What is Kava?
Kava, also known as “kava kava”, is a type of perennial shrub that belongs to the pepper family, known as Piperaceae. In social language and culture, the word “kava” denotes something bitter.
Kava has been grown throughout Micronesia, Polynesia, and Melanesia, for its relaxant and medicinal effects as a pain reliever, and muscle relaxant. It is also used as a remedy for anxiety, mood disorder, and insomnia.
A set of lactones are abundant and present almost exclusively in Kava, thus named kavalactones. These kavalactones are also believed to be responsible for the health benefits of traditional kava preparations (1).
Kava and Inflammation
Inflammation plays a vital role in the pathology of various diseases, such as neurological disorders (2).
Studies on Kava and inflammation have been partly stimulated by its analgesic effects. Historically, Kava has been used to treat urinary tract infections and immune-related disorders, such as asthma (3).
Kavain and flavokawains A and B inhibited NF-kB and decreased TNF-alpha in cell studies, both of which play an essential role in inflammation (4) (5).
Neuropharmacological Functions of Kava
Kava is best known for its anxiolytic activity, including its potential against generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is an impairing disorder associated with extensive psychiatric and medical comorbidity and is usually characterized by a chronic course (6).
It has been concluded that Kava helps reduce anxiety and mood disorder, and it’s recommended as a symptomatic treatment of anxiety (7).
Kava activates GABA-A receptors, producing a calming effect. It also prevents a decrease in norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin levels by inhibiting monoamine oxidase and relaxing muscles by decreasing beta-adrenaline receptor activity (8) (9).
Several studies have further shown that Kava can be an alternative to Benzodiazepines and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), especially in patients with mild to moderate anxiety (10).
Kava may also promote better sleep. Kava’s effects on insomnia stem from its effects on stress and anxiety (11).
Studies also suggest that Kava may reduce cravings associated with substance abuse, such as alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and heroin (12).
As a matter of fact, Kava has been used as part of addiction rehabilitation programs in New Zealand with a reported 90% success rate (13).
Kava consumption appears to be clinically non-addictive. It has also been linked with mood-elevating, improvements in short-term memory, visual attention, and enhanced accuracy and performance (14).
Safety and Side Effects
Kava must be taken in small dosages and only for short periods (no longer than three months). Any long-term usage is associated with several side effects like headaches, fatigue, dizziness, diarrhea, and skin problems. (15)
If you’re considering taking Kava, you should talk with your doctor first.
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(1)Biological Activity, Hepatotoxicity, and Structure-Activity Relationship of Kavalactones and Flavokavins, the Two Main Bioactive Components in Kava ( Piper methysticum) - PubMed (nih.gov)
(2)The inflammation theory of disease: The growing realization that chronic inflammation is crucial in many diseases opens new avenues for treatment: EMBO reports: Vol 13, No 11 (embopress.org)
(3)Inhibition of TNFα-induced activation of nuclear factor κB by kava (Piper methysticum) derivatives - ScienceDirect
(4)Identification and characterization of Kava-derived compounds mediating TNF-α suppression - PMC (nih.gov)
(5)Inhibition of TNFalpha-induced activation of nuclear factor kappaB by kava (Piper methysticum) derivatives - PubMed (nih.gov)
(6)Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA
(7)Kava in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study - PubMed (nih.gov)
(8)Clinical applications of herbal medicines for anxiety and insomnia; targeting patients with bipolar disorder - PubMed (nih.gov)
(9)Herbal medicine for depression, anxiety and insomnia: a review of psychopharmacology and clinical evidence - PubMed (nih.gov)
(10)The Kava Anxiety Depression Spectrum Study (KADSS): a randomized, placebo-controlled crossover trial using an aqueous extract of Piper methysticum - PubMed (nih.gov)
(11)Stress-induced insomnia treated with kava and valerian: singly and in combination - PubMed (nih.gov)
(12)Kava as an anticraving agent: preliminary data - PubMed (nih.gov)
(13)De-mythologizing and re-branding of kava as the new ‘world drug’ of choice - S Apo Aporosa, 2019 (sagepub.com)
(14)Enhanced cognitive performance and cheerful mood by standardized extracts of Piper methysticum (Kava-kava) - PubMed (nih.gov)