Dangers of Kava Root

Out of all the inquiries we receive, one of the most frequent is on the potential dangers of kava kava. While it is true that no plant or substance is totally without risk, I’ve written this article to help you to see that, provided kava kava is used in moderation, within a reasonable dosage range, and in the form of non-synthetic preparations, the dangers of kava are minimal.

If you are at all familiar with kava, you probably are aware that, in 2001, concerns were raised about the safety of some commercial kava products. Specifically, there were cases of liver damage among people consuming supplements in the form of extracts of kava. As a result, regulations sprung up governing the sale and use of kava in Europe and Canada. The United States CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has released a report expressing reservations about the use of kava and its possible adverse side effects (specifically, severe liver toxicity), as have authorities at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In addition, the aviation medicine branch of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has strongly recommended against any use of kava by pilots.

It is important to note that none of the cases stemmed from use of kava that had been prepared in the traditional way: powdered kava root, mixed with water or another liquid. In a review of traditional use of kava by Oceanic cultures, one will quickly notice a commonality: NONE of these cultures ever use the stems or leaves of the kava plant in their preparations. Only the root is used.

Hawaiian researchers learned from a trader in Fijian kava that European pharmaceutical companies eagerly bought up the stem and leaves when demand for kava extract soared in Europe in 2000 and 2001. Before 2002, substantial amounts of aerial parts of the kava plant were being exported to North America and Europe and obviously used for the production of commercial extracts. It is now suspected that kava products that included synthetic kavalactone or extracts made from stems and leaves were responsible for claims of liver damage.

A Ph.D. thesis in 2011 suggested that a synthetic kavain enantiomer was likely responsible for the cases of liver toxicity in Europe. Many manufacturers of kava products in Germany decided for economic reasons to use synthetic kavain, which may explain why the incidences of liver problems were mostly confined to the German-speaking parts of Europe. By contrast -- and this is a very important point to note -- in Oceanic cultures, where 100 percent natural preparations of kava root (and ONLY the root) have been used for hundreds, if not thousands of years, kava-related liver problems are rare.

Finally, it was later revealed that most of the subjects who allegedly experienced liver problems in Europe had pre-existing liver troubles which would greatly increase their risk of complications from the ingestion of any substance that stresses the liver. For instance, a portion of the case studies assessed in Germany had probable hepatitis due to viral infection, pancreatitis, or other unspecified liver conditions.

Moreover, partly as a result of these case studies, it is thought that combining kava with alcohol and/or certain prescription medications greatly increases the dangers of kava root. Many if not most of the European case studies involved patients who had been taking various prescription medications alongside acetone- and ethanol-based kava extracts.

In general, combining kava with medications that must be processed by the liver puts a metabolic strain on the liver, increasing the risk of injury. In particular, kava can potentiate the effects of alcohol and drugs that depress central nervous system activity. Kava supplements may also interfere with levodopa, a drug used to treat Parkinson's disease.

However, when kava is prepared from only the root using a water-based extraction method, the dangers of kava appear to be minimal. In fact, a study in 2009 by an Australian university showed absolutely no signs of potential liver damage. The Australian study used water-based kava preparations, like those used in the Pacific islands for thousands of years, rather than acetone- or ethanol-based extractions, like those used in the infamous European studies in the early 2000s.

The potential dangers of kava kava lie in the use of extremely high doses. Overall, when used within a normal dosage range, and prepared in a traditional, all-natural way, kava is a very safe substance. German researchers estimated that kava kava produces, out of every million people who take it, roughly 0.008 adverse or toxic reactions. Any way that you look at it, these numbers are fairly reassuring.

The dangers of kava root have been greatly exaggerated by certain elements within the media and medical community, even to the point of sometimes being downright false. In fact, data would seem to indicate that this plant, long used in Oceanic cultures, is emerging as one of the safest natural facilitators for relaxation and socialization available today*.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to cure, treat, diagnose, or prevent any disease.