Kava Uses, Side Effects, & Risks
In recent years, many people have started using products made from a plant called kava (also known as kava kava, kawa, or awa). Studies suggest that these products may help treat certain health problems. However, like other herbal remedies, they also pose some health risks.
What Is Kava Used For?
The kava plant (also known as Piper methysticum) is native to the South Pacific Islands. For centuries, Pacific Islanders have used the plant as medicine and in religious and cultural ceremonies.
These traditional uses typically involve kava drinks, which consist of crushed kava root, water, and coconut milk.
In the 1990s, people in other parts of the world started championing kava supplements as a natural remedy for stress.
Today, you can buy various types of kava products, including teas, capsules, and kava extract tinctures. Most people use these products to treat anxiety disorders or insomnia (trouble falling or staying asleep). Some people also use them simply to relax.
Kavalactones & Withdrawal Symptoms
Indeed, kava can make you feel calm and sleepy. That’s because it contains compounds called kavalactones.
These compounds can boost feelings of well-being and muscle relaxation by impacting neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
Some research suggests kava may work as well as popular anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) medications, including benzodiazepines such as Xanax. In fact, some people use kava to ease benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms.
However, you should never try kava without talking to your healthcare provider. That’s because it can cause side effects and other health risks.
Kava Side Effects
Like most herbal medicines and dietary supplements, kava may have short-term side effects.
The specific effects you experience depend on personal factors, such as the amount of kava you use, whether you have used it before, and your overall health. The most common side effects of kava include:
- stomach ache
- slowed reaction time
- coordination impairment
- loss of appetite
- red eyes
Because kava can make you drowsy and uncoordinated, you should not use it while driving or operating heavy machinery.
Long-term use of kava may lead to serious health concerns, including:
Some people who use kava develop serious liver injuries, including hepatotoxicity (also called toxic hepatitis), cirrhosis, and liver failure.
In the early 2000s, the risk of liver damage led multiple countries to ban kava, including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Canada and Australia have since reversed these bans.
That’s because later studies suggested that liver damage mainly affects those who use very high doses of kava on a regular basis, mix kava with ethanol (alcohol), or have preexisting liver disease.
Still, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that you only use kava under the guidance of a healthcare professional. You should also stop taking it if you notice signs of liver problems, such as:
- nausea and vomiting
- stomach pain
- brown urine
- light-colored stools
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
Negative Drug Interactions
Before trying kava, tell your doctor about any other substances you use, including prescription or over-the-counter medications.
Kava can inhibit enzymes (proteins) that help your body break down certain drugs. As a result, mixing kava with other substances may cause negative drug interactions, such as increased side effects. Medications that may interact negatively with kava include:
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- medications for Parkinson’s disease
- central nervous system (CNS) depressants, including alcohol, marijuana, opioids, and benzodiazepines
Mixing kava with CNS depressants significantly raises your risk of overdose. That’s because kava also acts as a CNS depressant, meaning it slows down your central nervous system. Symptoms of kava overdose may include:
- extreme drowsiness
- slurred speech
- slowed breathing
- slowed heartbeat
- trouble breathing
If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms, seek medical advice right away.
People who frequently use large amounts of kava may develop a skin condition called dermopathy.
This condition causes dry, scaly, yellow skin. In most cases, it starts on the head, face, and neck before spreading to other parts of the body. It typically goes away once you stop using kava.
Other risks of long-term kava use may include:
- weight loss and malnutrition
- reduced white blood cell counts
- breathing difficulties
- kidney problems
In addition, you should never take kava while pregnant or breastfeeding. The substance could cause harmful side effects in your baby.
Is Kava Addictive?
Research suggests that kava is not addictive. In other words, even if you use kava on a regular basis, you won’t need increasingly larger doses to feel the desired effects. You also probably won’t experience any withdrawal symptoms if you stop using it.
However, if you use kava to self-medicate anxiety, insomnia, or a similar issue, you might start thinking that you need it to function. You may then become anxious or irritable if you can’t access kava.
You might also become more likely to mix kava with other substances, such as alcohol or marijuana, to enhance its effects. As mentioned above, this type of kava misuse poses serious risks, including overdose.
If you or someone you love feels unable to stop misusing kava, please reach out to an Ark Behavioral Health specialist. Our board-certified healthcare providers offer therapy, support groups, and other treatments to help you stay healthy and drug-free.
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