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Kava (Piper methysticum)

When Captain James Cook sailed the South Pacific in the 1700s, the kava his crew sampled along the way may have eased the stress of the journey.  The herb has long been appreciated for its calming effects, and today it continues to attract new enthusiasts.

What it is?

A member of the pepper family, kava (also known as kava-kava) is a shrub that thrives on many South Pacific islands.  The name 'kava' refers not only to the herb but also to a traditional beverage made by crushing the root into a pulp, adding coconut milk or water and straining it into coconut shells.  For thousands of years, kava has played a major role in social events and religious rituals among Pacific Islanders.  In fact, Island ceremonies – whether to welcome royalty or simply by way of a communal get-together – wouldn't be complete without kava, which plays a similar role to that of alcohol in other societies, inducing sense of well-being and fostering social interaction.

The kava plant has heart-shaped leaves and bears sterile flowers that can be propagated only by dividing the roots, which are thick and gnarled.  The roots can weigh up to 10 kg.  Today, in many parts of the South Pacific, kava is widely cultivated for the medicinal properties of its roots, and is exported throughout the world.

What it does?

Kava root contains a number of compounds (the most prominent are known as kavapyrones), which have a wide range of therapeutic effects.  In many European countries, doctors currently prescribe kava for the treatment of anxiety, stress, restlessness and insomnia.  Scientists aren't sure how it works, but believe that kava targets the limbic system, a primitive part of the brain that (among other things) regulates emotions.

Major Benefits

Kava is known primarily for its anxiety-relieving benefits.  It can be useful for reducing general stress and nervousness, as well as for warding off the intense bouts of anxiety known as panic attacks.  Kava can also have a calming effect on people who are trying to stop smoking or to wean themselves off alcohol.  Its relaxing properties may help insomniacs fall asleep.  And people with mild to moderate depression, who often suffer from anxiety, may likewise benefit from the herb.  Unlike conventional tranquilizers, kava doesn't appear to dull the mind.  Some studies even show that it improves mental reaction time.  Surprisingly, people taking kava rarely seem to develop a tolerance to the herb.  In addition, kava generally doesn't seem to be addictive.

Additional Benefits

Kava has pain-relieving qualities that may be of value in treating muscle aches as well as chronic pain affecting any part of the body.  It also appears to have muscle-relaxing properties, and so may help to ease muscle spasms.  In some people with epilepsy, kava seems to prevent seizures as effectively as some prescription anti-convulsants.  Its effects may be related to its power to relieve stress and anxiety, which can trigger epileptic attacks.  Furthermore, preliminary studies suggest that the herb may help stroke patients to recover by minimizing the permanent brain damage that can occur.

Common Uses

  • Combats anxiety.
  • Eases panic attacks.
  • Helps to induce sleep.
  • Relieves pain.


  • Tablet.
  • Capsule.
  • Liquid.
  • Tincture.
  • Dried herb/tea.


  • Pregnant or breast-feeding women should not use kava.
  • Don't take kava if you have Parkinson's disease.  It may make symptoms worse.
  • Reminder:  If you have a medical or psychiatric condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.

How to take it?


The recommended dose is 250 mg of a standardized extract two to three times a day.  Consult your doctor if you've been taking kava for more than three months, because prolonged use increased the chance of side effects (see below).

Guidelines for use:

Don't exceed the recommended dose.  Higher dosages can lead to intoxication or disorientation.  (One man in the US was convicted of driving under the influence after spending the evening consuming 16 cups of kava tea, which caused him to stagger, slur his speech and drive as if drunk on alcohol).

In addition, unless your doctor recommends it, avoid this herb if you're regularly taking other drugs that affect the central nervous system, such as antidepressants, sedatives or tranquillisers.  It's also a good idea to avoid drinking alcohol when using kava.  Kava is, however, sometimes combined with herbal supplements that affect the brain, such as the antidepressant St. John's wort.  Kava usually acts within minutes, though for some people with severe anxiety, the full benefits may not be apparent until up to eight weeks after first consuming the herb.

Possible side effects

Stomach upset is the most common side effect.  Occasionally, people who are on very high doses for extended periods (which can be as little as three months, though it's usually much longer) may find that their skin turns yellow (first their face, then the rest of their body) and becomes dry and scaly.  Other side effects of very high doses include loss of appetitie, labored breathing, blurred vision, bloodshot eyes, walking difficulties and intoxication.  If these occur, stop taking the herb.  There have also been reports of allergic skin rashes, but these are uncommon.

Shopping Hints

  • Look for extracts standardized to contain at least 3.5% of the herb's active ingredients, which are called kavapyrones.
  • Buy kava that's even extracted from the root of the plant, not a product that has only purified kavapyrones.  The root extracts appear to contain a blend of beneficial substances, in addition to kavapyrones.

Latest Findings

In a major study conducted at several European medical centres, 101 patients with anxiety took either 100 mg of kava extract three times a day or a placebo.  After 24 weeks, 76% of those in the kava group said that they were 'much' or 'very much' improved, compared to 51% of those getting a placebo.  The study found it took eight weeks before there was any significant benefit from kava (earlier studies had indicated some benefit after four weeks or less), perhaps because the patients in this study were suffering from severe and long-term anxiety.  The only side effect noted was an occasional upset stomach.

Did you know?
Among the dignitaries who have drunk kava during South Pacific welcoming ceremonies are Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John Paul II, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and Hillary Rodham Clinton.