New research indicates this South Pacific root—an ancient tonic for relaxation—can help calm frayed nerves.
A recent study supports what Pacific islanders have known for thousands of years—kava, the root of a tropical pepper plant, can help reduce symptoms of anxiety.
According to the study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology in May, kava may offer a natural and less addictive alternative to prescription medications for the skyrocketing number of people who suffer from anxiety—some 57.7 million American adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Adam Smith is one of those people. After a military tour in Iraq, the 37-year-old from Asheville, North Carolina, says his PTSD-related anxiety was so intense at times he couldn’t leave his house. Kava hasn’t “cured” him, but he says it’s definitely helped him to relax.
Smith heads to Noble Kava, a local shop, to drink the earthy brew a few times a week. He says it gives him a general feeling of well-being. “It’s that good feeling you have when you watch a sunset,” he says.
For some 3,000 years across the South Pacific, the root of the kava plant has been pounded, mixed with water, strained, and enjoyed among friends as a social beverage and ceremonial libation.
“In some island cultures, it has its own time of day. It’s known as kava time,” says Chris Kilham, an expert on traditional medicinal plants and author of 14 books including Kava: Medicine Hunting in Paradise. “It’s happy hour without the alcohol.”
It’s suspected that kava may give you that warm glow by increasing gamma-amniobutyric acid, or GABA, a brain chemical that suppresses nerve impulses. Having low levels of GABA is associated with anxiety.
Previous studies have also found that kava relaxes muscles, improves mood, and enhances mental alertness and concentration.
While kava appears to live up to its reputation as “nature’s valium,” there have been some questions raised about its safety. More than a decade ago, the FDA warned that kava supplements had been associated with liver injury, and advised people with pre-existing liver conditions to avoid it.
But Dr. Christopher Holstege, chief of the University of Virginia Health System’s Division of Medical Toxicology, said the number of reported problems was extremely small, and that it remains unclear whether those cases were caused by pre-existing conditions, genetics, contaminated product, or problems with the kava itself.
“I think the risk is very small,” he says, although he suggests pregnant women, people with liver damage or other pre-existing conditions, and those taking prescription medication check with their doctor before using kava.
In the University of Melbourne kava study that was reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, around 75 people with clinically diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder were given kava tablets or dummy pills twice a day. At the end of eight weeks, 26 percent of the kava group had seen their symptoms improve, compared to 6 percent of the placebo group. As an added bonus, women receiving kava reported an increased sex drive, although men did not.
“It makes sense, though,” says lead researcher Dr. Jerome Sarris, a senior research fellow with the university’s Department of Psychiatry. “What’s the saying? Men have sex to be relaxed. Women need to be relaxed to have sex.”
Chocolate, Banana & Peanut Butter Kava Smoothie
- 1 cup ice
- 3 tablespoons cocoa powder
- 1 sliced banana
- 2 tablespoons peanut butter
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 2 shakes of cinnamon
- 1 cup milk
- 1 tablespoon kava root powder
Combine ingredients in a blender, and puree until smooth.