Understanding Kava

Kava, also called “kava-kava,” is an herbal substance that comes from the root of Piper methysticum – a plant native to the western Pacific Islands. The name kava comes from the Polynesian word “awa” and literally means “intoxicating pepper.” The substance has been used by native islanders for centuries as both a medicinal treatment and a part of religious ceremonies due to its sedative, euphoriant, and psychotropic properties. Typically consumed as either a beverage or extract, kava is considered to be non-alcoholic but psychoactive. As people have become increasingly interested in the concept of natural and herbal remedies to treat various diseases and ailments in today’s society, kava has become more popular and well-known.

Kava has recently been looked at as a possible treatment for conditions such as anxiety, chronic stress, and insomnia. Some studies have suggested that kava might be a just as effective alternative to benzodiazepine drugs, although research is still limited on the topic. Kava is legally sold in the U.S. as a dietary supplement and is marketed as a sleep aid and muscle relaxant. Despite the substance’s legal status, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has shown concern about the safety and effectiveness of kava. In 2002, the FDA released an advisory that kava products were linked to potentially adverse effects on the liver. The FDA cited reports in from other countries of hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver failure as a result of long-term kava use. These reports regarding liver problems led to regulation of the substance in Germany, France, Canada, Switzerland, and the UK.

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Uses of Kava

The main use of kava is to help with anxiety. In fact, the supplement has become an increasingly popular natural alternative to benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Ativan. Despite the therapeutic effects of prescription “benzos,” the drugs have the potential to cause a lot of negative side effects that people don’t want to experience. Taking benzodiazepines can leave consumers feeling tired, weak, confused, and nauseous. The drugs can also cause debilitating mood and psychological side effects, including depression, irritability, and hostility. Research on the usefulness of kava has shown that it is possibly effective at helping with the symptoms of anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder, and this is believed to be because of the similar way that it affects the brain as anti-anxiety drugs.

Kava affects the brain and other parts of the central nervous system. The kavalactones in kava are believed to be responsible for its effects. Kavalactones, the active ingredients in kava, are sticky, insoluble substances. It passes through the bloodstream as it’s absorbed, causing the plant to act as a muscle relaxant. Most research shows that taking kava extracts that contain 70% kavalactones can lower anxiety and might work as well as some prescription anti-anxiety medications. Along with anxiety-relief, some people take kava because they feel it boosts their mood and helps them fall asleep more easily. Due to these relaxing properties, it is also sometimes used to treat attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and even withdrawal from certain drugs.

How is Kava Consumed?

Kava is available for consumption in many different forms. Traditionally, people will take the roots of kava and chew them or turn them into a pulp and add water. Now, kava is available in many non-traditional forms including pre-made liquid, tablets, and tea. It is also commonly sold as tinctures (liquid extracts). The taste of kava is often described as earthy and very similar to dirt. Due to the action of certain kavalactones, some users may find that their lips and tongue feel numb for a few minutes after drinking kava. It’s recommended that people take it on an empty stomach in order to maximize the effects.

The most common ways kava is consumed include:

Ground Kava Root This is the traditional preparation of kava. It includes grinding the kava root, putting it in a muslin cloth, and then steeping it in water. This process can be lengthy, and requires a lot of kneading and straining. Some people prefer this method because they feel it maximizes the effects.
Micronized Kava Micronized kava is a fine powder, and is comparable to an instant version of the root. This process doesn’t require any steeping or kneading; the powder is simply added to a drink of choice.
Kava Concentrate Kava concentrate is a concentrated liquid form of the substance that can be added to another drink of choice. Kava concentrate is a tincture blend that typically comes in an eye-dropper for easy administration.

The above consumption options are in addition to kava tea and supplements. Kava can be taken as a regular tablet supplement as well, and there are many different drinks available for sale that include kava in the ingredients.

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Kava Effects and Abuse

Consuming kava has shown to reduce anxiety and improve mood, sleep, and appetite in some users. However, in addition to these benefits, the substance can produce a variety of negative and potentially harmful effects as well. These side effects can range from mild to severe and include any of the following:

  • Headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Impaired coordination
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Skin rash
  • Numbness
  • Tremors
  • Blurred vision
  • Fever
  • Weight gain
  • Depression

People that regularly consume kava say that the herb induces a calming sensation similar to alcohol and benzodiazepines; however, unlike that of alcohol, they are able to remain “clear-headed” while under the influence of the substance. The majority of people experience a kind of euphoria when taking kava and increased levels of relaxation. Kava essentially acts as a central nervous system depressant as it impacts the receptors of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and stimulates dopamine in the brain. The calming and mood-boosting effects the substance induces can then cause some people to abuse kava in order to intensify these feelings.

