Kava (or kava kava, kava tea, kava root, etc.) is a mightily popular little crop nowadays. If you live in any major city, or at least any mid-sized city with a large percentage of hipsters, then you’ve probably seen one or two so-called “kava bars” crop up.
What’s the deal here? Why is everyone trying kava kava? There must be some strong benefits, one may assume.
Of course, there are tons of kava benefits. Some of them are well researched and show up in empirical studies. We’ll cover some of that. Some kava benefits are also simply reported anecdotally, which we’ll also cover (though noting the lack of peer-reviewed and published literature).
I myself will also share the benefits I’ve found from the occasional cup of kava tea.
A List of Kava Health Benefits
Here are some well-researched kava health benefits:
- Helps manage anxiety
- Increases subjective well-being
- Lowers aggression
- Potentially increases cognition in certain circumstances
- Enhances sleep quality
- Possible helps maintain healthy blood pressure levels
- Lowers stress
- Relieves muscle soreness
We’ll walk through each of these in detail, but first, a brief interlude on why kava may have these benefits in the first place.
What causes kava benefits?
The science behind kava’s health benefits is somewhat straightforward, at least the mechanisms that seemingly cause the calming and sleep-promoting effects so many people experience.
Basically, the beneficial properties of kava come from kavalactones, the psychoactive parts of the kava plant which put you in a state of relaxed focus.
Typically, people describe the feeling as being relaxed, but without any dent in their cognitive or reasoning capacity (as opposed to cannabis or alcohol, which typically alter cognitive function quite severely).
To dive in a bit more deeply, there are 18 different kavalactones, but 6 of them are critical in terms of kava. These 6 make up 90%+ of the active ingredients in most kava plants.
Though more research still needs to be done, studies have pinpointed some of the physiological effects of kava to a few specific kavalactones.
For instance, when you drink kava tea, one common experience is a numbing of the mouth. This is caused by two specific kavalactones, Kavain and Dihydrokavain, which create the feeling of a local anaesthetic.
Kavain has also been shown to interact with the limbic system of the brain, the portion responsible for primitive drives like emotional responses and motivation. It appears there is a particularly strong relationship with the amygdala, which could explain kava’s anti-anxiety and sleep promoting benefits.
In any case, kavalactones are the reason for the effects, and there is more research needed to pinpoint exact causal pathways. In the meantime, let’s look at distinct health benefits of kava, one-by-one.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Stress Reduction
- Eases Anxiety
- Relieves Muscle Soreness
- Improves Sleep
- Increases subjective well-being
1. Stress reduction
We’ve all been there. Work is getting the best of you. There are too many things to do and think about. There are a bunch of things floating around our head at once and all of that results in stress and anxiety and lack of sleep.
Unfortunately, we can’t take a vacation at least not yet.
Kava has been found to help with stress reduction, both on an anecdotal level and backed by some amount of research.
For example, one study of 24 people found that kava was able to reduce stress and insomnia compared to a placebo.
Another study of 54 subjects aged 18-30 took Kava extract (30% active kavapyrones) once daily for 7 days. They found a limiting effect on blood pressure that would normally rise during mental stress. This reduced subjective feelings of stress and pressure towards the task.
Beyond that, it’s somewhat obvious from personal experience that kava helps reduce stress. I’ve been to several kava bars, and though any social experience involving tea or drinks reduces my stress from work levels, kava bars have a particularly strong effect for me.
2. Eases anxiety
Highly related to stress reduction is the well-known and talked about benefit of kava: relieving the feeling of anxiety.
Again, we’ve all been there: feels like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, Our minds are rushing at a million miles per second.
This time, research shows us that a meta-analysis of eleven trials with a total of 645 participants found that kava significantly relieves anxiety, with mild to no side effects.
Studies have also found that kava extract may be an alternative treatment to tricyclic antidepressants and benzodiazepines in anxiety disorders, with proven long-term efficacy and none of the tolerance problems associated with tricyclics and benzodiazepines. Make no mistake: this is not medical advice. We’re not qualified to do that. Talk to a professional if you have serious symptoms of anxiety and don’t take this content here as any sort of recommendation or prescription, because it’s not.
That said, kava’s benefits for anxiety are probably the most-studied aspects. Personally speaking as well, I’ve found tremendous benefit in a cup of kava before bedtime or after a tough day. Because of a strenuous workload and type A personality, I do go through bouts of stress and anxiety, and kava tea plus some meditation will usually help alleviate that.
