When cult magazine Rolling Stone dedicated an article in their March 2018 edition to ‘Kava: The all-natural high sweeping America’, the herbal preparation known previously only to South Pacific Islanders, found itself in the centre of mainstream culture. In an age where 15% of the Australian population suffers from some form of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Kava is rapidly gaining popularity as a natural alternative to prescription pharmaceuticals (indeed, Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof Journal have coined it ‘Nature’s Xanax’ and referred to Kava as ‘chamomile on steroids’).

As a modern antidote to symptoms of anxiety, insomnia and menopause, Kava Kava is traditionally used by Pacific Islander populations as a welcome drink, social lubricant and spiritual connector, and imbibed in liquid form. Recent pharmacological research suggests that the active ingredients in Kava, called kavalactones, display four main therapeutic properties: antispasmodic, anxiolytic, diuretic and calminative actions, and work via neurotransmitter modulation in the brain. This supports traditional uses of the herb as a mood support, stress reliever and muscle relaxer.

The use of Kava as a treatment for anxiety has been extensively reviewed in medical journal studies and clinical literature. A Cochrane systematic review of 11 controlled double-blind studies of over 600 patients concluded that Kava was superior to a placebo for the short-term management of generalized anxiety disorder (1). Studies have also found that Kava compares favourably to commonly prescribed prescription anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines and in fact, a randomized placebo-controlled multi-centre study concluded that a standardized Kava preparation was as effective as two commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications. Interestingly, in these studies, Kava was not only shown to work as an anxiolytic treatment, but also to improve reaction time and concentration in those taking the herbal preparation (2). This was in contrast to several benzodiazepines that displayed a slowing of reaction time and diminished focus. A 2013 study further found that a single dose of Kava extract (which crosses the blood-brain barrier in around 40 minutes) improved accuracy and attentive performance, visual processing and working memory (3).

Clinical studies have discovered that kava supplementation causes a decrease in norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine levels by inhibiting monoamine oxidase, and relaxes muscles by decreasing beta-adrenaline receptor activity. This means that Kava functions well as a tool for insomnia and stress-related sleep disturbance. Kava also works to block sodium and calcium ion channels to enhance its sedative effect (4). Specifically, one study tested six weeks of kava supplementation to improve markers of stress-related insomnia, and found that participants had significant reductions in stress ratings and insomnia severity, when compared to placebo.

Menopause is a condition that combines symptoms of anxiety, mood disturbance, brain fog and insomnia and as such, Kava is the perfect addition to a menopause-treatment regime. Studies have found that Kava acts on the amygdala region of the brain to modulate fear and anxiety markers, while increasing mental alertness (5). Kava also has a strong reputation as an herbal antipyretic (a herb that ‘puts out fires’) and therby works well to lessen menopausal symptoms of hot flushes and night sweats. Additional findings of studies into Kava and anxiety have also discovered that Kava boosts perimenopausal and menopausal sex drive, when compared to a placebo group, banishing common menopausal libido decrease (4).

While Kava Kava is a safe alternative to prescription medications, it is known to inhibit the liver cytochrome P450 enzyme that is used to metabolize many drugs and therefore may have the ability to alter potency of those medications. As such, it is important to be aware of possible herb-drug interactions when using Kava (Kava is known to interact with sedative medications, antidepressants and Parkinson’s medications among others). For this reason, Kava should also not be mixed with alcohol. As an anxiolytic, Kava is incredibly useful in treating anxiety disorders and insomnia, however use of the herb for longer than 3 months is not recommended, due to its ability to modulate neurotransmitter potential. Follow these instructions and enjoy the benefits of restful sleep, muscle relaxation, calm focus and hormonal relief. “Chamomile on steroids” – Kava is the first choice for an active alternative to prescription medication.


References:

1. Pittler MH, Ernst E. Efficacy of kava extract for treating anxiety: systematic review
and meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology. 2000, Feb; 20(1):84-9

2. Thompson R, Ruch W, Hasenorhi R. Enhanced cognitive performance and cheerful
mood by standardized extracts of Piper methysticum: Kava Kava. Human
Psychopharmacology. 2004 June; 19 (4) 243-50

3. Sarris J, Stough C, Bousman CA et al. Kava in the treatment of generalized anxiety
disorder: a double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled study. Journal of Clinical
Psychopharmacology. 2013 Oct; 33(5) 643-8

4. Sarris J, LaPorte E, Schweitzer I. Kava: a comprehensive review of efficacy, safety
and psychopharmacology. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.
2011, Jan; 45(1): 27-35

5. Cagnacci A et al. Kava Kava administration reduces anxiety in perimenopausal
women. Maturitas. 2003 Feb 25; 44(2): 103-9