Abuse constitutes any situation in which the substance is used not as explicitly directed, such as taking higher dosages or mixing it with other drugs and alcohol. Many individuals will take more of the herb than recommended to feel the effects faster or use it to intensify the sedation of other central nervous system depressants, including alcohol. Diverted use such as this increases the risk of serious complications such as abdominal cramping, troubled breathing, and slowed cognitive function.

The Dangers of Kava

There are multiple safety concerns regarding kava use, including liver failure and cirrhosis of the liver. Many cases of liver damage and even some deaths have been traced back to regular kava consumption. As a result, the substance has been banned from the market in both Europe and Canada. Despite the serious health concerns, kava has not been taken off the market in the U.S. Regularly consuming the supplement for as little as one to three months has resulted in the need for liver transplants, and even death. Early symptoms of liver damage include jaundice, fatigue, and dark urine.

There are several theories about why repeated use of kava might cause liver damage. First, kava is metabolized by a group of liver enzymes that are involved in metabolizing many drugs. Kava can tie up these enzymes so that they cannot readily metabolize the other drugs, causing those drugs to accumulate and damage the liver. Another possible explanation is that the kava itself might be metabolized into substances that directly cause damage to the liver cells. Other researchers believe that the liver toxicity comes from kava often being taken with alcohol, and that the liver damage is a result of the combination of the two. Yet another theory is that inflammation and depletion of important substances in the liver are to blame for toxicity. Since the mechanism of toxicity is not clear, the FDA has taken the position that individuals with liver disease or taking drugs that can affect the liver should avoid taking kava without consulting a physician.

A one-time unintentional dose of kava is almost always safe. However, there are many long-term health effects from regular and chronic use. Long-term toxicity with kava tends to be liver damage, irritation of the stomach, kidney injury, shortness of breath, disorientation, and hallucinations. Another effect of prolonged use is dermopathy; a characteristic scaly, cracked skin disorder found in people who abuse kava.

Signs of Kava Addiction

Kava is generally considered to be non-addictive; however, it can be habit forming and lead to the development of a tolerance. Because the supplement produces a euphoric high that can be used as a means of escapism or self-medicating, users can feel attached to the drug and the way it makes them feel. This can lead to a cycle of addiction; some people may want to stop using the substance but fear what life will be like without it or find themselves preoccupied with thoughts of using or obtaining it. This is especially likely in someone using kava to treat generalized anxiety disorder; the substance regulates their anxious feelings, and without it, those feelings will return and often worsen.

Some telling signs of kava addiction include:

  • Thinking about using kava throughout the day
  • Needing more and more of the supplement to elicit the same effects
  • Planning around when kava will be consumed
  • Feeling an overwhelming need or urge to take the substance, especially when in a stressful situation
  • Wanting to stop taking kava but being unable to
  • Continuing to use the supplement despite negative consequences
  • Spending excessive time in places like kava bars
  • Encouraging kava use in others and ending friendships that don’t involve the substance
  • Withdrawing from social situations to stay at home and use the supplement

Another telltale sign of kava addiction is abusing the herbal medicine in combination with another substance to produce a greater sense of euphoria. Alcohol is commonly abused alongside relaxants like kava because it heightens the side effects of both, causing the individual to experience a more intense sedation or “high.” People might also use kava as a way to come down from stimulant drugs, such as cocaine or Adderall. When someone that is addicted to the substance attempts to stop taking it or reduce doses, he or she will start to experience withdrawal symptoms although they are typically not severe. Kava withdrawal symptoms can include rebound anxiety, headache, nausea, fatigue, and cravings for the substance.

Get Help Today

While kava is marketed as a safe and natural supplement in the U.S., it still has the potential for abuse and addiction. Due to the dangerous health consequences it can cause, anyone that feels attached to or craves the substance should seek help. If you think that you may be suffering from an addiction to kava, contact a provider today and learn about potential treatment options.

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