Dr. Becky Maes - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Becky Maes

Is Kava Bad For You?

Also Known As: kava-kava



Short answer

Kava contains kavalactones, which can cause sedation and euphoria but also poses health risks like liver toxicity, especially with chronic use. It can impair cognitive and motor functions, interact with medications and alcohol, and should be used cautiously following safety guidelines.



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Long answer

The Compounds in Kava: Kavalactones and Their Effects

Understanding kava and its potential effects on our health requires delving into its bioactive components – the kavalactones. Kavalactones are a group of compounds found in the roots of the kava plant (Piper methysticum), which are responsible for its psychoactive properties. There are 18 different kavalactones, each with distinct pharmacological activities that contribute to kava's sedative, anxiolytic, and muscle-relaxant effects.

The key kavalactones and their recognized effects include:

  • Yangonin: This kavalactone has been shown to interact with cannabinoid receptors, which may be partly responsible for the mood-elevating properties of kava.
  • Kavain: Believed to be the most potent of the kavalactones, kavain offers anxiolytic effects and contributes significantly to the calming sensation many users experience, possibly by modulating the GABAergic system.
  • Dihydrokavain: This compound provides muscle relaxation and analgesic effects, potentially increasing the overall therapeutic effect of the kava plant.
  • Methysticin: Has been found to possess neuroprotective properties and may play a role in kava's impact on cognitive health.
  • Dihydromethysticin: Along with its calming effects, this kavalactone is thought to have potential in neuroprotection through its effects on brain chemistry.
  • Desmethoxyyangonin: This component may enhance the release of dopamine, contributing to the uplifting and pleasurable effects of kava.

Research suggests that the various kavalactones work synergistically, creating an entourage effect that amplifies their individual effects. While these compounds can positively influence mood and cognitive well-being, they are also at the center of safety concerns. For example, abnormal liver function and even severe liver toxicity have been associated with kava consumption, potentially attributable to the metabolic pathways of kavalactones in the liver.

Certain studies have provided insights into this issue:

  • A study published in the Clinical Experimental Pharmacology & Physiology journal analyzed the effects of kavalactones on hepatic enzymes, indicating that certain kavalactones might inhibit these enzymes, potentially leading to toxic metabolites being formed.
  • Research in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology suggests that genetic variations in individuals could affect how kavalactones are metabolized, possibly increasing the risk of liver toxicity in susceptible individuals.

There's also evidence indicating that the traditional preparation of kava, which involves extracting kavalactones in water, may reduce the likelihood of adverse effects compared to alcohol-based or acetonic extracts. The methods of preparation and the source of the kava (noble vs. tudei kava) are critical components in determining both the efficacy and risks associated with kavalactone consumption.

While acknowledging the therapeutic potential of kava and its kavalactones, it is equally crucial to remain aware of the dosage and form of kava being consumed. Overconsumption or intake of non-noble kava strains can lead to dermopathy known as "kava dermopathy," characterized by dry, scaly skin, which is believed to be a sign of kava’s impact on the body beyond its central nervous system effects.

To sum up, kavalactones are the driving force behind kava's health effects and are a subject of both therapeutic interest and safety concerns. Randomized controlled trials and cohort studies continue to improve our understanding, elucidating the diverse effects of these unique compounds on human health.

Acute Effects of Kava on the Brain and Body

Kava, a plant native to the South Pacific, has been used for centuries in traditional ceremonies and as a social beverage. Its relaxing properties are attributed to active compounds called kavalactones. However, it's essential to understand kava's acute effects on the brain and body before making it a part of your routine.

Central Nervous System Effects:

  • Sedation: One of the most immediate effects of kava is sedation. According to a study published in the "Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology," kava can induce a state of relaxation without impairing cognitive function, although individual responses can vary greatly.
  • Mood Regulation: Kava has been reported to have an anxiolytic effect, meaning it can potentially reduce anxiety. Research in "Psychopharmacology" suggests that kavalactones may impact neurotransmitter activity in the brain, which can positively affect mood regulation.
  • Euphoria: Some users report feelings of euphoria and well-being after consuming kava. While these effects are generally mild, they are indicative of the plant's impact on the brain's reward system.

Physiological Impact:

  • Muscle Relaxation: Beyond its central effects, kava can relax skeletal muscles, potentially benefitting individuals with muscle tension or spasms. The "Journal of Ethnopharmacology" highlights kava's spasmolytic properties.
  • Gastrointestinal Response: Kava consumption can lead to digestive changes, such as stomach upset or nausea for some individuals, especially when taken on an empty stomach.
  • Oral Anesthesia: A unique sensation often associated with kava is a numbing effect in the mouth, which is a direct result of the local anesthetic properties of kavalactones.

