Kava kava extract comes from the root of the Piper methysticum shrub. This plant, part of the pepper family, is native to islands in the South Pacific. There, kava is used in both traditional social and ceremonial drinks. Kava kava extract may also be taken in capsule form for its potential medicinal properties.
To make the traditional, island kava drink, the root of the kava plant was chewed, spat into a large bowl, mixed with water, and consumed. Today the root is typically pounded into powder, rather than being chewed. When consuming kava directly, the drinker may experience certain side effects. For example, one may experience lethargy, euphoria, and a tingling tongue, as well as what might be called a 'fuzzy' head — a kind of mild disorientation.
These side effects are very unlikely to occur if the much less potent kava kava extract capsule is taken, instead of drinking the root directly. Capsules of kava often contain approximately 30% kavalactones. These are the active chemical component in kava roots. The extract is generally taken for its reported stress-relieving properties, as well as its potential for combating insomnia. Kava may also act as a mild diuretic.
It has been suggested that kava kava extract may be more effective in relieving anxiety when taken consistently for a few weeks. It is also generally thought that consumers do not build up a physical tolerance to its effects. Also, kava is not known to be addictive.
Children should not take kava kava extract due to a lack of scientific study to determine the safety and potential risks. While there is no standard dosage for adults, a typical dose of kava kava extract is between 150 and 300 milligrams (mg), taken one to three times per day on an as-needed basis. It is also generally recommended that consumers take a two-week hiatus from kava about every three months. There is insufficient research, however, regarding the safety of taking kava on a long-term basis.
Consumers who have a medical condition, or who are taking any prescription medications, should consult with their doctors before taking kava kava in any form. Kava that has been treated with chemicals during processing has the potential to cause liver damage, so people with cirrhosis or other liver conditions should not take this substance. Alcohol and the extract should not be consumed together. In addition, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use this supplement. Patients who may be planning surgery should inform their surgeons about their kava usage, since it may heighten the effects of anesthesia.