Is Kava Addictive?
People have used kava kava (kava for short) for thousands of years to relieve issues like anxiety, stress, and insomnia, and to promote relaxation. It is a natural substance, derived from the roots and stems of a small shrub native to regions of the South Pacific.
Some kava users report psychoactive, hallucinogenic, and even euphoric effects. Studies find kava contains substances that affect the brain similarly to alcohol, although it does not seem to impair cognitive functions.
Although kava is legal in the United States for personal use, there are troubling reports it may cause liver damage. In 2002, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned, “Kava-containing products have been associated with liver-related injuries-including hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver failure.”
There are two important questions when considering whether to take kava.
- Is kava addictive?
- Is kava safe to consume?
Does Kava Fit the Definition of Addiction?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as a “chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.” Regular use of addictive substances like drugs and alcohol affects the pleasure and reward center of the brain and may change how the brain works.
Although the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not classify kava as an addictive substance, some studies find its effects on the brain are similar to those of addictive drugs and alcohol.
Addictive substances cause a surge of neurotransmitters in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. The result is an increase in levels of chemicals like dopamine and endorphins that affect mood and other emotions. This surge of natural chemicals elevates the mood while decreasing stress, anxiety, and pain.
Although the effect on the pleasure and reward center of the brain is triggered naturally by such things as eating a favorite food or spending time with loved ones, addictive substances cause unnaturally high spikes in chemical levels, which powerfully reinforce the desire to repeat the behavior.
Although there is limited research on kava and its active compound, kava pyrones, at least one study found it increased dopamine levels and triggered a relaxing, slightly euphoric effect in study subjects.
WebMD agrees kava appears to affect the brain, saying it delivers a calming effect, “much like Valium.” According to WebMD, kava also causes muscle relaxation and affects GABA and dopamine receptors. GABA blocks nervous system activity and helps regulate mood.
Because kava interacts with brain receptors to elevate mood and promote relaxation, it may lead to dependence. With addictive substances, dependence often leads to addiction.
Is Kava Safe to Consume?
Side Effects and Safety Issues
Kava users have reported uncomfortable side effects, including digestive issues, dizziness, headache, lethargy, and allergic skin reactions. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine (NCCIM) warns long-term use at high doses may cause dry, scaly skin with yellow discoloration.
NCCIM also warns consumption of kava may adversely affect a person’s ability to drive or operate machinery safely.
A metanalysis by the Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews found kava “to be an effective symptomatic treatment option for anxiety,” but recommends short-term use of fewer than 24 weeks because of safety concerns. Other experts advise consumers to limit regular consumption of kava to less than three months unless a doctor approves longer use.
Potential Liver Injury is the Biggest Area of Controversy
As mentioned above, one of the biggest concerns over the use of kava is the potential for serious liver injury. In the early 2000s, many health experts claimed kava was causing liver damage, sometimes fatal, in users.
Because of these reports, Europe, Canada, and several other countries banned kava. When experts reviewed data from these reports, they determined that, in some cases, the liver damage was more likely caused by medications users were taking at the same time as kava. Although most countries have since overturned their bans, many continue to impose restrictions on the sale and use of kava.
There is still much uncertainty whether kava poses the potential for harm to the liver. In countries where kava is legal, health experts stress consumers should only use it if they have no underlying liver conditions, do not take other medications that can be toxic to the liver, and do not drink alcohol. Doctors advise patients to never exceed the recommended dosage and to avoid long-term use.
To be safe, always check with your doctor before taking kava. Besides the concerns discussed above, health experts warn against taking kava in the following situations.
- During pregnancy or while breastfeeding because of the presence of harmful pyrone constituents.
- Parkinson’s disease. Kava may worsen this condition.
- When operating machinery or driving, as kava can slow reaction time.
- Surgery. Stop taking kava at least two weeks before surgery, as it can interact with anesthesia or other medications.
- With other medications, especially antidepressants, mood stabilizers, or sedatives.
- With alcohol.
The Bottom Line
While there is no definitive answer whether kava is addictive, it is clear there are many potential risks with its use. In certain situations, you and your doctor may feel it is worth trying kava rather than prescription medications, despite the risks.
For example, because some research finds kava may help relieve symptoms of anxiety, your doctor may feel it is a safer short-term option than the use of benzodiazepines, which carry serious risks, including the potential for addiction.
Never take kava without first discussing it with your personal doctor. They know your medical history and can help you decide if kava is advisable for your situation.
Midwest Recovery Centers
At Midwest Recovery Centers, our compassionate staff specializes in treating prescription or illegal drug dependence, alcohol dependence, co-occurring disorders, and other addictive behaviors while also providing education through a monthly support meeting for the families of those struggling. Contact Midwest Recovery Centers today to start your recovery.
Reviewed and Assessed by
Taylor Brown, B.A.Com., MAADC II
Tim Coleman, M. of Ed.