Neurological Considerations:

  • Reaction Time: As a calming agent, kava might impair reaction time and motor coordination, as evidenced by a study in the "Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry," suggesting caution is warranted when engaging in activities requiring alertness, such as driving.
  • Sleep Quality: Some users may experience improved sleep quality due to kava's sedative effects. However, it's important to note that the "Journal of Psychopharmacology" has found the influence on sleep architecture can vary, and excessive consumption may disrupt normal sleep patterns.

Circulatory and Respiratory Systems:

  • Blood Pressure: Kava has been observed to lower blood pressure in some individuals, which is a consideration for those with pre-existing hypotension or who are on blood pressure medications.
  • Breathing: While not common, high doses of kava can affect the respiratory system, leading to shortness of breath or changes in breathing patterns.

While understanding the acute effects of kava is important, it is crucial to remember that individual experiences can vary widely depending on dosage, preparation, and personal sensitivity. Always consult with a healthcare provider before adding new supplements to your diet, especially those with psychoactive properties like kava.

Chronic Kava Use: Liver Toxicity Concerns

When discussing the safety profile of kava, a beverage traditionally consumed in Pacific Island societies, one cannot overlook the potential risks associated with its chronic use, particularly liver toxicity. Over the years, there have been multiple reports and studies raising concerns about the hepatotoxic effects of kava consumption, which have led to regulatory scrutiny and even bans in certain countries.

Scientific literature suggests that the risk of liver damage from kava consumption is dose-dependent and is affected by various other factors, including the genetic makeup of the plant, the method of preparation, and the overall health of the individual consuming it. Chronic consumption of kava, especially in large quantities, has been associated with an increased risk of developing severe liver injury which can sometimes be life-threatening.

One of the landmark studies raising these concerns was published in the journal Phytomedicine in 2003, where researchers reviewed several cases of liver toxicity associated with kava consumption. They concluded that kava might have the potential to cause hepatotoxicity through several mechanisms, such as inhibition of cytochrome P450 enzymes involved in liver metabolism and its possible interaction with other medications.

Furthermore, the preparation methods of kava can significantly influence its impact on the liver. For instance, traditional aqueous extracts used in Pacific Island cultures tend to have lower concentrations of the kavalactones and other compounds suspected of causing liver damage compared to the more concentrated extracts available in supplement form in Western countries.

Genetics plays a role as well. Kava plants are highly variable with different strains, known as "chemotypes," having different profiles of active compounds. Some chemotypes may have a higher propensity for causing liver damage, which adds another layer of risk for chronic users who might be consuming these more potent varieties without being aware of their specific chemical makeup.

Those with pre-existing liver conditions or individuals who frequently consume alcohol or medication that is processed through the liver should be particularly cautious about kava consumption. Concurrent use with other substances that have known hepatotoxic risks could amplify potential liver damage.

Due to these concerns, several countries have implemented regulatory measures ranging from warnings on kava products to outright bans. In 2002, for example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a consumer advisory regarding the risk of liver injury from kava-containing dietary supplements.

While not all studies have found a clear link between kava use and liver toxicity, it's important for chronic kava users to consider moderation and be aware of potential signs of liver trouble, such as jaundice, fatigue, and dark urine. If these symptoms appear, cessation of kava consumption and medical consultation is highly recommended.

Lastly, it is important for individuals considering the use of kava to seek high-quality products from reputable sources. They should look for vendors who provide comprehensive information about the kava’s origin, chemotype, and recommended usage to help mitigate potential risks associated with its chronic use.

The Safe Consumption Practices for Kava

Kava, known scientifically as Piper methysticum, has been used traditionally in Pacific Island cultures as a ceremonial drink due to its sedative and anxiolytic properties. However, with its increasing popularity in Western societies, understanding safe consumption practices is crucial for minimizing potential risks.

