Kava Kava for Depression and Anxiety: Is it Effective? Risks/Side Effects?

Is kava kava an effective remedy for depression and anxiety?

Depression is a complicated illness and no single remedy is likely to make you “depression-free,” but as a depression survivor myself, I realize that anything that takes the edge off is a very big “win.” Combine natural remedies with a good diet (particularly nutrient-rich foods for depression) and lifestyle choices (rest and relaxation, avoiding stressful situations) and you may do much more than take the edge off.

Will kava kava take the “edge” off? It very well may do just that but this is a remedy that I consider to be outside of the “DIY” category. There are possible side effects and choosing the right extract may be important in your case. You need to work with a doctor who knows kava.

First, I’ll list some of the side effects just to bring home the point of working with a doctor because the research is fairly compelling and could cause you to hop over to Amazon and buy some kava prematurely.

Side Effects of Kava Kava

As you will see, the clinical trials on kava are compelling and yet kava is prohibited in some European countries because of liver problems associated with its use. It is not clear why particularly given the positive clinical trial evidence. However, there is speculation that the problem lies in the specific formulation of the extract. It reminds me of the deaths from tryptophan in the United States in the 1990s that were the result of a genetically modified tryptophan supplement. The protein itself is just a protein (and you can buy it now as an “5HTP” supplement), but the specific formulation of tryptophan was toxic.

In terms of kava, do not consider it if you have liver problems or drink alcohol. Do work with your doctor who can navigate through the complexities of choosing the right formulation. The formulation used in the studies below is actually a pharmaceutical formulation and your doctor may have experience with it.

The Research on Kava Kava and Anxiety/Depression

Back in 2000, researchers studied all of the peer review studies on kava kava to date and found solid evidence that it can alleviate anxiety. (Find the abstract here.) The researchers reviewed all randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of kava extract for the treatment of anxiety. All seven studies they found suggested that kava provided some relief for anxiety. They conclude: “These data imply that kava extract is superior to placebo as a symptomatic treatment for anxiety. Therefore, kava extract is an herbal treatment option for anxiety that is worthy of consideration.”

In a 2003 study of peri-menopausal women (abstract), researchers also found that anxiety levels improved among the women studied. Women were followed for three months and were randomly assigned to either a control or treatment group. The researchers concluded: “The present data indicate that, in perimenopausal women, administration of Kava–Kava induces an improvement of mood, particularly of anxiety.”

Also in 2003, researchers studied the use of 150 mg of kava in a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study of patients suffering from neurotic anxiety. They found the kava to be effective, but possibly less effective than a 300 mg dose. (See abstract.) In a 2004 follow-up study exploring dosages of kava, researchers found that 3 50mg doses were effective in alleviating anxiety. (Abstract.)

The evidence is fairly strong that kava relieves anxiety, but there is little evidence that it is effective against depression.

The Outlook

Most concerns about kava center around the effects on the liver and these effects may the result of a specific way of processing kava that has not yet been identified. As verified safe methods are created and manufacturers are required to follow them (or perhaps can display a label claim of some sort if they do), I expect to see the kava market boom as patients work with their doctors to take the edge off of their anxiety with this ancient remedy.

Your Reviews

Have you tried kava extract for anxiety? (Have you tried it for another purpose such as to promote sleep?) What has been your experience? Please share the good, bad, and the ugly right here.

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