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Kava root

Kava root overview

Renowned as a herbal remedy, Kava Kava, also known as Piper Methysticum, is a plant indigenous to the Pacific Islands. Its roots are widely respected for their medicinal properties and have been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Kava root is commonly utilized in the treatment of anxiety, stress, and insomnia. Additionally, numerous studies and reviews have acknowledged its relaxant and anesthetic properties.

In recent years, kava has gained significant traction as a dietary supplement, becoming a popular alternative to therapeutic drugs in western societies. However, despite the therapeutic effects, concerns have surged over the safety of kava products. Key among these is the potential risk of liver damage. Numerous reports suggest that kava supplements may have detrimental effects on the liver, leading to conditions such as hepatitis, cirrhosis, and even liver failure.

What is kava root?

Kava root, often referred to as simply ‘kava’, is a crucial dietary element extensively utilized in the Pacific. Notably, Pacific Islanders have long cherished this herbal supplement considering its various potential health benefits. The root is part of a plant scientifically called Piper methysticum, which literally means ‘intoxicating pepper’, adequately reflecting the properties of this fascinating plant. Historically, kava has found its use in herbal medicines, consummating a spot on the path of natural healing and treatment options.

The effects of kava are well documented, with reviews pointing towards its efficacy in aiding relaxation. A systematic review of available studies has highlighted its properties that may assist in the management of disorders such as anxiety, due to its calming effects. Reflecting the growing modern trend, kava bars have sprung up across the U.S. and beyond, serving drinks infused with kava for anxiety relief and relaxation. Simultaneously a consumer advisory has been issued about potential risks, ensuring that people are aware of possible side-effects. Now, kava is not only utilized in traditional ceremonies by Pacific Islanders but has also gained prominence in the form of dietary supplements marketed worldwide.

What are the benefits of kava root?

The kava plant, native to the Pacific Island regions, carries numerous benefits which have been celebrated in traditional medicines for centuries and are now being recognized by health care professionals worldwide. One such advantage is its possible treatment for anxiety. The plant’s psychoactive properties exhibit significant therapeutic potential. Studies have shown that kava can help ease generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a common mental health condition. The potential benefits of kava have been acknowledged chiefly in a research paper authored by Sarris J and Bousman CA, suggesting that it can provide relief without the cognitive impairment associated with many anti-anxiety medications.

Additionally, there is some evidence that the kava root can protect cells in the liver, acting as a shielding agent against liver disease. While it is not as an official treatment for liver damage or disease, many health professionals see potential in it. Nevertheless, it is essential to note that kava does not make the liver invincible. A balanced approach to health, combining regular check-ups with a health care professional and lifestyle adjustments, can play a liposomal role in reinforcing the liver’s health. Overall, the powerful benefits of kava root speak compellingly of its role in improving health.

How is kava root consumed?

Kava root, renowned for its medicinal properties, is primarily consumed in two ways – either in its traditional form as a beverage or as extracts in capsule or tablet forms. As a beverage, kava is prepared by grinding the root to a fine powder and then mixing it with water, resulting in a mildly intoxicating drink popularly termed as ‘Kava drinks‘. These beverages are widely consumed in many Pacific Island countries for their relaxing and anti-anxiety effects, and have steadily gained popularity in western nations.

However, with an increase in kava use, concerns have arisen over the risk of liver damage due to long-term use. Medical studies indicate a significant correlation between kava consumption and liver toxicity, which can escalate to drug-induced liver injury or even liver failure in severe cases. While these instances were initially linked to kava extracts, recent reports of liver toxicity have also implicated ‘Kava drinks’. Taking Kava in combination with other hepatotoxic drugs or substances exacerbates the scenario further, necessitating safe consumption practices and increased awareness about the potential risks of liver damage associated with the use of this medicinal plant.

What are the side effects of kava root?

Kava root, famed for its benefits as a natural remedy, is not without adverse effects, especially in the case of long-term treatment. The most common side effects experienced by people, who use kava root as a remedy for anxiety disorders, include headaches, dizziness, and gastrointestinal discomfort. There are reports showing that kava root might have toxic effects on the liver when consumed in high doses, raising concerns about its safety. Moreover, some evidence from research suggested excessive consumption could lead to skin rashes and a condition called ‘kava dermopathy’.