First, let's establish that kava's active ingredients, called kavalactones, can affect the liver. This has led to concerns about safe usage levels and prompted research into how kava can be consumed responsibly. The following are guidelines gathered from studies, expert opinions, and traditional use patterns that can help ensure a safer kava drinking experience:

  • Quality of Kava: Opt for kava products from reputable suppliers who offer noble kava varieties. Noble kavas are traditionally considered safer and are less likely to cause negative side effects compared to "tudei" or ignoble varieties.
  • Traditional Preparation: It is generally recommended to consume kava in its traditional form, which involves extracting kavalactones by steeping the ground root in water. This method may reduce the risk of liver damage associated with concentrated extracts or supplements.
  • Moderation: The World Health Organization suggests that daily intake of kavalactones should not exceed 250 mg.1 To aid consumers, some products provide kavalactone content on their labeling, which can be used to stay within this limit.
  • Frequency: Limit kava sessions to occasional use, such as once or twice a week, rather than daily. This precaution can help prevent the buildup of kavalactones in the body and reduce potential liver stress.
  • Alcohol and Medications: Avoid combining kava with alcohol, prescription medications, or over-the-counter drugs that can tax the liver. The concurrent use of kava with substances that affect the liver can compound their impacts and increase the risk of hepatotoxicity.
  • Individual Health Status: People with a history of liver problems, use of medications that affect the liver, or pre-existing health conditions should consult with a healthcare provider before using kava.
  • Duration of Use: Consider limiting the total duration of kava use. Long-term consumption has been linked to a condition known as "kava dermopathy," a reversible skin condition characterized by dry, scaly skin.
  • Serving Size: Traditional servings in Pacific Island cultures, where kava is served in a communal bowl, typically amount to 100-200 ml of kava beverage per serving. Sticking to these serving sizes can help maintain safe consumption levels.

The goal of these safe consumption practices is to enjoy the benefits of kava while mitigating the potential harm it can cause. Despite the relaxing effects kava offers, safety should always be the top priority.

In conclusion of this sub-section, let's remind ourselves that moderation, high-quality sourcing, and an awareness of personal health status are paramount when incorporating kava into one's regimen. If you are unsure about its use, seeking advice from a healthcare professional is always a prudent step.


1. World Health Organization. Assessment of the risk of hepatotoxicity with kava products. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2007.

Kava and Driving: Impairment Potential

Driving requires full attention, quick reflexes, and the ability to make immediate decisions. Introducing any substance that can impair cognitive and motor functions is a risk not only to the driver but also to others on the road. Kava, a beverage made from the roots of the plant Piper methysticum, which is native to the Pacific Islands, has gained popularity for its calming effects, which can include muscle relaxation and reduced anxiety. However, these soothing properties also raise concerns about its potential to impair driving abilities.

Research suggests that kava's active compounds, known as kavalactones, can have psychoactive effects. These effects include sedation, which can lead directly to impaired reaction times and dulled senses—critical factors in driving performance. A study published in the journal Psychopharmacology (Vol. 129, No. 3) investigating the effects of kava extract on cognitive function found that kava consumption can impair cognitive processing and visual attention. Such impairments could be hazardous when operating a vehicle.

Furthermore, legislative bodies in some countries have recognized the potential risks associated with kava use and driving. For instance, Australian guidelines state that individuals should not drive or operate heavy machinery after consuming kava. These recommendations are based on the understanding that kava's sedative effects can significantly impact one's ability to drive safely.

There is also evidence to suggest individual variability in response to kava. Factors like body weight, metabolism, existing tolerance, and concurrent use of other substances (such as alcohol or prescription medications) can all influence how significantly kava might affect a person's driving ability. Therefore, it is essential for individuals to consider these factors and exercise caution.

For those considering driving after consuming kava, it is crucial to be aware of the signs of impairment, which can include:

  • Drowsiness or sleepiness
  • Reduced motor coordination
  • Slower reaction times
  • Diminished judgment and decision-making abilities
  • Visual disturbances

While the full extent of kava's impairing effects on driving is still being researched, it is evident from the existing studies that kava consumption can pose risks to drivers. Given these potential dangers, it is advisable for individuals to refrain from driving or operating heavy machinery after consuming kava until more conclusive research provides clearer guidance on how to mitigate these risks.

In summary, considering the safety concerns and legal implications, it is prudent to err on the side of caution and avoid driving after ingesting kava. As safety on the roads is paramount, making informed choices about substance consumption and driving is a responsibility shared by all drivers.

Kava Interactions with Medications and Alcohol

When discussing the potential risks of kava, it is crucial to understand how it may interact with other substances, particularly medications and alcohol. Kava, a plant native to the Pacific Islands, has been used traditionally as a ceremonial drink for its sedative and anxiolytic effects. However, when mixed with certain medications or alcohol, kava can pose serious health threats.

