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Kava for Anxiety Relief

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Updated July 10, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

For natural relief of anxiety, many people turn to an herb known as kava (sometimes called kava kava). Also used to treat insomnia and menopausal symptoms, kava contains compounds shown to promote relaxation and possibly increase your levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (an amino acid known to play a role in reducing anxiety).

Is Kava Effective for Anxiety Relief?

There is strong scientific support for kava's effectiveness in the treatment of anxiety and anxiety-related conditions, according to a 2010 research review published in Nutrition Journal. The review's authors analyzed 24 studies on the use of supplements in treatment of anxiety, finding that passionflower and combinations of L-lysine and L-arginine were also backed by solid research.

In an earlier review (published in The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2003 and updated in 2005), scientists looked at seven studies on kava as an anxiety treatment. Although kava was found to be more effective than placebo, the review's authors caution that "the size of the effect seems small." They also found that kava appears "relatively safe" when used for 24 weeks or less.

Is Kava Safe?

While the roots of kava seem to be safe, its stem peelings and leaves may contain compounds that could harm the liver. In fact, in 2002 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning that using kava supplements may lead to severe liver damage. Therefore, it's extremely important to read your supplement labels carefully and avoid the consumption of any products containing kava stem peelings and leaves.

Kava may also cause drowsiness and, when used in the long-term, yellowing of the skin. In addition, kava may interact with a number of drugs (including sedatives and medications used for Parkinson's disease).

Should You Use Kava for Anxiety Relief?

While kava may offer some anti-anxiety benefits, using kava to self-treat an anxiety disorder is not recommended. If you're experiencing any anxiety-disorder symptoms (including constant worrying, restlessness, and trouble sleeping), you should consult a mental health professional as soon as possible. Your mental healthcare provider can also you advise you on how to safely incorporate kava into your anxiety treatment program.

Sources:

Lakhan SE, Vieira KF. "Nutritional and herbal supplements for anxiety and anxiety-related disorders: systematic review." Nutr J. 2010 Oct 7;9:42.

National Center for Complementary and Alterative Medicine. "Kava [NCCAM Herbs at a Glance]". NCCAM Publication No. D314. Created May 2006. Updated July 2010.

National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements. "Kava". Last accessed January 2011.

Pittler MH, Ernst E. "Kava extract for treating anxiety." Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2003;(1):CD003383.

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