Kava is a popular and also controversial dietary supplement. It’s commonly used to treat anxiety, insomnia and to relieve stress and tension. Yet there has been increased fear among consumers regarding this supplement, as a growing number of case reports have raised serious concerns about kava’s safety, including risk of severe liver injury. Some countries have even banned the supplement, but it is still available in the United States.
So what are the facts? In 2002, the FDA advised consumers against using kava due the risk of liver toxicity or hepatoxicity. This advisory came out after several cases of severe liver injury associated with kava use were reported in Germany and Switzerland. The reported cases included incidences of jaundice, cirrhosis and hepatitis.
After this, the FDA also announced its intent to further investigate the relationship between kava supplementation and liver health. Some of the research suggested kava was safe to take, while others found it to be harmful.
There are more than 200 varieties of kava plants, an herb indigenous to the South Pacific Islands, and while there are some watery regulations in place, these regulations are not universal. Legislation known as the “Vanuatu Kava Act No. 7” attempts to regulate the quality of kava exported and states that kava products can only be exported when each of the following is marked: name of the variety, state of origin, distinct organs or parts of the kava used, and the words “Original Vanuatu Kava.” Despite this, some kava-exporting countries in the South Pacific lack any Kava legislation.
As recommended by the World Health Organization report on kava, a three-week study was performed on Australian patients with generalized anxiety. After one week, no liver injury was observed between those given a Kava supplement and those receiving a placebo. Based on the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale, kava was deemed an effective treatment for anxiety. Given the very short duration of this study, however, additional studies are needed to assess the long-term impact of kava on liver health.
In recent report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers suggest that– based on evidence from these more recent studies–the advisory issued by the FDA in 2002 needs to be updated to improve consumer safety.
In the meantime, if you wish to use this herb, you should notify your physician and have him monitor you for liver inflammation. For those who have preexisting liver problems, drink alcohol or use other medications that can harm the liver, kava should be avoided. Other alternative methods, which have no potential side effects, should be considered.