Interactions with Medications:

  • Central Nervous System Depressants: Kava has been shown to enhance the effects of drugs that depress the central nervous system, such as benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and certain antidepressants. The concurrent use of kava with these medications can increase drowsiness, impair motor function, and slow down cognitive processing.
  • Hepatotoxic Drugs: There is evidence suggesting that kava may exert hepatotoxic effects in some individuals, potentially due to its kavalactones content. Combining kava with drugs known for their liver-damaging potential (e.g., acetaminophen, statins, certain antifungal medications) could amplify the risk of liver injury.
  • Psychoactive Pharmaceuticals: Kava has psychoactive properties which may interact with other psychoactive medications, such as antipsychotics and certain mood stabilizers. This combination may alter therapeutic outcomes and potentially exacerbate side effects.
  • Blood-thinning Medications: There is a possibility that kava could potentiate the effects of anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs, increasing the risk of bleeding. Patients on medications such as warfarin or aspirin should consult with healthcare professionals before consuming kava.

Interactions with Alcohol:

  • Synergistic Depressant Effects: Like many central nervous system depressants, alcohol's effects can be magnified when taken with kava, leading to increased sedation, dizziness, and the potential for impaired judgment and motor coordination.
  • Enhanced Hepatotoxicity: The liver is responsible for metabolizing both kava and alcohol. Consuming these substances together may increase strain on the liver, escalating the risk for liver damage. Studies have demonstrated that excessive or prolonged kava use, especially in tandem with alcohol, can contribute to severe hepatotoxicity.
  • Increased Risk of Dehydration: Both kava and alcohol have diuretic effects. When combined, they could increase fluid loss and lead to dehydration, which can further contribute to adverse health effects.

It is essential for anyone taking medications or consuming alcohol to consult with a healthcare provider before adding kava to their regimen. If you are considering using kava as part of a health strategy, a comprehensive discussion with a professional can help you weigh the benefits against the potential risks associated with its interactive effects.

Expert opinions, including those summarised in reports by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, caution against the use of kava alongside other substances without proper medical supervision. The complexities of kava's interactions with medications and alcohol underscore the importance of this personalized advice.

The scientific community continues to investigate the mechanisms behind kava's interactions. While the research evolves, it is recommended to err on the side of caution to minimize any unnecessary health risks.

Frequently asked questions

Kava has sedative properties that may help some users improve their sleep quality. However, excessive consumption or individual sensitivity can lead to disrupted sleep patterns. If considering kava as a sleep aid, it should be used cautiously and in moderation to avoid potential adverse effects on sleep architecture.

While kava is known for its sedative effects, the evidence on cognitive performance is mixed. Some users may experience relaxation without impaired cognitive function, but others could have diminished cognitive processing and attention, especially at higher doses. It's best to use kava cautiously and not rely on it for cognitive enhancement.

The World Health Organization suggests limiting daily intake of kavalactones to 250 mg. However, due to potential safety concerns such as liver toxicity and the risk of developing kava dermopathy, it's advisable to practice occasional rather than daily use of kava, and always seek high-quality, noble kava strains.

Yes, concerns have been raised about kava's potential hepatotoxicity. It's important to consume kava responsibly, choose high-quality products, and avoid combining it with other hepatotoxic substances like alcohol and certain medications. Individuals with previous liver issues or those using liver-processed medications should consult a healthcare provider before using kava.

Ask a question about Kava and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • sedation
  • mood elevation
  • euphoria
  • muscle relaxation
  • stomach upset
  • nausea
  • oral anesthesia
  • impaired reaction time
  • altered motor coordination
  • lowered blood pressure
  • respiration changes
  • mild visual disturbances
  • drowsiness

Possible long-term side effects

  • liver toxicity
  • severe liver injury
  • kava dermopathy
  • dehydration
  • increased risk of bleeding

Ingredients to be aware of

  • kavalactones
  • flavokawains
  • pipermethystine


  • reduces anxiety
  • sedative effects
  • muscle relaxant
  • neuroprotective potential
  • mood regulation
  • sleep quality improvement

Healthier alternatives

  • valerian root
  • chamomile tea
  • lemon balm
  • magnesium supplements
  • l-theanine
  • cbd oil

Our Wellness Pick (what is this?)

Yogi Kava Stress Relief Tea

  • Reduces stress levels
  • Organic ingredients
  • Caffeine-free
  • Includes carob & sarsaparilla
  • Comforting spice blend
Learn More!

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 12-09-2023

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 12-09-2023

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