Kava tea: Stress reliever or dangerous sedative?

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Kava tea: Stress reliever or dangerous sedative?

Question

Some of my college friends frequent a bar that serves beverages made with kava. They say kava relieves stress and helps them relax. Is this safe?

No name
Oregon

Answer

In 2002, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned of a possible link between kava — a popular herbal supplement — and liver failure. However, the FDA didn't ban sales of kava in the United States. The concern about liver damage mainly involves kava in its concentrated supplement form. It isn't known if kava beverages — which contain a less concentrated form of the herb — carry a similar risk.

Clinical studies have shown that kava has a sedating effect that may reduce anxiety in some people. Kava comes from the root of a pepper plant (Piper methysticum) that is native to the South Pacific Islands. Extracts of the root are sold as supplements in many health food stores. The root of the kava plant may also be ground into a powder, mixed with water and consumed as a beverage.

Kava beverages have long been a popular social drink in the South Pacific, much like alcohol is used in other areas of the world. Now, kava bars are springing up around the United States offering a variety of kava teas, juices and coffees.

In small amounts, kava may relieve stress and help you relax. As with alcohol, however, drinking too much kava can cause intoxication and impair your ability to drive. Signs and symptoms of intoxication include drowsiness, blurred vision and muscle weakness. Also, mixing alcohol with kava can increase these effects. So even if you're just going to a kava bar, you will still need to appoint a designated driver.

Although the risk of liver damage from kava is low, talk to your doctor before taking a kava supplement or consuming kava beverages if you have or are at high risk of liver problems.

Last Updated: 12/23/2005
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