In the realm of traditional medicine, kava root is lauded for its ability to treat anxiety, specifically generalised anxiety disorder. The efficacy of kava root was confirmed by a 16-week double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled study. However, scientists note that chronic use of kava root may potentially interfere with cognitive function. Individuals considering kava as a long-term treatment means for anxiety should be aware of these potential risks. Despite its potential therapeutic benefits, the adverse and potentially toxic effects of kava root highlight the need for caution and consultation with a healthcare provider before incorporation into one’s treatment routine.

What are some traditional recipes using kava root?

Traditional usage of kava root varies vastly among different cultures, but it’s most commonly recognized for its role in ceremonial drink recipes by Pacific Aboriginal communities. A popularly known rendition of such a recipe involves combining the kava root extract with water to produce kava tea or ‘beverage kava’. Despite its extensive traditional use, the exact recipe isn’t universally defined, creating an issue of Ill-Defined Herbal Drug Identity. Interestingly, these ceremonial drinks often involve serving of large amounts of kava, typically exceeding the amounts found in industry-standardized extracts, which can potentially lead to an elevated risk of adverse effects.

However, it’s critical to note that the ceremonial usage and traditional recipes of kava are surrounded by extensive rituals and rules within these communities, which are crucial in avoiding adverse reactions. Savage KM’s research specifically highlighted this context-dependent usage of larger amounts of kava tea and correlated it with motor vehicle crashes in Aboriginal communities. Hence, while it’s a fundamental element of their cultural practices, the potential risk of not adhering to the stipulated guidelines or general misuse of kava beverage could lead to detrimental effects, emphasizing the importance of regulated consumption.

What are the safety considerations related to kava root consumption?

While the Pacific Ocean islanders have utilized Kava Tea consumption for centuries, the drink has also been linked to severe liver injury and even liver damage. A case reported in the Journal of Clinical by one Murray G. highlighted the plausible correlation between this natural beverage and the potential for hepatotoxicity. The anticonvulsant effects of the kava root are well-known, but they must be balanced against the possible risk of cell death in the liver. As such, any pre-existing liver or health condition might exacerbate this risk factor, which means patients should always consult with their healthcare professional before commencing consumption of Kava Tea.

The foods and pharmaceutical industry operates under comprehensive regulatory guidelines to prevent such incidents of severe liver damage. However, plants like kava root, and products derived from them, including Kava Tea, often fall through the cracks as they are considered more natural or holistic solutions. The Food and Drug Administration has documented several serious cases of liver damage related to Kava consumption, even issuing warnings to consumers about the potential for severe harm. Despite these potential risks, studies have shown that the kava root also has anticancer properties. Thus, its consumption warrants further research to better understand its safety profile.

What are the potential risks of liver damage associated with kava root?

Though highly appreciated for its sedative effects and therapeutic benefits, kava root’s association with liver damage has stirred debates in the medical sector. This concern has been particularly heightened amongst active smokers and habitual users of kava root as a recreational drug, given their potential increased vulnerability to such hepatic harm. Liver damage, in severe cases leading to liver failure, is a potential risk linked to prolonged and excessive consumption of kava root. This has been attributed to the direct toxic effect of some of its constituents on liver cells. The degree of damage varies significantly across individuals and seems to exhibit a synergistic relationship with other lifestyle-related risk factors such as smoking.

Renowned research scientist Hill R conducted various studies focusing on the correlation between the use of kava root and liver toxicity. His research primarily concentrated on non-psychotic anxiety patients using kava root as an alternative relief method. Interesting findings suggested aqueous extracts from kava root, often used in traditional preparations, might present fewer risks than the ethanolic and acetonic extracts generally used in pharmaceutical products. Still, the results do not negate the potential risks of liver damage. Thus, while kava root offers notable benefits, the risk factor underscores the need for moderation and medical supervision during its consumption.

Sharma A, et al. (2020). “Kava as a Clinical Nutrient: Promises and Challenges”. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7600512/

Teschke R, et al. (2018). Toxicity of Kava Kava. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5868963/

Perry J & Conigrave K.(2012).” Handbook for Aboriginal Alcohol and Drug Work.” Retrieved from: https://adf.org.au/drug-facts/kava/

Alison L. Steiber (2022) “Kava Extract – an overview”. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/kava-extract

R J Boerner (2001) “Kava kava in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder, simple phobia and specific social phobia:. Retrieved from: