do not impair mental clarity. One study on the chronic kava users found that their results strongly suggested that “there is no impairment in cognitive or saccadic function in individuals who are heavy and long-term kava users, nor is there any impairment in individuals who have used kava heavily in the past but abstained for longer than 6 months.”
More research is needed on the effect kava can have on sleep, but a few studies on animals have found that it influences GABA and serotonin—both of which are important for sleep. Kava’s relaxing effect, generally, can also be attributed to having a positive effect on sleep and helping the kava user sleep well.
It is important to point out that kava and claims surrounding kava have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA. This post is also referring to the effects of aqueous extracts of Noble Kava specifically either in the form of the kava beverage made with kava root and water/nut milk or pills made from kava extracted with water.
It is important to reiterate that kavalactones will react differently depending on what other substances they are mixed with. For instance, making the kava beverage with nut milk will result in a stronger drink than if it was prepared with water. And consuming kava around the same time as caffeine can result in an increase in the stimulating effects of caffeine. Consuming kava with alcohol is not advised as it can strain the metabolism of the kava beverage and cause possible liver toxicity. Rather, kava has been seen as a safer, non-addictive replacement for alcohol.
Kava’s increased, widespread use has not only served to spread an important aspect of the culture of the Pacific Islands but also serves as an exciting window of opportunity to further research the effects of kava and its use both as a social beverage and beyond as a possible alternative to addictive pharmaceuticals.
In the Vanuatuan legend about the origin of kava, kava provided relief to a grief-stricken individual when nothing else would—the apparent effects of kava lend the notion that this legend was not completely unfounded. The increased use, possible reactions, and potential benefits of kava dictate that the knowledge gaps regarding kava must continue to be filled.
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