Kava Kava

Kava kava is prepared from the fresh or dried rhizomes and rootstocks of a robust perennial shrub, Piper methysticum. This shrub possibly originated from Vanuatu. Seafaring Polynesians spread the shrub to Hawaii and throughout the South Pacific Islands. Kava kava (also called kava) is closely related to the black pepper plant.

The shrub grows best in warm humid conditions with lots of sunlight at an altitude of 500 to 1,000 feet above sea level. Kava kava, with its large heart-shaped leaves, can grow up to 10 feet high and can form dense thickets. A 3-year-old plant can produce a massive 20-pound rhizome with many roots. Depending upon the resin content, the rootstock color varies from white to yellow.

The people of the South Sea Islands used kava kava to prepare a nonalcoholic brew or beverage for social relaxation and ceremonial occasions. In Hawaiian culture it also has ceremonial importance. Visiting dignitaries have been given kava kava to drink during welcome ceremonies in Samoa and Fiji. The social and cultural role of kava kava in Polynesian societies has been likened by some to that of wine usage in southern Europe.

A Cure for Anxiety

Kava kava has been available in Europe as a mild sedative for almost a century. Currently promoted for its relaxing qualities, Kava kava provides safe relief of acute and chronic anxiety disorders, stress, and restlessness. It enables the user to experience a calm temperament. It is a muscle relaxant without affecting mental functions.

The antianxiety properties of kava kava were nicely demonstrated by a well-conducted double-blind study involving 58 patients with anxiety syndrome not caused by psychotic disorders. The subjects, who received 300 milligrams of standardized kava kava extract a day, experienced a significant reduction in anxiety after one week of treatment. Anxiety relief continued to improve over the period of the four-week experiment. The study’s authors did not observe any side effects from the kava kava.

The physiological action of kava kava is different from that of tranquilizers. Kava kava causes changes in brain activity, typical of antianxiety drugs, but without the sedative effects. Kava kava is not a central nervous system depressant, and does not cause physical addiction. Furthermore, it has no hallucino-
genic properties.

Getting to the Root of the Matter

The herb is prepared by grinding or grating the fresh or dried rhizomes with water or coconut milk. The resulting product contains from three to 20 percent kavalactones–the active constituents in kava kava. There are six main active compounds that account for 90 percent of the kavalactones: kavain, dihydrokavain, methysticin, dihydromethysticin, yangonin, and desmethoxyyangonin.

These kavalactones work together, so a proper combination of these compounds is required to provide the highest activity. The kavalactone content can vary among different plants growing in different places.

Additional Uses

Kava kava has also been used in the South Sea Islands for urinary tract infections, sleeping problems, asthma, and other problems. There is some evidence to suggest its usefulness for menopausal women. A reduction in irritability, anxiety, depressed moods, and hot flashes has been reported in women treated with kava kava. Kava kava also provides antispasmodic effect, some analgesic activity, and local anesthetic effects in the mouth.


Kava kava extracts are normally standardized to contain 30 percent kavalactones for therapeutic use. It is usually recommended to take a 200-milligram capsule one to three times a day with meals. This would provide 60 to 180 milligrams of kavalactones. Recommended doses should not be exceeded. In large amounts it may impair motor reflexes and judgment during driving or operating machinery. An overdose may cause sleepiness.

Any Side Effects?

Kava kava gives the benefit of relaxed muscles and quiet nerves without the commonly experienced sedative effects of conventional drugs such as tranquilizers and antidepressants. Generally, kava kava has few side effects with the usual doses recommended (not more than 200 milligrams of kavalactones per day).

There is no significant sedation, no addiction, and a low risk of abuse. Extended heavy use of kava may cause a temporary yellow discoloration of the skin and nails. A high intake of kava kava long-term can also cause a scaly skin rash. In Fiji, the skin lesions are called kani-kani.

Restrictions and Interactions

Kava kava is not recommended for pregnant women or nursing mothers. Kava kava should not be used with alcohol, barbiturates, antidepressants, or any substance that acts on the central nervous system, since it may dangerously increase the action of these substances.


As a stress buster and anxiety antidote, kava kava is the herb of first choice. It should not be used for more than three months without a doctor’s prescription. When used in normal therapeutic doses, kava kava is a safe and effective antianxiety agent. Because of the high demand for kava kava at the present time, supplies are limited.

Remember: Herbal products and dietary supplements can have pharmacological effects, may produce adverse reactions in some people, and could interact with over-the-counter and prescription medications you may take. Discuss with your physician your decision to use any herbal product. Anything mentioned in this article is not intended to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any ailment.

Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is a professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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