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When it comes to generalized anxiety disorder, kava kava is proven to work, but it can be harsh on your liver. You can read more about how this plant works from the following article.

Even though there’s still a significant social stigma surrounding mental disorders – including anxiety – they are serious and require treatment, just like physical illnesses like heart or kidney diseases would. In fact, anxiety disorders are quite common; they affect around 18 percent of adults in the United States alone.

Anxiety is a normal defense mechanism in unknown situations, but when it becomes excessive or too frequent and part of seemingly non-dangerous situations, it is a sign of potentially pathological condition.

It’s hard to determine the exact line between normal and pathological anxiety. According to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (or DSM-5) the condition is considered pathological if “the anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

There’s a complex set of factors that can explain why someone develops this disorder — including genetics, personality traits, brain chemistry, as well as various unpleasant life events. There are various remedies to treat your anxiety disorders besides drugs, from mind-body techniques to different herbs such as lavender or kava kava.

What is Kava Kava?

Kava kava (Piper methysticm) – also called just kava – is a member of the pepper family native to the islands of the South Pacific. To be consumed, the plant’s roots have to be ground into a paste, and filtered afterwards. It’s been used for hundreds of years in various ceremonies and rituals among the Pacific islanders. Nowadays it’s mostly used to relieve stress and anxiety.

Medicinal kava products are mostly sold in form of capsules, powdered extracts, fluid extracts, and tinctures. They are produced from a concentrated kavalactones mixture made by extracting the dried peeled root of the plant with acetone or ethanol.

Kava has calming properties that some people even compare with the effect of alcohol. Anxiety disorders can be debilitating. Treatment with benzodiazepines and antidepressants is a common practice but it’s only moderately effective and comes with various side effects.

Treatment with kava kava is specifically appealing to those who favor phytotherapy and natural treatments and approaches over the conventional medicine.

Studies on the effectiveness of Kava Kava for anxiety

When it comes to treatment of anxiety with the kava plant, a fair number of clinical trials support its use for the treatment of generalized anxiety. The plant’s main active ingredients are called kavalactones, and research so far shows that they aid our health in various ways:

  • Reduce anxiety
  • Reduce neuron damage to the brain
  • Reduce pain
  • Reduce risk of cancer (according to research done on mice)

Seventy-five people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) participated in a six-week double-blind study on the effectiveness of an aqueous extract of kava versus a placebo. The study found a significant decrease in anxiety in the kava group compared to the placebo group. Reviews of 11 other studies also showed success of the kava plant in the treatment of anxiety.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is our brain's main inhibitory neurotransmitter — the one responsible for calming our brain cells (neurons) and preventing brain from becoming too excited. There’s plenty of evidence coming from neuroscientific research that anxiety disorders come from a dysfunction in the part of the brain responsible for regulating potentially dangerous stimuli.

Kavalactones from the kava plant are thought to modulate the GABA receptors, also known as the GABAergic effect.  Our bodies produce and regulate GABA naturally, but due to some malfunction, GABA levels sometimes decrease, causing anxiety, depression, as well as insomnia.

Research also suggests that due to its ability to affect GABA, kava might be effective in the treatment of many degenerative diseases, as well as diseases of the nervous system.

Possible dangers of Kava Kava

When it comes to health, we have to be careful. Everyone knows that medications come with side effects, but most people don’t realize that herbs are not that safe in the long run either. The kava plant is considered effective and relatively safe if consumed in moderation.

In a large study done on close to 7000 people in Aboriginal communities on the health impact of kava consumption, issues such as weight gain, skin rash, as well as increased lymphocyte counts were quite common in individuals who consumed 310-425 g of kava powder on a weekly basis. Alan Clough, the lead expert in this study, suggests that 240 g of kava powder per week is enough to cause adverse health effects.

There’s also a strong link between heavy kava consumption and increased levels of the liver enzyme gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT) which can damage the liver. Studies showed that moderate to heavy kava beverage consumption was associated with increased GGT in 65 percent of the kava drinkers compared with 26 percent in the control group. What’s good to know is the fact that all these symptoms are reversible once when the consumption is decreased.

About 35 cases of severe liver damage have been associated with kava beverage intake in Europe and the US in the past few years. The plant is even banned in countries such as Switzerland and Germany. Because there is no sufficient evidence, and direct causal relationship between liver damage and kava is difficult to establish, you should use kava plant with caution and only occasionally.

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