For thousands of years, people in the South Pacific Islands have used kava for medicinal & cultural purposes. Today, more and more people around the world are considering using kava as a natural remedy for overcoming anxiety and stress.
If you are among this group and have ever turned to the internet to gather more information—What is kava? How does kava work? Is kava safe?—then you’ve likely stumbled upon articles that call into question the safety of kava use. Specifically, there are claims that kava is toxic to the liver and has caused serious illness or even death.
In this post, we address the claims that kava use can cause liver damage, proving that these claims are largely unfounded. Furthermore, we share evidence that kava is a safe alternative to prescription medications for treating anxiety and stress.
The Origins of Kava Use and Liver Toxicity Claims
Most of the claims regarding kava use and liver toxicity date back to 2002 when the German health agency Bundesinstitut für Arzneimittel und Medizinprodukte (BfArM) banned products containing kava due to fears over kava’s toxicity. Upon learning of the ban, other European Union countries including France and Switzerland also banned kava.
Twelve years later, German courts overturned the ban after finding that “the risk of using kava was not unusually high and mere doubts over a medicinal product did not justify it being banned.” In other words, BfArM could not provide any scientific evidence that links kava to liver damage or other serious health conditions.
If you're wondering what caused BfArM to think kava was such a danger to the liver in the first place, it was reported that approximately 100 people worldwide have been diagnosed with liver toxicity associated with kava use. In looking at these cases, however, two big problems quickly appear.
First, the link between kava use and liver toxicity was not established to a strong degree. The liver damage that these patients suffered were more likely the result of other drugs that were taken at the same time as the kava.
Second, it is thought that the kava consumed by these individuals was incorrectly harvested and extracted. Kava extracts and other products should only be made from kava root, not from kava stem or leaves. Consuming improperly cultivated and processed kava is potentially dangerous, which is why it is imperative for you to know where and how your kava is harvested and extracted.
Evidence for Kava Safety
A number of studies have shown that kava-related liver toxicity claims are largely inaccurate and that kava use is safe and effective for treating anxiety and stress. One study showed there was no difference in liver functioning between subjects who received kava and subjects who did not. The study also showed there were no symptoms of withdrawal or addiction between the two groups, but there was a significant reduction in anxiety in the group taking kava.
In studies conducted by the Ohio State University and the South Dakota State University College of Pharmacy, both universities found that kava is not only non-toxic to the liver, it may even protect the liver. Even the World Health Organization has stated that it is rare for hepatic adverse reactions to occur from the use of kava.
You should always talk with your healthcare provider before taking kava, particularly if you are using prescription medicines, have had liver problems or frequently consume alcoholic beverages or have certain medical conditions. Pregnant women, women who are breastfeeding and children under the age of 18 should not use kava.