Kava is a plant with deep cultural and ceremonial roots. It may help relieve anxiety and stress but should be taken with caution.

Kava kava plant, Piper methysticumShare on Pinterest
Joshua McCullough, PhytoPhoto/Getty Images

Today, many people seek alternative forms of healthcare for various reasons. They may have become dissatisfied with conventional treatment, want more personal control over their health choices, or seek alternatives due to personal philosophical beliefs about health.

Some forms of complementary treatments, used in conjunction with conventional medicine, can be safe and helpful. For example, a person undergoing chemotherapy for cancer may try ginger tea to reduce nausea.

However, in some cases, alternative therapies may be harmful when misused. That’s why it’s important to do research on alternative therapies and discuss interest in them with your healthcare professionals to ensure they’re safe and effective.

Kava supplements are a form of alternative medicine meant to treat symptoms of anxiety and insomnia. In the United States, it has taken the country by storm, seeing a leap in recent years of increased use both medically and for recreational purposes.

Kava, also known as kava kava, comes from the root of the plant Piper methysticum.

Pacific Islanders have used this pepper plant for centuries in ceremonies and for medicinal purposes treating pain, anxiety, and insomnia. Its consumption was considered a way to strengthen ties among one another while helping people communicate with spirits.

The active ingredients in kava are called kavalactones. They act as a muscle relaxant and have a similar effect to alcohol in that they may cause talkativeness, relaxation, and a feeling of euphoria — though reportedly without affecting your mental clarity directly.

Traditionally, the roots of the plant are ground into a fine powder and added to water. When drinking kava, you can steep the substance into cold water after shaking or stirring it.

Kava is also available in other forms including:

  • powders
  • capsules
  • extracts
  • drops

Kava bars function like coffee bars and provide a recreational and social opportunity to consume kava publicly. In addition, they offer the supplement in tasty liquids like coconut water to help hide its bitter taste. It’s also available as a tea.

Kava works as a depressant by slowing down the transmission of messages between your mind and body. Similar to alcohol, kava relaxes you by providing a sense of euphoria. It’s known to help with mental health and has replaced prescription medications for many people.

Kava has been used to help with:

Still, it’s important to keep in mind that research is often mixed and some suggested uses are based on anecdotal evidence rather than scientific studies.

Anxiety and stress

Kava has been found effective in treating the symptoms of anxiety and stress. In fact, an older study in rats showed that kava could affect the brain similarly to diazepam (Valium) to help calm the mind.

Still, a 2018 treatment review of medications and supplements used to treat generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) noted that while several studies observed a small but positive effect of kava for GAD, not all research comes to this conclusion. For instance, a 2019 study found kava to be ineffective for people with diagnosed GAD.

Older research also indicates that the supplement may help improve mood and cognitive performance. This finding is significant since certain benzodiazepines like Xanax tend to decrease cognitive function when prescribed for anxiety. Still, research from 2011 points out that kava may affect cognitive function in higher doses.


Although not a preferred treatment for insomnia, kava has been shown to help people fall asleep faster and provide a higher quality of sleep.

For instance, older research found that kava improved sleep in people with anxiety disorders. An older study in rats also observed sleep-improving effects.

Still, a 2020 study notes that while these observed effects are promising, more research is needed.

Premenstrual syndrome and menopausal symptoms

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) refers to the physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that many people with ovaries experience in the 1 to 2 weeks before their period each month. On the other hand, menopausal symptoms occur as a person with ovaries reaches the end of their menstrual cycles.

According to anecdotal evidence, kava may help with symptoms like menstrual cramps or changes in mood, but no solid research is available to support this. For instance, older research notes that though some evidence suggests that kava may help with menopausal symptoms, it was not currently a valid therapeutic option.

There are definite health uncertainties involved in taking any medication or supplement, so it’s vital to know the potential side effects of kava before trying it. The best course of action is to speak with your primary care physician or mental health professional about whether kava is safe for you to try.

Kava has both short-term and long-term effects.

Short-term effects of kava may include:

  • relaxation
  • happiness
  • sleepiness
  • numbness of mouth and throat
  • loss of muscle control
  • mild fever
  • headache

The long-term effects are seen with consistent kava use in large amounts and may include:

  • changes in mood
  • dry skin
  • lack of interest or concern
  • malnutrition and weight loss
  • shortness of breath

Like most drugs, kava can affect everyone differently. Some factors that may influence the supplement’s effectiveness include:

  • other drugs or medications taken
  • amount of kava consumed
  • strength of drug
  • weight and size
  • overall health status
  • kava tolerance

The use of kava has been linked to liver damage when consumed with alcohol or in extract form. The extent of liver damage is sometimes severe or even fatal. If you have a history of liver damage or disease, you may want to avoid drinking alcohol and taking kava.

It’s often recommended to only use kava for short periods of time and no longer than 8 weeks to reduce the risk of liver toxicity.

Research also shows that most cases of liver injury resolve when you stop taking the supplement.

If you’ve been diagnosed with a depressive disorder, it’s recommended not to take kava because it may exacerbate your symptoms since it acts as a depressant. You’ll also want to avoid kava if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

Before you take kava, it’s recommended to speak with a physician first. They can offer their expert advice while ensuring the supplement doesn’t interact with other needed medications.

Kava may interact with a variety of medications, including:

Anti-anxiety medications

If you’re already taking medication for your anxiety disorder, you may want to avoid taking kava. When taken together, the two drugs may cause oversedation and even loss of consciousness.

In addition, there are many safety concerns when doubling up your therapy.

Antiseizure medications

Medications to treat seizure disorders, also known as anticonvulsants or antiepileptics, can be fueled by kava leading to oversedation when used for seizure activity.


Diuretics work to remove excess fluid from the body. However, kava enhances its therapeutic effects on the body, and that may lead to dehydration.

Other medications and supplements

Other medications and supplements not listed above may negatively interact with kava. As mentioned before, it’s best to seek professional medical advice before starting a new therapy regimen.

Kava is legally sold in the United States. However, in early 2002, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an advisory on the supplement and its association with severe liver injury. Liver injuries reported include hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver failure.

Germany and other countries around the globe banned the use of kava in the past shortly after the FDA advisory was released.

However, the bans were later reversed since newer evidence suggested that kava is nonaddictive with no known fatalities in the past 10 years, according to the World Health Organization. There is also conflicting evidence that kava causes liver damage.

Kava is a plant found in the Pacific Islands used as a ceremonial and medicinal herb for hundreds of years. It’s now consumed in the United States as a supplement and in kava bars across the country.

Kava works like alcohol in calming your mind, reducing anxiety symptoms, and lowering the effects of stress. The active ingredient in kava, kavalactone, remains in your bloodstream without affecting the brain directly. Instead, it alters your mood by boosting dopamine levels and providing a euphoric feeling.

Like with any medication, it’s recommended to take kava with caution and seek advice from a health care professional before use.

It can interact negatively with other medications and supplements and has been linked to liver injury, though recent research suggests the recorded liver effects of kava may not be accurate. It’s also often recommended to not take kava for more than 8 weeks.

A lot more research is needed on kava to determine its potential effectiveness and safety in treating anxiety and other mental health conditions.

If you’re hesitant to try kava or if your treatment team advises against it, you may be able to try other natural remedies to help manage your anxiety symptoms.