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October 25, 2015

By L. Carr,  Columnist

The great explorer Captain Cook gave kava its name and it
means “intoxicating pepper”, which may give you an idea
of the potential health problems linked to this South Pacific
island root.

Captain Cook didn’t discover kava, however --- kava has
been popular with Pacific Islanders for thousands of years.
The root is used to make a drink. Even today it is similar to
alcohol in the US – a social drink, taken at most community
gatherings. It is also used in ceremonies and rituals on the
islands. Its popularity has travelled across the globe and
many people use kava as a tea or in capsules to treat
various health conditions.

Kava has a calming effect but there are some huge safety
concerns surrounding its use. Liver damage and even
death have been linked to kava. It is therefore banned in
countries like Canada, Germany and Switzerland. Kava is
legal for personal use as a supplement in the US, but
should you try it?

What is Kava Used For?

Given the risk of liver damage you may wonder why
anyone first thought that kava was a good idea for a
health supplement.

First of all, kava has its benefits, according to science. Kava
has a calming effect similar to that of medications like
Valium. It is used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and stress

Studies such as 1997 research by the Department of
Psychiatry, Jena University, Germany show kava’s
effectiveness for treating anxiety.  In this study 100
people with anxiety used kava for six months or a placebo.
Those taking kava showed significant improvements in
nervousness, restlessness, chest pain, and dizziness.

In addition, others use kava to effectively battle chronic
fatigue syndrome, respiratory tract infections, and even
the common cold.

Is Kava Really Dangerous?

Up until a few years ago, kava was considered to be safe
when taken responsibly. Bolstering that confidence were
studies in the 1960s that showed that doses up to four
times the normal amount did not cause health problems,
and that kava was safe for treating issues like anxiety for
short periods of time.

But more recently, kava's reputation has seen a reversal of
fortune.  Serious concern has grown around kava in the
light of reports that suggest even regular doses of kava
can cause severe liver damage.

On the back of these reports, other health concerns have
developed, suggesting that kava is a risky supplement to
take for there reasons. Here are the scientific reasons you
may want to think twice  about using kava:

Kava Causes Liver Injury?

Scientists have found that, on occasion, small doses of
kava can cause serious liver damage.

Studies such as a 2001 report from Geneva University
Hospital, Switzerland, and a 1998 study from Städtische
Kliniken Esslingen am Neckar, Germany demonstrate kava’s
liver-damaging properties.  This latter study showed that
acute hepatitis in two women was induced by kava.
Moreover, when kava intake was stopped liver function
returned to normal.

A 2010 study from the Teaching Hospital of the Johann
Wolfgang Goethe-University Frankfurt/Main, Germany
reported that in a few individuals, kava may be toxic to the
liver in the case of overdose, prolonged treatment, or the
poor quality of the kava itself.

The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has warned  
that several people have needed liver transplants after
drinking kava.

However, other reports that review this scientific literature
show that kava toxicity is rare, and that consuming kava at
recommended dose is not linked to liver damage.

If you are taking kava, then the FDA suggests that you
seek medical supervision to monitor for levels of liver
damage and inflammation.

Also, do not take kava if you have existing liver problems
or you drink alcohol to excess.

High Doses of Kava Can Cause Paralysis

As if liver damage were not scary enough, other studies
warn that kava can cause paralysis.

Taking more than the recommended 300mg daily of kava
can cause excessive muscle relaxation and even paralysis,
according to a 2008 study from the Center for Food Safety
and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Y.N Singh in 1983 concluded that “kava causes
paralysis by mechanisms similar to local anesthetics”.

Kava Numbs Your Mouth

These local anesthetic qualities mean that when you drink
kava or take kava pills, you may experience a numbing
sensation in the mouth. This can make it difficult to eat and
drink for several hours after consuming kava.

Avoid Kava When Taking Antipsychotic Drugs

Kava may trigger “acute dystonic reactions” – spasms in
the neck and the eyes that are often caused by anti-
psychotic drugs.

As kava can produce these effects or amplify an existing
condition, it should not be taken by people using anti-
psychotic drugs according to a 1995 letter written by
Schelosky L, Raffauf C, Jendroska K, et al in the Journal of
Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

Kava Can Cause Intoxication

Don’t think you can drink a lot of kava tea then get behind
the wheel to drive.

High doses of kava cause inebriation, according to a 2003
study by researchers at the Mental Health Research
Institute of Victoria, Australia, and can lead to a “driving-
under-the-influence” citation.

Do not operate machinery if you take kava.

Kava Can Increase the Effect of Sedative Drugs

A case report by Almeida JC, Grimsley EW in the Annals of
Internal Medicine, 1996, indicates that kava can increase
the effects of sedative drugs.

If you take any drugs that depress your mental function,
such as drugs used for Parkinson’s disease for example,
then you need to avoid kava as it can cause significant
problems with movement.

Drinking Kava Results in Skin Damage

One of the commonly reported side effects of kava is a so-
called “kava dermatitis” which is a scaly, flaky, dry rash on
the skin. Other people taking kava also report ulcer-like
skin lesions that are yellow or white, and are commonly
called “crocodile skin” or “kani kani” by Pacific Islanders.

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Kava can make you relaxed but it can
also cause paralysis and liver damage,
scientists have discovered..
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