Kava kava — also known as Piper methysticum and often shortened to just kava — is a tropical shrub that has been used for centuries in the South Pacific Islands in traditional ceremonies where it is known for its calming and soothing effects. In recent years, it’s gained popularity in the Western world as a natural alternative to pharmaceuticals for anxiety, stress, and insomnia.
The roots of the plant are used to produce a drink that has sedative and anesthetic properties. Traditionally, the kava root is ground into a powder and then mixed with water to create a thick, earthy beverage.
It's known for promoting relaxation and a sense of peace, which is why it's often used in the evenings or at the end of a long day. In addition to traditional kava drinks, kava is also available in the form of capsules, tinctures, and teas.
One of the most popular forms of consumption is kava kava tea, which has gained a significant following in the West. This is partly due to its supposed health benefits, but it’s also being marketed as a non-addictive alternative to alcohol and other drugs for relaxation and stress relief.
The World Health Organization has stated that "there is no evidence of a withdrawal syndrome after abrupt cessation of prolonged use of kava."
However, most users report that a large enough dose of kava will cause you to feel high. Its name literally means, “intoxicating pepper.”
It’s psychoactive and can cause euphoria in the user, which is enough for people with addictive tendencies to become addicted, even if the addiction is only mental.
Kava affects the same parts of the brain as a couple of other drugs that can be extremely addictive — alcohol and benzodiazepines. This is likely why it may help with anxiety: it’s affecting the same neurotransmitters, namely GABA.
Many people find that the feeling they get from kava is comparable to these drugs. While kava does not appear to be nearly as physically addicting as these other drugs (if at all), users can still get addicted to the feeling itself and have a hard time quitting.
Some users will take kava to help with sleep or depression, and even ADHD and withdrawal from “hard” drugs like opioids. If you’re using kava for these purposes, it’s going to be harder to quit as the symptoms you’re treating return.
The main takeaway here is that any drug that causes you to feel euphoric in any way has the potential for addiction. Physical addiction is just one component of addiction — psychological or mental addiction is just as powerful, if not more so in some cases.
To put this in perspective, compare it to another drug that is known for being highly psychologically addictive without being physically addictive — cocaine.
Despite not being physically addictive, cocaine is known around the world for being incredibly addictive.
This is not to say that the two drugs are comparable — they’re very different — but more to highlight that a lack of physical addiction doesn’t equate to no addictive potential at all.
Like any substance, kava has potential side effects and risks, including:
These side effects are usually mild and go away on their own. In rare cases, heavy and prolonged use of kava can lead to a skin condition known as kava dermopathy, which causes the skin to become rough and scaly.
While there have been reports of liver damage associated with kava use, these cases are extremely rare and usually involve other factors, such as the consumption of alcohol or the use of other medications.
In 2002, the German government made kava illegal, and many other European countries followed, mostly based on reports that kava was causing liver damage.
As of 2007, only about 100 cases of liver damage had been directly associated with kava intake. To put this in perspective, that’s enough that just about any pharmaceutical drug would be banned and taken off the shelves.
However, more than a few experts argue that cases involved people who were using other drugs that would also cause liver damage, making it hard to say if kava by itself was causing the damage.
Eventually, researchers concluded that the number of cases that could be attributed to kava was probably only 14.
While these side effects might sound alarming, it's important to remember that they are rare and usually associated with heavy, long-term use of kava.
Kava is a drug just like any other substance that can have an effect on your body or cause euphoria. Because it can alter mood and consciousness, it is often classified as a psychoactive substance. Just like any other drug, it has potential side effects and can potentially treat certain conditions.
Kava is legal in most countries, including the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. However, in some countries like France and Australia, kava is heavily regulated due to concerns about liver damage.
Science has a lot to say about kava kava. Research has shown that kava can be effective in reducing anxiety, especially when that anxiety is accompanied by depression.
A systematic review of clinical trials found that kava extract was superior to placebo for the treatment of anxiety.
For many in the Western world, kava can seem like a safe alternative to benzodiazepines and alcohol use. While it’s true that, in comparison, kava is “not as bad,” it still has addictive potential and potentially dangerous side effects that might not be worth the risk.
If you have an addictive personality and have already found yourself addicted to other substances, it’s very possible that you’ll get addicted to kava as well.
This process is called cross-addiction, where someone with addiction problems simply switches to some other addiction. For example, it’s very common for people addicted to hard drugs to quit and start drinking alcohol.
They might drink alcohol without problems for years, only to find themselves drinking alcoholically. For most people with addiction problems, it’s probably best to stay away from kava entirely to avoid a similar situation.
If you or a loved one is struggling with kava addiction in Texas, we can help.
At ASIC Recovery, our Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) is dedicated to helping you develop healthier coping skills and build a supportive recovery network so that you can achieve long-term sobriety.
Cristal Clark, LPC-S, is the Medical Reviewer for ASIC Recovery Services. She reviews all website content for quality and medical accuracy. She is a master’s level Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and graduated from Liberty University in 2011. She has worked in the behavioral and mental health field for over 12 years and has a passion for helping others. She has been clinical director and CEO of a 200 plus bed facility, PHP, and IOP, with experience managing a team of counselors, individual/group/and family therapy, and coordinating continuum of care. Cristal is trained in EMDR and certified in non-violent intervention. She is a member of American Counseling Association and American Association of Christian Counselors.