Today we’re going to talk about something very important (and perhaps controversial) in the world of traditional herbalism or plant medicinals. And that is the fact that: just because something has a history of traditional use doesn’t mean it’s “good” for everyone, and most importantly: it may not be good for you.
To make this case (while it can be discussed with a number of other natural remedies for various disorders, valerian comes to mind), we are going to talk about Kava Kava.
Kava – or “kava kava” or Piper Methysticum in Latin – is a member of the pepper family that grows on the islands in the South Pacific. Most often steeped like a tea and drunk for nootropic properties, meaning, like coffee it affects cognitive function and has neuroprotective benefits.
Studies of kava extracts focus on tracking kavalactones, which best display the mechanism responsible for Kava Kava’s anti-anxiety and slumber-provoking qualities, mostly due to the modulation of the GABA receptor in the brain. But recent studies reveal further neuroprotective modalities even without affecting GABA directly. These findings suggest kava might prove a beneficial treatment for degenerative diseases or nervous system conditions.
When NFL player Matthew Masifilo (whose family hails from Tonga) was prescribed Vicodin for a torn MCL during his Stanford defensive lineman days, he said “no thanks”. He even told ESPN how he “always reacted badly to it. So I stuck with the old ways.” The old ways for Masifilo was to use Kava. He even wrote about kava’s use across the centuries as a recreational and ceremonial drink in Oceania (Polynesia, Micronesia and Macronesia): “Tongan culture that carried over is the ritual of drinking Kava.”
The active components, kavalactones, illicit a similar effect to alcohol: “relaxation, talkativeness, and euphoria”, but without affecting mental clarity. In studies, the superiority of kava extract over placebo in treating anxiety and sleeplessness is nearly unanimously recorded.
Sounds great right?
Would it change your mind to know, it has been withdrawn from the market in Switzerland and Germany due to cases of liver failure? Because of such adverse effects on the liver in particular have been reported, kava is regulated in a number of countries, including France, Canada and the UK.
Doctors just aren’t sure how much kava one can take safely. If your healthcare practitioner recommends kava-kava, use the smallest possible dose; don’t take it for longer than 90 days, and absolutely avoid drinking alcohol during your use of it.
Unfortunately, no one’s totally clear whether kava itself caused the liver damage (this doesn’t seem to be the case in Polynesia), or if its use with other medications caused liver issues. However, in most cases, liver damage improved within months after ceasing kava kava use.
Because Kava Kava also operates as a sedatives, it has the likelihood of being abused for their euphoric effects. Sedatives can also become addictive for these reasons (though there hasn’t been a study to prove this out with kava kava) sedative withdrawal syndrome is something requiring treatment by tapering dosages and may even require hospitalization or counseling.
Everyone’s body is different. You will to decide if the anti-anxiety and nootropic effects are worth the hepatic risk, especially when you can use many other, safer forms of relaxants, nerve tonics and promoters of cognitive function.