New research has shown that kava, a medicinal South Pacific plant, reduces the symptoms of anxiety and may be used as a successful alternative treatment to pharmaceutical drugs for those who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Lead researcher Dr. Jerome Sarris, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne, said that GAD is a complex condition that significantly affects people’s day-to-day lives. Current medications have a modest clinical effect and new effective options are needed.
“Based on previous work, we have recognized that plant-based medicines may be a viable treatment for patients with chronic anxiety,” Sarris said.
“In this study we’ve been able to show that kava offers a potential natural alternative for the treatment of chronic clinical anxiety. Unlike some other options it has less risk of dependency and less potential for side effects.”
The roots of the kava plant have long been used to make a drink that has sedative and anesthetic effects. It is consumed throughout the Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia, including Hawaii, Vanuatu, Melanesia and some parts of Micronesia.
The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, also found that genetic differences in neurobiological mechanisms called GABA transporters may affect response to kava.
“If this finding is replicated, it may pave the way for simple genetic tests to determine which people may be likely to have a beneficial anxiety-reducing effect from taking kava,” Sarris said.
The eight-week study involved 75 patients who had been clinically diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. The participants were given either kava or placebo, and anxiety levels were regularly assessed.
Those in the kava group were given tablets twice per day consisting of water-soluble extracted kava (peeled rootstock) for a total dose of 120mg of kavalactones for the first three-week controlled phase. In cases of non-response, this was increased to a double-dose twice per day for the second three-week controlled phase.
Participants in the placebo group took matching dummy tablets in the same manner.
At the end of the study, the kava group showed a significant reduction in anxiety compared to the placebo group. For those diagnosed with moderate to severe GAD, kava had an even greater effect in reducing anxiety.
In the end, 26 percent of the kava group were in remission from their symptoms compared to six percent of the placebo group.
Kava was also well-tolerated. The findings showed no significant difference among the two groups for liver function, which had previously been a concern for kava’s medicinal use.
Furthermore, there were no significant adverse reactions that could be attributed to kava and no difference in withdrawal or addiction between the groups.
Another novel finding of the study, recently published in Phytotherapy Research, was that kava increased women’s sex drive compared to those in the placebo group. This is thought to be a result of the reduction in anxiety, rather than an aphrodisiac effect.