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What Is Kava? Benefits, Risk & More

Kava is a substance with a long history in traditional medicine that has grown in popularity in the West. It is a psychoactive pepper often ground into powder, and it may help to reduce anxiety and produce other mild, beneficial effects.

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However, kava also has notable risks and unknowns that make many experts hesitant to call it safe.

The Basics of Kava

Kava is a psychoactive member of the pepper family, with a history of use in traditional medicine and certain rituals. It has recently grown in popularity as a dietary supplement for treating anxiety, insomnia, and other conditions. It is often brewed as part of a tea.

Kava is underregulated and under researched. If you’re curious about kava, don’t take claims about the substance from sellers or health gurus for granted. Instead, rely on up-to-date medical research and other reliable resources, such as those on government sites. 

Potential Benefits of Kava

Kava may have some potential medicinal uses, although whether these counter its risks is not yet fully understood. These are the potential benefits of kava:

Anxiety Reduction

Kava’s main use is as a substance that can reduce anxiety. It is sometimes used recreationally in a way that is similar to alcohol, although with less of an effect on a person’s ability to reason or their overall state of consciousness.  

Insomnia Treatment

Kava is often promoted for the purpose of treating insomnia or as a general sleep aid. These effects have indeed been reported by users. As with many aspects of the drug, its efficacy when used for this purpose isn’t fully understood. 

Anti-Craving Agent

One of the more interesting potential uses of kava may be as an anti-craving agent. It has been used as part of several addiction rehabilitation programs and was reportedly an effective part of a broader treatment, which also included talk therapy, for alcohol and heroin addiction. 

Future Medical Uses

Kava has anti-inflammatory properties that may make the drug useful in certain medical applications. It may even be able to help combat certain neurological disorders and cancers, although it needs to be emphasized that much more research into the drug is needed. No one should take kava on their own hoping to self-treat these issues.  

Risks of Kava

The debate about the dangers of kava is ongoing. A 2019 research article noted that in demonizing kava, the medical community may have done a disservice to the public understanding of the substance, what we know about it, and its actual dangers.

One issue is that kava is under regulated in many areas, which further complicates our ability to understand the substance due to the potential for contamination. With that said, some risks associated with kava include the following:

Liver Damage

Kava is often said to potentially cause liver damage. A number of fatalities have been attributed to liver damage caused by kava use. However, other sources have claimed this danger has been overblown and that many of the fatalities attributed to kava use appear to have been misattributed or at least had important factors ignored.

For example, the 2019 article above notes some deaths blamed on kava had no autopsy performed, and multiple of the people who died had a family history of fairly serious health problems and were heavy smokers. In at least one case, a court rejected the notion that kava causes serious enough liver harm to be a notable threat.

Dermopathy

Long-term use of kava is associated with dermopathy. This is an irritating condition in which the skin becomes dry, scaly, and flaky. The skin can also take on an unwanted yellow discoloration. 

Kava Side Effects

In addition to the above risks, several side effects are associated with kava use, including these:

  • Difficulty operating heavy machinery, including driving
  • Digestive problems
  • Drowsiness
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Reduced muscle control

Large doses of kava can cause a person’s eyes to temporarily redden and their pupils to dilate.

The more kava one takes, the stronger the side effects you’re likely to experience. As such, it’s important to monitor your intake if you decide to take kava and to understand that proper dosing may be difficult in areas where kava is under regulated, as manufacturers may be using more or less kava than they claim.

Who Should Avoid It?

Kava isn’t recommended for people who meet the following criteria:

  • Children
  • Breastfeeding
  • Pregnant
  • Driving or operating heavy machines
  • Taking other medications
  • Engaging or planning to engage in heavy drinking
  • Have a pre-existing heart, lung, or liver condition

When to Call a Doctor

If you are experiencing severe symptoms due to kava use or your symptoms last hours after you’ve engaged in kava use, you should call a doctor to discuss the issue. Until you get an explanation for why you experienced the symptoms you did, you should not use kava.

If your symptoms seem life-threatening, call 911 instead. Be prepared to tell the operator your location, medical history, and any substances you’ve taken and how much you’ve taken.

Generally, you will be protected from the legal consequences of substance use, including illegal substance use, when making these types of calls. This is done to encourage people to seek help for serious medical issues, even when they’ve engaged in illicit drug use.

Updated April 25, 2023
Resources
  1. De-Mythologizing and Re-Branding of Kava as the New ‘World Drug’ of Choice. (September 2019). Drug Science, Policy and Law.
  2. Kava as a Clinical Nutrient: Promises and Challenges. (October 2020). Nutrients.
  3. Kava. (August 2020). National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
  4. Kava. (March 2020). Victoria State Government.
  5. Kava as a Clinical Nutrient: Promises and Challenges. (October 2020). Nutrients.
  6. Kava-Induced Dermopathy: A Niacin Deficiency? (June 1990). The Lancet.
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