3. Relieves muscle soreness
All of these benefits clearly have a common thread: kava helps support relaxation. That can clearly lead to different outcomes, from stress reduction or anxiety relief, or in this case, actually helping to relieve muscle soreness.
This is a big one for me as well, as I’m huge into exercise, and in particular, I love lifting heavy weights. This, of course, results in my walking down the stairs, quadriceps buckling in pain and nearly falling over. In short, I get quite sore.
It’s only my personal experience, but there are very few things I’ve found help me with this. The main thing is sleep. Sometimes a magnesium salt bath will help. Ice baths (contrast baths actually) help a ton. But kava really, really helps.
Here’s what the research says on why this is the case: “Through alterations on neuronal excitation, kava induces muscle relaxation, anesthesia, and has anxiolytic properties.”
I’m guessing that kava’s sleep benefits also help with this as well…
4. Better sleep
Sleep is one of the most important, yet overlooked, aspects of health. It’s definitely what I struggle with the most (I’ve got a monkey mind that continues to churn deep into the night with random and unhelpful thoughts and ideas).
Tons of research has been done on sleep. There was that wildly popular (and potentially debunked) book by Matthew Walker on the subject.
Whatever the specifics, sleep is effin’ important. More sleep means better productivity, better memory, and a healthier body. Sleep is also pleasurable. I love sleep.
Lots of people turn to different solutions when they have trouble sleeping, the worst of which being sleep medication and pills. Some solutions are healthier but, at least in my personally experience, are tough to stick to – like meditation or reading before bed.
Here’s the good news: due to kava’s calming properties, it often helps improve sleep quality. Animal studies have found that kava influences GABA and serotonin. For better sleep, we recommend drinking kava tea an hour before bed.
In particular, there’s a great calming kava tea available we love:
5. Increases subjective well-being
So far this list has mostly focused on empirical benefits shown through placebo controlled studies. However, subjective well-being is a great marker of health benefits as well, and it turns out that kava can increase reported feelings of subjective well-being.
Here’s the summary (according to examine.com): “The increase in well being appears to be quite large, but secondary to reducing anxiety. At least one study has noted that, in healthy persons subject to a minor stressor (testing) that kava enhanced cheerfulness”
So there are causal pathways, probably several, that result in the holistic and cumulative effect of making you a bit more cheerful.
One study of 101 patients suffering from non-psychotic anxiety found that using Kava (WS 1490 extract) over 25 weeks noted statistically significant benefits starting after week 8.
This means that the results may take a while to notice as well.
In any case, if you make the mosts of your kava ritual, you’re also doing several other things (apart from just the chemical effect of the kavalactones):
- You’re taking a break from a busy day
- You’re consuming the beverage with friends and close contacts
- You’re taking deep breaths and practicing mindfulness.
Cheerfulness and well-being isn’t the result of a magic bullet, but rather the cumulative product of many good habits over a long time period. That said, kava tea can be a great addition to your routine.
Kava Tea Benefits vs. Other Types of Kava Products?
The studies I’ve cited above have used a variety of different kava products, mostly extracts (of several different concentrate levels), so it’s tough to parse out what the benefits of kava are for different product types.
Therefore, in this section, instead of rehashing the research above or hoping to conduct some faulty meta analysis of my own, I’ll simply state my personal experience with different products.
I, personally, unequivocally, enjoy the traditional form of kava, kava tea made from the grounded roots, the best. This is for several reasons.
Kava tea is probably safer, or at least less risky.
This comes from the /r/kava Subreddit, but I totally agree with it. Most of the really negative claims about kava (which we’ll cover below) have come from cheap or novel forms of the plant. Here’s what the subreddit claims:
“However, in order to properly and safely enjoy it, one needs to use high-quality kava and learn how to prepare and consume it correctly. It’s best to use kava in its traditional form (fresh or dried roots of the noble varieties of the kava plant strained and kneaded in warm water) and avoid extracts, tinctures pastes.”
It’s best to play it safe, especially if you’re just trying the thing for the first time. Go for kava tea and go for a high quality product like this great kava root powder, or my favorite ready-to-brew kava tea blend.
Kava tea involves ritual, which increasing relaxation and benefits
If you take kava extract or candies, you’re not adding the benefits that a ritual gives you. If you go to a kava bar, have a kava tea with several friends, and really set the time to enjoy it, you’re getting several combinatorial benefits.
