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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.