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Kava

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What other names is Kava known by?

Ava Pepper, Ava Root, Awa, Gea, Gi, Intoxicating Long Pepper, Intoxicating Pepper, Kao, Kavain, Kavapipar, Kawa, Kawa Kawa, Kawa Pepper, Kawapfeffer, Kew, Lawena, Long Pepper, Malohu, Maluk, Maori Kava, Meruk, Milik, Piper methysticum, Poivre des Cannibales, Poivre des Papous, Rauschpfeffer, Rhizome Di Kava-Kava, Sakau, Tonga, Waka, Wurzelstock, Yagona, Yangona, Yaqona, Yaquon, Yongona.

What is Kava?

Kava is a beverage or extract that is made from Piper methysticum, a plant native to the western Pacific islands. The name "kava" comes from the Polynesian word "awa," which means bitter. In the South Pacific, kava is a popular social drink, similar to alcohol in Western societies.

There have been some safety concerns about kava. Cases of liver damage and even some deaths have been traced to kava use. Because of these reports, kava was withdrawn from the market in Europe and Canada in the early 2000s. However, in 2012 and 2015, the market withdrawals in Canada and Germany were lifted. These countries decided that there was not enough research to show that kava was the direct cause of liver toxicity in many of these cases. Kava has never been taken off the market in the U.S.

Some people take kava by mouth to calm anxiety, stress, and restlessness, and to treat sleeping problems (insomnia). It is also used for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), withdrawal from benzodiazepine drugs, epilepsy, psychosis, depression, migraines and other headaches, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), common cold and other respiratory tract infections, tuberculosis, muscle pain, and cancer prevention.

Some people also take kava by mouth for urinary tract infections (UTIs), pain and swelling of the uterus, venereal disease, menstrual discomfort, and to increase sexual desire.

Kava is applied to the skin for skin diseases including leprosy, to promote wound healing, and as a painkiller. It is also used as a mouthwash for canker sores and toothaches.

Kava is also consumed as a beverage in ceremonies to promote relaxation.

Is Kava effective?

Kava can reduce anxiety. Up to 2 months of treatment with kava may be needed before you notice an improvement in anxiety.

There isn't enough information to know if kava is effective for other conditions that people use it for, including: stress, insomnia, restlessness, epilepsy, psychosis, depression, headaches, colds, respiratory tract infections, tuberculosis, rheumatism, chronic bladder infections, sexually transmitted diseases, menstrual problems, and others.

Possibly Effective for...

  • Anxiety. Most research shows that taking kava extracts that contain 70% kavalactones can lower anxiety and might work as well as some prescription anti-anxiety medications. Most studies have used a specific kava extract (WS 1490, Dr. Willmar Schwabe Pharmaceuticals). But some inconsistent evidence exists. One reason for the conflicting results may be the duration of treatment. It's possible that treatment for at least 5 weeks is necessary for symptoms to improve. Also, kava might be more effective in people with severe anxiety, in female patients, or in younger patients.

Insufficient Evidence to Rate Effectiveness for...

  • Benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms. Early research suggests that slowly increasing the dose of a specific kava extract ((WS1490, Dr. Willmar Schwabe Pharmaceuticals) over the course of one week while decreasing the dose of benzodiazepines over the course of two weeks can prevent withdrawal symptoms and reduce anxiety in people who have been taking benzodiazepines for a long period of time.
  • Cancer prevention. There is some early evidence that taking kava might help to prevent cancer.
  • Insomnia. Research on the effectiveness of kava in people with sleeping problems is inconsistent. Some research shows that taking a specific kava extract (WS1490, Dr. Willmar Schwabe Pharmaceuticals) daily for 4 weeks reduces sleeping problems in people with anxiety disorders. But other research suggests that taking kava three times daily for 4 weeks does not reduce insomnia in people with anxiety.
  • Menopausal symptoms. Early research shows that taking a specific kava extract (WS1490, Dr. Willmar Schwabe Pharmaceuticals) daily for 8 weeks reduces anxiety and hot flashes in menopausal women. Other research shows that taking kava daily for 3 months might reduce depression, anxiety, and hot flashes.
  • Stress. Early research suggests that taking a single dose of kava by mouth might reduce symptoms associated with mentally stressful tasks.
  • Restlessness.
  • Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Epilepsy.
  • Psychosis.
  • Depression.
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
  • Headaches.
  • Common cold.
  • Respiratory tract infections.
  • Tuberculosis.
  • Muscle pain.
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs).
  • Swelling of the uterus.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Menstrual problems.
  • Sexual arousal.
  • Skin diseases.
  • Wound healing.
  • Other conditions.
More evidence is needed to rate kava for these uses.

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates effectiveness based on scientific evidence according to the following scale: Effective, Likely Effective, Possibly Effective, Possibly Ineffective, Likely Ineffective, and Insufficient Evidence to Rate (detailed description of each of the ratings).

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