Kava Kava, also known simply as kava, is a Polynesian herbal plant whose Latin name -- Piper methysticum -- means "intoxicating pepper." This plant's roots are typically ground into a pulp and added to water to form a beverage that's been known for centuries for its tranquilizing effect. Pacific Islanders used kava as part of rituals and ceremonies, but it's commonly used today as a social drink, similar to alcohol. Although research concerning its safety continues, kava is linked to several health benefits.
Kava is known for its mood elevating, relaxing effect and is often used to relieve anxiety. Kavalactones, which are substances that affect the brain and central nervous system, are linked to kava's sedative effect. A study published in the "Canadian Medical Association Journal" in November of 2003 stated that scientific evidence from randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind studies have concluded that kava is an effective treatment for anxiety. The study recommends a dose of 100 milligrams of kava extract (standardized to contain 70 percent kavalactones) given two or three times per day.
A study published in the "Journal of Psychopharmacology" in July 2005 found that in a personal trial -- not double-blind -- in stress-induced insomnia, kava improved sleep and the combination of kava and valerian was even more effective for treating insomnia. According to MedlinePlus, kava may also be effective in reducing withdrawal symptoms in people who must stop taking sleep medicines known as benzodiazepines. People taking sedative medications should not take kava in combination with the sedatives because it may cause extreme drowsiness and slowing of reflexes.
Kavalactones are linked to additional health benefits. These chemicals, which are produced from the kava root, reduce convulsions and also contain pain-relieving properties, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Kava is also used to treat attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, migraine headaches, muscle pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, urinary tract infections and certain respiratory tract infections. Kava is also applied externally for certain skin diseases to aid healing and act as a painkiller.
Although kava provides several health benefits, safety concerns exist. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not take kava. People suffering from depression should also avoid kava because it might make depression worse, according to MedlinePlus. Kava may cause liver damage; a study published in the "Canadian Medical Association Journal" in November 2003 reported 25 kava-related cases in Germany and Switzerland of serious toxic effects on the liver, including hepatitis, cirrhosis and liver failure, as well as a case in the United States requiring a liver transplant. Because of the potential risks, consult your doctor before beginning kava use.