Kava: A Natural Alternative To Anxiety Medication?

Photo by Simpler Days.


by Luke Sumpter

on March 30, 2015

Kava (Piper Methysticum), also known as awa, ava and yaqona, is a crop native to the South Pacific and is a member of the pepper family. The plant sports relatively large, heart-shaped leaves, which accompany slender flower blossoms that reside at the intersections where the branch and stems meet. However, the kava plant has earned its status due to what resides within its hairy, woody roots.

Kava has been used in traditional, tribal settings on the islands of Fiji, Micronesia and Polynesia for hundreds of years. These cultures use the psychoactive beverage as a social and ceremonial offering in a way that’s often compared to how wine is used and consumed in European countries. Traditionally, after being harvested, the root is then pulverized, ground (often by mouth) and shredded. The herbal preparation is then repetitively strained into a bowl using a cold water extraction method, before being served in, and drunk out of, a half coconut shell. This preparation is enjoyed reverently due to its calming and sedating qualities. Because of these effects, growing evidence is starting to support claims that kava is useful for those suffering from insomnia, high stress, depression and anxiety. Interestingly, kava is proving to be as effective at dissolving anxiety as pharmaceutical drugs that are often prescribed for this condition.

The array of active ingredients responsible for the psychoactive effects of kava are known to science as kavaclones. These chemicals include compounds such as dihydrokavain, methysticum and kawaii, all of which have been thoroughly studied in laboratory settings. As a result, there’s empirical evidence that these compounds promote sleep, decrease convulsions and relax muscles in animals. The chemicals described have also shown to be effective painkillers, which is associated with the temporary numbness of the tongue that kava beverages induce when drunk. A double-blind, randomized, placebo controlled study conducted by The University of Melbourne in Australia found kava to be significantly more effective than a placebo at reducing anxiety in a group of 75 participants, all of whom were diagnosed with GAD (General Anxiety Disorder).

Lead researcher, Dr. Jerome Sarris, believes GAD to be a complex and potentially debilitating disorder that can significantly effect the daily lives of those affected, with existing medications only showing modest clinical results. Sarris was quoted by News Room in reference to the study, stating: “We have recognized that plant based medicines may be a viable treatment for patients with chronic anxiety. In this study we’ve been able to show that kava offers a potential natural alternative for the treatment of chronic clinical anxiety. Unlike some other options it has less risk of dependency and less potential side effects.”

Another study carried out at The School of Veterinary Medicine in Berlin, Germany found kava to have very similar anti-anxiety effects to the drug diazepam (Valium) when it was administered to animals. The authors of the study claim that the data supports the use of kava in treating anxiety disorders. Additionally, researchers at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom and the University of Zurich in Switzerland set out to explore how kava can affect mood and emotions, measuring the three areas of seriousness, cheeriness and bad mood. After a single dose of kava, an increase in cheerfulness was observed in the volunteers and they even performed better when given certain cognitive tasks. This led the researchers to draw a comparison between kava and conventional prescription drugs used to treat anxiety. Conventional drugs often cause unwanted mental side effects and cognitive impairment, whereas kava has been found to actually promote brain function while providing strong anti-anxiety effects and positive feelings such as exhilaration.

There’s much anecdotal evidence related to kava on the internet, many of which can be found in Erowid’s user experience vaults. One user has detailed kava’s ability to cease their anxiety and depression. Another contributor to Erowid gave details of their experience claiming: “The quieting of my conscious mind and the total clarity of thought I was experiencing was nothing short of wonderful.”

Kava has seen a recent surge in popularity in the Western world in the areas of medicine and recreational activity. It can be obtained in many different forms from the dried roots, condensed capsules and more potent tinctures. However, users looking for more of a social and recreational setting may want to pay a visit to the growing number of kava bars erupting across the U.S. — from California, to Florida, to Hawaii and elsewhere. In such establishments, both experienced and novice kava drinkers can enjoy the anxiety-easing yet clarity promoting substance legally in the company of friends, sipping from a half coconut shell surrounded by tiki statues, palm leaves, gentle laughter and easy smiles.

Much like practically every medicinal and recreational substance, kava does not come without its fair share of controversy. There are some safety concerns that link kava usage to possible liver damage, which has led to some governments, such as Poland‘s, to ban and control it. However, Dr. Sarris, a professional who has studied kava in-depth points out: “When extracted in the appropriate way, kava may pose less or no potential liver problems. I hope the results will encourage governments to reconsider the ban.”

Also, many Erowid users speak of using kava extensively for many years without any detrimental side effects, such as this user who has been a frequent drinker for three consecutive years. The author takes a liver test every three months and has reported perfectly safe medical results.

Ultimately, kava is another example of an effective plant medicine that could potentially offer individuals a natural and safer alternative to often dangerous and addictive conventional treatments.