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Kava Kava

Compilation by Armando Gonzalez Stuart, PhD

Scientific Name:

Piper methysticum Forst.

Other Common Name:

Awa, kawa, kew, tonga, yangona.

Where is it found?

Roots and rhizomes (underground stems).

How is it used?

Kava denotes both the plant and the drink prepared from its roots. The beverage is prepared by chewing or crushing the plant’s root and is used by the Polynesian natives in important ceremonies and reunions. Currently, capsules, extracts and other products containing kava a re also available.

What is it used for?

According to some authors, kava is traditionally employed in various areas of the South Pacific as an “ice breaker” in marriages, welcoming ceremonies and other important events, because of its socializing and calming effects. This may be compared to the use of alcohol in western society, but with the main difference being that the use of kava is not related to violent acts as compared to the consumption of alcohol. Aside from its relaxing effects, kava has been used by native peoples of the South Pacific for various ailments, ranging from venereal disease to skin infections. In external applications it is reported to exert an antimycotic (stops the fungus from reproducing) effect on the skin. Kava has been used successfully in Europe for many years for the treatment of various disorders, including urinary tract infections, anxiety, menopause and as a muscular relaxant. In contrast to the effects of pharmaceutical drugs with sedating action, kava is reported to elicit relaxation, but with an alert and relaxed mental state. In various controlled studies, kava has been declared effective in reducing anxiety without showing some of the negative side effects such as “hangover effect” and depressed cognitive function manifested by some of the conventional sedatives. There is clinical evidence that kava may be of value, principally in the treatment of non-psychotic anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, some people have abused kava containing products, employing them for “recreational activities” not necessarily related to the herb’s medicinal applications.


Safety / Precautions


  • In high doses, kava has a narcotic and psychoactive effect. •Avoid taking kava products with alcohol.
  • Avoid driving a motor vehicle or operating heavy machinery after taking kava products. Kava causes drowsiness and may impair normal reflexes.
  • The negative effects of large doses and long term use are known as “kavism”. This condition is a skin disorder which shows up as a scaly eruption, known as “kava dermopathy”.
  • Symptoms also include a yellowish coloration of the skin and fingernails that is apparently due to an abnormal metabolism of cholesterol. Eye irritation may also occur. This condition is totally reversible once kava consumption has ceased and has not been observed in patients ingesting normal therapeutic doses used against anxiety or insomnia.
  • Kava should be avoided in pregnancy and lactation and should not be given to small children.
  • Avoid kava use in patients with Parkinson’s disease, as their tremors may increase. Kava ingestion should also be avoided in patients with epilepsy.
  • Patients with serious or psychotic anxiety and endogenous depression should also avoid ingesting kava, as it may worsen their symptoms. Adequate therapy and counseling for these patients should be sought at once.
  • Kava preparations should not be taken continuously for more than 3 months, unless it is under the supervision of a physician.
  • There have been reports of liver toxicity apparently related to kava use, prompting the authorities in various to ban or restrict the sale of products containing kava.
  • Not all of the intoxications reported seem to be related solely to kava use, since some of the affected individuals were also taking other medications or alcohol, which could, at least in part, account for the liver-toxic effect.
  • Patients suffering from any liver or kidney disease should avoid taking kava.
  • It is best to consult with a health professional before taking any supplements or preparations containing this herb.

Before you decide to take any medicinal herb or herbal supplement, be sure to consult with your health care professional first. Avoid self-diagnosis and self-medication: Always be on the safe side!