Of course, the social aspect is important. Social activity is clearly healthy, no need to produce a myriad of studies on the subject. It’s good to spend time with loved ones.
Second, is the benefit of simply setting aside some time in the day. This means you won’t be on Reddit, you won’t be on Facebook, you won’t be drinking alcohol or engaging in any other destructive habit. You’re simply enjoying kava with people you love. Additionally, drinking kava tea takes longer, which itself is a benefit.
It’s tough to appreciate the benefits of a relaxing substance if you’re taking it on the go, like you can with extracts and other forms.
All of this isn’t to say other forms aren’t good or have their uses – in fact, many of the studies have been done with extracts. It’s simply that to me and to many other users, kava tea and the ritual itself holds a massive amount of the benefits of kava.
Potential Negatives of Kava Kava
We’ve already talked about whether or not kava is safe and the potential side effects of the plant. Most of the concern is with regard to the liver and liver toxicity. We’ll briefly cover potential downsides again here.
Kava Effects on Liver
There have been tons of concerns about kava’s effects on the liver, some of these concerns resulting in kava being banned in several countries throughout Europe. There have been a number of cases where kava users have had liver toxicity, some resulting in death.
However, several more recent studies have begun to question this effect and the causal pathways.
- One paper found that the people who got liver toxicity were taking other drugs and medications that are rough on the liver. Apparently, alcohol and kava were mixed, or cases of liver toxicity were largely associated with alcohol consumption with kava.
- The New Zealand government investigated and determined that kava is safe for both short- and long-term use.
- Germany removed its kava ban after researchers found that the liver toxicity was the result of a kava allergy that affects roughly one in 100 million people.
Now again, this isn’t medical advice, and I would never propose to give you any actual advice. But from my understanding, the absolute numbers involved in kava’s risk are massively low compared to other common substances (*cough* alcohol *cough*) and the causal pathways are much less established. It appears that the liver toxicity claims aren’t well understood. Still, moderation and caution are your friend. And don’t mix kava with other stuff!
Kava’s Cognitive Effect
Similarly, there have been slight concerns with regard to kava’s potentially diminishing effect on cognition. This, however, doesn’t seem to be true at all, even when taking the heaviest kava consumers into account.
Here’s a quote from a paper studying the effect:
“Despite collecting data from among the heaviest reported kava drinkers in the world, we found no impairment in cognitive or saccade function in individuals who were currently heavy kava users (and had been for up to 18 years), nor was there any impairment in individuals who had been heavy kava users in the past but had abstained for longer than 6 months. Current and ex-kava users showed a higher rate of kava dermopathy, lower body mass index, lowered blood lymphocytes and, in addition, current kava users showed elevated liver enzymes.”
You won’t become stupid if you drink kava, so rest those concerns.
It’s Not a Magic Bullet
When we talk about the health benefits of kava, a lot of it revolves around stress and anxiety. To be sure, there’s a lot of promising research and even more promising anecdotes and personal experiences here.
However, in isolation, don’t look at it as a magic bullet.
The NIH state that research studies about kava kava’s effectiveness have mixed results, some studies of which have shown small effects and others of which haven’t. This makes it tough to pronounce any strong claims with regards to treating anxiety.
However, after reviewing any precautionary or safety issues with kava, if you want to try it and see if it helps you personally, I see no reason to let that statement stop you. After all, it’s up to you, and some things work for some people while they don’t for others. It’s all about precaution and trial and error.
Use Kava in Safely and In Moderation
The context for a lot of this is just proper judgement and moderation. Don’t go overboard and don’t mix kava with other substances. In short, don’t be stupid.
As stated previously, the estimated frequency of liver injury due to kava is less than 1:1,000,000 daily doses. It’s relatively low odds.
Despite this however, risk still exists (as it does with alcohol or crossing the street). This means take precaution. Scientists, despite research, don’t know how exactly kava damages the liver. Without knowing for sure, the only thing for sure is to make your own best judgement with regards to consuming it. Don’t drink 10 cups of kava a day. Start slow. Get high quality products. Get your blood work done regularly. Be a healthy, smart consumer.
Wrap Up on Kava Benefits
Kava benefits are varied but also closely related. Studied benefits include:
- Eases anxiety
- Reduces stress
- Improves sleep
- Help relaxation
For these reasons, many have found side benefits, such as replacing alcohol or other drugs, or as a social lubricant that allows one to open up and relax a bit more.