Many people struggle with anxiety and related disorders such as insomnia and depression yet don’t want to resort to industrial prescription medications whose side effects may be worse than the disease. For people looking for gentler natural solutions to stress and emotional upset, answering the question “Does kava work for anxiety?” can be hugely important for improving their quality of life. When we first asked ourselves if kava root works for anxiety, glowing anecdotal reports and our own experiences seemed to provide a resounding yes: in the South Pacific, kava has had a long history of use as a social lubricant and anxiolytic taken at celebrations and holidays in much the same way as alcohol is in the West. Most people who have tried kava praise it for its ability to elevate mood, generate feelings of well-being, and lead to a deeper, more restful sleep. However, we felt it was important that people looking for a natural anxiety treatment hear a little more concrete evidence supporting kava’s actions against anxiety. In short, we wanted to answer, “Does kava kava work for anxiety in a scientifically measurable way? What studies have been done to determine if kava root works for anxiety?”
The results are heartening: since kava broke into the global herbal supplements market a decade or so ago, there have been multiple clinical studies published on kava’s ability to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and insomnia. The first clinical studies in the early 2000s measured the anxiolytic action of a standardized kava extract versus a placebo in sufferers of General Anxiety Disorder, and found that the extract was much more effective than the placebo in treating the symptoms of anxiety. Not only does kava work for anxiety, it may actually be as effective as certain prescription benzodiazepines such as diazepam that are frequently used to treat anxiety. How does kava work? Well, Researchers believe kava may be effective because it affects the same neural pathways in the brain as these synthetic drugs. Further research also found the kava can start working for anxiety faster than many prescription anti-anxiety medications, substantially improving anxiety symptoms in as little as a week compared to 4 to 6 weeks of treatment with a prescription anxiolytic.
Many anxiety disorders are also coupled with an inability to fall or stay asleep, or a drastically reduced quality of sleep. Fortunately, there is emerging clinical evidence that kava can also help bust the trifecta of insomnia symptoms, allowing sufferers to more quickly fall asleep as well as attain a deep and restful quality of sleep. Unlike many prescription sleep aids, which rapidly induce an artificially deep sleep, kava just speeds up your brain’s natural sleep trajectory; kava will put you to sleep without knocking you out or leaving you groggy and overtired the next day. Lastly, another clinical benefit of kava for anxiety is its relative lack of side effects, especially cognitive ones. A study from the University of Maryland Medical Center found that kava can improve mood at doses of 300 milligrams while not interfering with thinking and reasoning abilities. Subjects were asked to write a test to measure cognitive performance after taking a standardized extract of kava and showed levels of performance comparable to a control group. This is especially good news for anxiety sufferers because many of the alternative treatments for anxiety, such as benzodiazepines and the ubiquitous alcohol, do have the effect of impairing cognitive function. Because kava has the ability to be calming and reduce anxiety without impairing speech or cognition, many people use it at work and other social situations, either to curb the symptoms of anxiety or deal with regular everyday stress.
If you’re interested in trying kava for anxiety or insomnia relief, you should make sure to consult with your doctor first, especially if you’re currently on any medications to treat the above or related conditions. As with any herb that has effects on the central nervous system, kava can interact with and amplify the effects of prescription drugs, and may be harmful if it’s combined with benzodiazepines to treat anxiety, barbiturates for insomnia, anti-convulsant drugs for seizures or medications containing levodopa to treat Parkinson’s disease. Doctors also recommend that you not take kava with alcohol or any other substances that have depressant effects on the central nervous system. In general, it is best to obtain a physician’s okay before taking kava if you take any prescription medications that affect the central nervous system or are metabolized by the liver.
With these precautions in mind, we believe kava has great promise as a supremely effective and gentle herb for curbing anxiety and helping people de-stress their lives. For people who don’t want to resort to heavy prescription drugs of questionable benefit and safety, a nice bowl of kava may be the better way to bring contentment and happiness back into their lives.