Benefits and Risks of Consuming Kava: Nutritionists Perspective

Kava, a traditional Polynesian drink made from the root of the Piper methysticum plant, has recently grown in popularity outside of the Pacific Islands for its anxiolytic effects. However, there is ongoing debate about the safety and advisability of drinking it, particularly with regard to liver function. To better understand the nutritional pros and cons of this botanical beverage, we asked nutritionists to share their thoughts.

Kava Roots

Made from the root of the pepper plant Piper methysticum, kava is most commonly served as a beverage in ceremonies and social gatherings. Its medicinal effects have made it an intriguing subject for study by western scientists. It contains compounds called kavalactones that have been found to have sedative, anesthetic, and muscle relaxant properties. While its use was once largely restricted to the Pacific Islands, in recent decades kava products have become increasingly popular in Western countries. However, its safety continues to be debated, as heavy consumption has been linked with liver damage in some individuals. This complex plant and its traditional usage thus warrant further examination.

Kava Bar

Indigenous groups in Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Australia have used kava ceremonially and socially for thousands of years. Drinking kava is a ritual that brings communities together and reinforces social bonds. Served in gatherings like weddings, funerals, and coming-of-age rites, the drink facilitates cultural exchange and traditional knowledge sharing. Elders pass down customs and oral histories to younger generations over a drink session. Spiritual leaders use it to achieve higher states of consciousness in sacred rituals. Politicians and diplomats drink it when negotiating agreements between groups. The cultural identity of Pacific Islanders is thus closely intertwined with this traditions.

The social atmosphere of kava bars has also driven the trend, providing communities where patrons can bond over a kava drink. Its association with ceremonial and cultural traditions in the Pacific adds to its allure as an exotic experience. Marketers have tapped into its storied history while making it accessible to modern consumers in the form of teas, extracts, candies, and other products. While public health agencies still express concerns about long-term usage, its popularity continues to grow as more people discover its intoxicating effects and the relaxed social scenes of kava bars. The trend reflects broader interest in indigenous plant medicines and natural approaches to mental health.

Kava vs Kratom

Kava and kratom are two botanical substances that have exploded in popularity in recent years for their psychoactive effects. Both indigenous to Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, kava and kratom can serve as natural sedatives or stimulants. However, there are notable differences between the two. Kava is made from the root of the Piper methysticum plant and provides a calming, euphoric effect by interacting with the GABA receptors in the brain. In contrast, kratom comes from the leaves of the Mitragyna speciosa tree and contains alkaloids like mitragynine that act on opioid receptors to produce stimulating or sedative effects depending on the dose.

While high doses of kava’s kavalactones can cause liver toxicity, kratom has been associated with addiction and withdrawal. Proponents of both botanicals argue they are safe and effective alternatives to opioids and anti-anxiety medications. More research is required, but the distinct properties of each offer different herbal options for users seeking either relaxation or invigoration.

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Potential Benefits and Controversies of Kava

Kava comes from a shrub that belongs to the pepper family. Traditionally, it has been used in tinctures and teas to alleviate anxiety, stress, nervousness, and insomnia. Studies now suggest it has anti-inflammatory properties, neurological benefits, and possible anti-cancer benefits. It appears to be safe in small doses and may improve well-being, mood, and a sense of calm. The possible downside is hepatotoxicity, but this is somewhat controversial and needs more research. Dosing and quality control is an important factor. Kava is available in pills, powders, tinctures, and teas.

Kim Ross, MS, RD, CDN, Integrative Nutritionist, Kim Ross Nutrition

Kava for Anxiety and Sleep: Safety Concerns

Kava, traditionally used by Pacific Islanders in ceremonies for its relaxation properties, has gained global attention due to its potential benefits in reducing anxiety and improving sleep. Its active compounds, kavalactones, are thought to influence brain neurotransmitters, particularly gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Studies suggest its efficacy might match some anti-anxiety medications without the risk of dependency. Additionally, kava can serve as a natural alternative to prescription sleep medications, particularly for those with stress-induced insomnia. However, safety concerns, notably liver toxicity, have emerged.

Some of these concerns arise from the consumption of kava products contaminated with non-root parts of the plant, which are harmful to the liver. It’s crucial to ensure that the kava consumed is extracted solely from the root to avoid potential liver damage and to be aware of its interaction with certain medications.

Danielle Gaffen, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Eat Well Crohn’s Colitis

Impact on Sleep and Anxiety: Precautions

There are several benefits of kava consumption. Research suggests that kava can help improve sleep quality, and several clinical studies show it can reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. Based on studies, it may improve mood and cognitive performance.

With potential benefits that have been studied, further research is required for its safety. There are some side effects with consumption, which include allergic reactions, dizziness, and stomach upset. It also may interact with certain medications such as anticonvulsants and anti-anxiety agents. Be cautious of taking kava with alcohol, as it increases drowsiness and impairs reflexes. Make sure to consume in moderation to prevent health risks.

Lisa Young, Nutritionist and Author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, Dr. Lisa Young Nutrition

Short-term Use and Associated Risks

Kava is commonly consumed in the Pacific Islands and has been shown to provide symptomatic relief for those suffering with anxiety in clinical research studies. However, it is only recommended to be used as a short-term measure for less than eight weeks. Prolonged use of Kava is, first and foremost, associated with liver toxicity, which is a well-documented risk.

Other risks include kavaism, or kava dermopathy, which is a skin rash that appears with its use and can induce a yellowish tinge to a person’s skin tone. It can also cause diarrhea, vomiting, and gastrointestinal symptoms. It is also worth mentioning that it is classified as a Group 2B substance by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). This means it is possibly carcinogenic to humans, although no evidence has been found of such a link in humans. Evidence of carcinogenicity has been found, however, in animal studies.

Overall, Kava must be consumed with caution and is not a substitute for anxiolytic medication.

Abhinav Vepa, NHS General Practitioner

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