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Kava Kava (Piper methysticum), also referred to as Kava or Kava root is a plant species native to the Southern Pacific islands. that has traditional usage as an herbal anxiety remedy due to its calming effects.

Kava Kava is a sedating herb and is often used to relax individuals without inhibiting cognition and mental clarity.

In Australia, Fiji and surrounding islands it is often consumed by adding the ground root to water and making tea or chewing the root. Kava Kava Root

There has been extensive research conducted on  it’s anti-anxiety properties.

Most research has been focused on two specific compounds called Kava extract LI 150 and Kava extract WS 1490[1].

These particular extracts of Kava Kava are standardized to a certain percentage of active components and have been shown to rival various anti-anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines in terms of potency and effectiveness[2].

In other words, they contain the highest amount of the ingredients found in Kava that relax you! Read on as this article goes in depth on how Kava Kava works, its research-backed benefits, how it may help reduce anxiety, how to dose it, and any potential side effects and safety concerns to be aware of.

Pro Hacks:

  • Look for Kava Kava supplements that are standardized to at least 30% Kavalactones.
  • Kava Kava works relatively quickly and is great for both anxiety and panic attacks.
  • Start with 150mg of Kava Kava (WS1490) per day.
  • For enhanced sleep, take Kava Kava roughly one hour prior to bed.
  • To avoid negative drug interactions, do NOT consume alcohol or take St. John’s Wort with Kava Kava.
  • Kava Kava is just one of many over the counter supplements that can help your anxiety, to find out about others get our free Anxiety Supplement Guide by clicking the button below!

How does Kava Kava work?

The primary active components of Kava Kava are known as kavalactones and kavapyrones. There are 6 total (see picture below for their structures).

Kava Kava Extracts

When you consume Kava Kava, these components cross your blood-brain barrier and they apply calming effects within approximately 45 minutes by increasing the activity of your GABA receptors and increasing your serotonin [3].

Both serotonin and GABA are crucial neurotransmitters for managing anxiety. Low levels of either or both are generally associated with anxiety and mood disorders [4],[5].

It also appears that Kava Kava components may increase your dopamine levels, but this effect seems unpredictable because some kavalactones actually decrease dopamine production.

Studies show that Isolated Kavain and Yangonin decrease dopamine by 50% versus control levels, whereas Dihydrokavain and Desmethoxyyangonin induce a slight but steady rise of dopamine over many hours[6].

Kava Kava And Your GABA Receptors

GABA is a neurotransmitter and the primary inhibitor of the central nervous system (CNS) in humans[7]. When your neurons are firing too rapidly it can cause you to feel anxious, overwhelmed, and stressed out.  

Your brain will increase GABA levels to help calm the firing neurons causing you to feel more relaxed.

The majority of Kava Kava ingredients appear to be weak activators of both GABA(A) and GABA(B) receptor sites in the brain; your GABA(A) receptors generally make you feel sedated while GABA(B) receptors are responsible for making you feel relaxed and euphoric.

Most of the increased signaling in GABA receptors from Kava Kava is caused by the kavalactone 7,8-Dihydromethysticin[8].

Research also suggests that GABA administration significantly increases alpha waves and decreases beta waves in the brain, thereby reducing anxiety[8]. 

Alpha and beta brain waves are the two most frequent types of waves when you are awake.

Your brain is using beta waves the majority of the time.  When you are highly involved, active, or engaged in difficult mental activities your brainwaves are functioning at the beta level.

 They are low-level waves, but they are also the fastest of any brain wave.  

Beta waves are often connected to an active conversation when you have to engage your mental and verbal skills at the same time.

Alpha brain waves are slower but generally higher in amplitude.  When you are in a resting state or coming down from a busy set of activities you are often in the alpha brain wave space.  

People who practice meditation will also be functioning in the alpha brain level.

So when GABA levels increase you will generally feel more at rest and calm.

Benefits of Kava Kava

Kava Kava has a rather wide spectrum of benefits, with a strong research emphasis on its anxiolytic properties. Most users find that the mood-enhancing properties of Kava Kava make it a supplement worth trying, even if anxiety is not an issue.

Below are 5 of the most pertinent research-backed benefits of Kava Kava [1-3,6,8,[9]],:

  • Natural anxiolytic/stress-reducing properties
  • Promotes calmness/relaxation while maintaining mental clarity
  • Enhances mood
  • Fights neurodegeneration
  • May help improve sleep quality (as a downstream effect of reduced anxiety)

 

Taking Kava Kava to Help With Anxiety

As we alluded to earlier, scientific research suggests that Kava Kava may be as effective as anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals such as benzodiazepines (Xanax) with the advantage of being well-tolerated by most users.  

Typically 150-300 mg of WS 1490 per day is an effective and safe treatment for anxiety.

On a curious note, GABA doesn’t appear to mediate the anti-anxiety effects of Kava Kava, suggesting that another neurotransmitter (most likely serotonin) is responsible for the effects.

It is also possible that dopamine plays a role in Kava Kava’s anxiolytic properties, but research so far has produced unreliable data to confirm that.

