Can Kava Provide Anxiety Relief?

kava root
Kava root. Peter Unger/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

For natural relief of anxiety, many people turn to an herb known as kava (sometimes called kava kava). Also used to treat insomnia and menopausal symptoms, kava contains compounds shown to promote relaxation and possibly increase your levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (an amino acid known to play a role in reducing anxiety).

Is Kava Effective for Anxiety Relief?

There is strong scientific support for kava's effectiveness in the treatment of anxiety and anxiety-related conditions, according to a 2010 research review published in Nutrition Journal. The review's authors analyzed 24 studies on the use of supplements in treatment of anxiety, finding that passionflower and combinations of L-lysine and L-arginine were also backed by solid research.

In an earlier review (published in The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2003 and updated in 2005), scientists looked at seven studies on kava as an anxiety treatment. Although kava was found to be more effective than placebo, the review's authors caution that "the size of the effect seems small." They also found that kava appears "relatively safe" when used for 24 weeks or less.


Kava stem peelings and leaves may contain compounds that could harm the liver, and possibly lead to death. In fact, in 2002 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning that using kava supplements may lead to severe liver damage. Therefore, it would be wise to avoid using the herb.

It's important to keep in mind that supplements haven't been tested for safety and dietary supplements are largely unregulated. In some cases, the product may deliver doses that differ from the specified amount for each herb. In other cases, the product may be contaminated with other substances such as metals or contain herb compounds that have toxic effects. Also, the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established. You can get further tips on using supplements here.

Kava may also cause drowsiness and, when used in the long-term, yellowing of the skin. In addition, kava may interact with a number of drugs (including sedatives and medications used for Parkinson's disease).

Using Kava for Anxiety Relief

While kava may offer some anti-anxiety benefits, using kava to treat an anxiety disorder is not recommended due to the possible safety concerns. If you're experiencing any anxiety-disorder symptoms (including constant worrying, restlessness, and trouble sleeping), you should consult a mental health professional as soon as possible. Your mental healthcare provider can also you advise you on how to safely incorporate kava into your anxiety treatment program.

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Article Sources
  • Lakhan SE, Vieira KF. "Nutritional and herbal supplements for anxiety and anxiety-related disorders: systematic review." Nutr J. 2010 Oct 7;9:42.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alterative Medicine. "Kava [NCCAM Herbs at a Glance]". NCCAM Publication No. D314. Created May 2006. Updated July 2010.
  • National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements. "Kava". Last accessed January 2011.
  • Pittler MH, Ernst E. "Kava extract for treating anxiety." Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2003;(1):CD003383.