Clinical trial supports use of Kava to treat anxiety

May 15, 2013

Kava (Piper methysticum) (credit: Forest & Kim Starr/Wikimedia Commons)

A world-first completed clinical study by an Australian team has found Kava, a medicinal South Pacific plant, significantly reduced the symptoms of people suffering anxiety.

The study, led by the University of Melbourne, revealed Kava could be an alternative to pharmaceutical products for the hundreds of thousands of Australians who suffer from generalized anxiety disorders (GAD)

“In this study we’ve been able to show that Kava offers a potential natural alternative for the treatment of chronic clinical anxiety; unlike some other options, it has less risk of dependency and less potential for side effects,” said lead researcher, Dr Jerome Sarris from Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne.

The study also found that people’s genetic differences (polymorphisms) of certain neurobiological mechanisms called GABA transporters may modify their response to Kava.

“If this finding is replicated, it may pave the way for simple genetic tests to determine which people may be likely to have a beneficial anxiety-reducing effect from taking Kava,” Sarris said.

‘I’ll have what she’s having’

An additional novel finding of the study, recently published in Phytotherapy Research, was that Kava increased women’s sex drive compared to those in the placebo group, believed to be due to the reduction of anxiety, rather than any aphrodisiac effect.

Future studies confirming the genetic relationship to therapeutic response, and any libido-improving effects from Kava is now required. Dr Sarris said these significant findings are of importance to sufferers of anxiety and to the South Pacific region, which relies on Kava as a major export.

The study was funded by the NHMRC and Integria Healthcare who manufacture MediHerb and Thompson’s Kava products.

“Although scientific studies provide some evidence that kava may be beneficial for the management of anxiety, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a warning that using kava supplements has been linked to a risk of severe liver damage.” — NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine,

“Heavy use of kava with comorbid alcohol consumption or an existing liver condition appears to lead to malnutrition, weight loss, liver damage (causing elevated serum γ -glutamyltransferase and high-density lipoproteincholesterol levels), renal dysfunctionrashespulmonary hypertensionmacrocytosis of red cellslymphocytopenia, and decreasing platelet volumes. —  Fu PP, Xia Q, Guo L, Yu H, Chan PC (2008). “Toxicity of kava kava”. J Environ Sci Health C Environ Carcinog Ecotoxicol Rev 26 (1): 89–112 [98]. doi:10.1080/10590500801907407.PMID 18322868.

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— Editor

UPDATE 5/15: Dangers of Kava cited in editorial statement.