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How Effective is Kava for Anxiety?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2018
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The issue of using kava kava for anxiety is one that continues to be studied. Kava (piper methysticum) is a plant that grows in the South Pacific, where it has many cultural uses. Herbal preparations of it made its way to various other parts of the world where some countries have rejected its use due to its association with causing liver disease. New preparations of it, which only contain the root of the plant, are thought safer, and it’s still sold in the places like the US in natural foods stores. Nevertheless, it efficacy, safety, and preparation quality are not regulated by agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the legitimate studies on its use as an anxiolytic are still few in number, though suggestive of benefit.

Most of the studies, performed in the early 2000s, show that kava for anxiety is potentially helpful. Medical literature reviewing these studies is quick to point out most of the research isn’t long-lasting and doesn’t speak to the relative safety of long term use. In small trials, one thing that is evaluated is the effectiveness of kava versus placebo, and in most instances, people experiencing anxiety had better results with kava than they did with a placebo. These studies are relatively small, but do suggest the herb may be useful in this regard.

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Another type of study that has been done, and there have been more than one, compares kava for anxiety versus different benzodiazepine treatments. Benzodiazepines like Valium® and Xanax® have long been employed to treat occasional anxiety, but they are addictive and longer use tends to mean more must be used to treat the same level of symptoms. In these head-to-head studies, kava for anxiety appeared to work as well as medicines like Valium®. It also was associated with lower decline in cognition rate, a decided disadvantage of using tranquilizers. Many find such research greatly encouraging.

There is argument that the trouble with assessing kava for anxiety is that there are too few studies exist to legitimately prove it is as worthwhile as traditional anti-anxiety drugs. An additional argument is that its safety level, particularly for long-term use is questionable. Many warn that lacking FDA approval, because it is classed as a supplement, it is simply not known how safe it is. Conversely, many people argue the FDA routinely fails to protect people from taking different prescription drugs and there are many recent examples of medications that had to be pulled from the market because they were found to create physical damage. At the same time, kava has been in use by South Pacific islanders for hundreds of years.

Given the dual positions on kava for anxiety or any other use, it’s suggested people consider this matter carefully. They should not take kava for anxiety if they have any type of liver disease, and discussing the matter with a physician is highly recommended. Patients should be prepared to mention any prescription drugs they take and all medical history of diseases and present conditions.

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