Kava Kava has also been used by people looking to taper off of benzodiazepines or other anti-anxiety medication in an effort to minimize the withdrawals symptoms.

But as always, do not replace or combine any of your current medications with Kava Kava before consulting with your physician.

Kava Kava Dosage and Forms

WS 1490 is a patented extract of Kava Kava, standardized to 70% kavalactones, under the brand name Laitan  50. This is the “gold standard” form of Kava Kava as of now. The majority of Kava Kava research has focused on this particular extract.

Another specific Kava Kava extract, known as LI 150, yields 30% kavapyrones. It’s reported to be 15 times as potent as a basic root extract.

The amount and form of Kava Kava you should use will depend on the purpose for which you want to use it.

Kava Kava dosage suggestions are as follows:

For Reducing Anxiety: 150-300mg WS1490 or 400mg LI 150 extract daily (split into two doses), working up as needed

For Mood Enhancement: 300mg of LI 150 extract whenever enhanced mood is desired

For Neuroprotection: 150mg of LI 150 extract daily

For Better Sleep: 150mg of WS 1490 one hour before bed

Note that if you buy a generic version of Kava Kava, make sure it is standardized somewhere between 30-50% active ingredients. It may be tougher to find the proper dosage, and riskier, if you’re not sure what percentage of the product is kavalactones and kavapyrones.

Kava Kava Side Effects and Safety Concerns

A major advantage of Kava Kava compared to other supplements is that is very well-tolerated in recommended dosages, with virtually no adverse events reported in human trials using WS 1490. Although, too high a dose of Kava Kava (i.e. 150 times a clinically recommended dose) can lead to intoxication and depressed liver function.

Other rare but noteworthy side effects of Kava Kava include:

  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Unknown effects on infants during pregnancy
  • Development of a rash, known as Kava dermopathy

The good thing is that these rare events can be reversed upon cessation of Kava Kava use.

Kava Kava Drug Interactions

Kava Kava appears to increase the effects of various drugs and herbal supplements. Avoid taking alcohol, tranquilizers, antidepressants, and benzodiazepines when using Kava Kava.

You should avoid taking St. John’s Wort and Valerian root as well. Taking them with Kava Kava can cause you to feel lethargic and disoriented[10].

Tying It All Together

Kava Kava works by altering your levels of serotonin, dopamine, and GABA.

Further research will hopefully focus more on the individual effects of Kava Kava components; each kavalactone and kavapyrones seem to have variable effects on neurotransmitters in the brain, leading to unreliable results in various studies.

Kava Kava presents a promising over the counter anxiety supplement and a possible alternative to prescription medications.  

When shopping for Kava Kava make sure you’re buying a reliable form of extracts, such as the  WS 1490 and LI 150 extracts.

You will most likely come across generic extracts, but they usually don’t have the potency or standardization that patented forms do.

Have you tried Kava Kava? What are your thoughts and did it help your anxiety?

References:

[1] Witte, S., Loew, D., & Gaus, W. (2005). Meta‐analysis of the efficacy of the acetonic kava‐kava extract WS® 1490 in patients with non‐psychotic anxiety disorders. Phytotherapy Research, 19(3), 183-188.
[2] Geier, F. P., & Konstantinowicz, T. (2004). Kava treatment in patients with anxiety. Phytotherapy Research, 18(4), 297-300.
[3] Baum, S. S., Hill, R., & Rommelspacher, H. (1998). Effect of kava extract and individual kavapyrones on neurotransmitter levels in the nucleus accumbens of rats. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 22(7), 1105-1120.
[4] Cochran, E., Robins, E., & Grote, S. (1976). Regional serotonin levels in brain: a comparison of depressive suicides and alcoholic suicides with controls. Biological psychiatry, 11(3), 283-294.
[5] Sanacora, G., Mason, G. F., Rothman, D. L., Behar, K. L., Hyder, F., Petroff, O. A., … & Krystal, J. H. (1999). Reduced cortical γ-aminobutyric acid levels in depressed patients determined by proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Archives of general psychiatry, 56(11), 1043-1047.
[6] Garrett, K. M., Basmadjian, G., Khan, I. A., Schaneberg, B. T., & Seale, T. W. (2003). Extracts of kava (Piper methysticum) induce acute anxiolytic-like behavioral changes in mice. Psychopharmacology, 170(1), 33-41.
[7] Watanabe M, Maemura K, Kanbara K, Tamayama T, Hayasaki H (2002). GABA and GABA receptors in the central nervous system and other organs. International Review of Cytology. 213. pp. 1–47.
[8] Abdou, A. M., Higashiguchi, S., Horie, K., Kim, M., Hatta, H., & Yokogoshi, H. (2006). Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans. Biofactors, 26(3), 201-208.
[9] Backhauβ, C., & Krieglstein, J. (1992). Extract of kava (Piper methysticum) and its methysticin constituents protect brain tissue against ischemic damage in rodents. European journal of pharmacology, 215(2-3), 265-269.
[10] Cupp, M. J. (1999).  Herbal remedies:  adverse effects and drug interactions.  American Family Physician, 59(5), 1239-45.