Whenever you look into a new herbal remedy such as kava kava benefits and side effects are some of the first factors you should consider in determining if an herb is right for you. The oral kava brew has been used medicinally for hundreds if not thousands of years in Polynesia, Micronesia, and Hawaii, as well as a recreational beverage for relaxation and tension relief.
Some studies into the effects of kava on the brain demonstrate that potentially, kava kava benefits people who suffer from social anxiety and stress by calming them in a way similar to benzodiazepine medications such as Valium. While kavalactones (the class of active compounds in kava) affect the same pathways in the brain as Valium, kavalactones do not seem to impair your ability to think and reason clearly, nor do they make you drowsy if a small amount is taken. In clinical studies, about 70 to 210 mg of kava seem to be effective against social and general anxiety, while between 60-150 mg can help people overcome persistent insomnia. However, since one of the side effects of kava can be slight impairment of coordination and drowsiness at higher doses, we do recommend that you refrain from driving after taking kava in any form.
Another of the medicinal benefits of kava kava is as an analgesic, or painkiller, for which kava has also been traditionally used in the South Pacific. Indigenous islanders use kava to treat arthritis pain and to reduce overall chronic pain; to treat dysmenorrhea (menstrual discomfort); to relieve tension and pain in muscles; and even to treat asthma and urinary tract infections.
Some of the mild side effects of kava kava usage include impairments in coordination, sensitivity to light (one reason why kava is traditionally consumed in the evening), and muscle weakness (or abnormal tonicity). Numbing of the lips and membranes of the mouth is another of kava’s side effects, and often considered the sign of a potent high-quality brew among kava aficionados. If used more heavily over a period of time, kava side effects expand to include redness in the eyes, shortness of breath, and an unappealing but benign skin condition called kava dermopathy: this is a side effect in which a heavy kava user’s skin becomes scaly and yellowish in patches, most commonly on the arms and chest. Far from being harmful, kava dermopathy was actually considered a status symbol in ancient Hawaii. If you had the condition, it was a visible sign of your easy access to lots of potent kava brew!
More rarely (in about 2.3% of people tested in initial open trials of kava’s effects), people may experience kava side effects such as stomach upset or gastrointestinal discomfort, tremors, headache, dizziness, restlessness, or drowsiness. However, if you’re using kava as a sleep aid, this last effect might seem more like a main benefit of kava.
In some rare cases, kava kava can cause more serious side effects, especially in people who have a history of liver disease or a weak liver due to infection with Hepatitis B or C, or long-term heavy alcohol usage. Although kava traditionally prepared from only the root extracted into water is generally liver-benign, like any herb your liver has to work to metabolize kava. If you have a weak liver for any reason, it’s best to avoid taking any drug or herb that may place an undue load on your liver. Because of its tranquilizing effects, kava kava can also react harmfully with any drugs that affect the central nervous system: these include sleeping medications, depressants like alcohol, benzodiazepines such as Valium, antipsychotic medications, and medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease such as levodopa.
There are a few simple measures you can take to reap the benefits of kava while minimizing your risk of incurring any harmful side effects. First of all, it’s prudent to always consult your doctor before you begin using any herbal supplement, including kava; this step is of especial importance if you have a liver condition, take any of the medications listed above, or if you take any medications that affect the liver generally. Furthermore, when you’re looking for a kava product, whether as a root powder, pill, tincture or drink mix, only buy from vendors that guarantee their preparations are made using only the root of the plant. In the case of tinctures and other concentrates, it’s best to buy products made using chemical-free methods, such as CO2 cold extraction.
If you want to take kava therapeutically for anxiety or sleep, make sure to follow the FDA’s dosage guidelines of no more than 250 mg of kavalactones per day, at a frequency of about three days per week. The FDA also recommends a one-week break after a month’s use, to give your body a rest, and that you not take kava habitually for more than three months without seeking a physician’s advice. We like to think that kava kava benefits outweigh the side effects, which for the most part are negligible and easily avoided with conscientious kava use. If you follow the guidelines above, you should be able to reap the benefits kava kava has to offer effectively and safely.