Kava has a long tradition of being used for its calming and relaxing effects. But did you know it actually has some therapeutic benefits? It’s been used as a nutritional supplement for generations and science has shown that kava’s health benefits range from relaxation, up to potentially helping fight cancer.
Recent research has started looking into different health conditions. Here we highlight four that have gotten the most notice and where research looks to be going. 1
Health benefit #1: Anxiety
The best known of kava’s health benefits is probably best known for its anti-anxiety properties. This comes from the ways that kavalactones, the active ingredients in kava, act in the brain. There are several different kavalactones but only six are known to be a part of kava’s effects. Recently, researchers further isolated the specific kavalactone called “Kavain” that is responsible for helping with anxiety. 2
Kavain acts on certain receptors in the brain. These receptors, called GABA receptors, are responsible for kava’s well known effects of calm and relaxation. It turns out that these are the same receptors that benzodiazepines, barbiturates and anesthetics trigger for treating anxiety. This is promising for both the effectiveness of kava as well as the potential for it to be considered a therapeutic treatment.
Health benefit #2: Reducing Pain
While one of the hallmarks of kava is the numb feeling you get in your tongue and month, there is not much research on the pain relieving qualities of kava. Even though this is one of kava’s health benefits that is better known, there is still not much known about how it works. Traditionally, it’s been given to teething babies to help soothe their gum pain, and has been used throughout the pacific islands as a treatment for severe bites and stings from bugs and poisonous fish and treat chronic pains like back pain and help with muscle relaxation. It’s even been used as a local anesthetic and sleep aid. 3
The limited research evidence suggests kava has antinociceptive (that is pain blocking) properties when giving mice kava extract. Two types of pain tests were done and in both cases, the pain was reduced in the kava groups. The researchers suggest specific kavalactones might have more effective pain effects than others. They also found that kava works on different pain pathways than opiates, meaning that kava could be a good pain treatment replacement for opiates.4
Health benefit #3: Protecting your brain
Kavalactones have also demonstrated neuroprotective qualities. That is, they have components that can protect your brain. Kavalactones protect your brain by acting on specific inflammatory pathways. While inflammation is a natural process, chronic inflammation is not and is connected to several neurodegenerative conditions. Kavalacotones also work by decreasing the level of oxidative stress caused by too many damage-causing molecules in the body. 5
There are even suggestions of specific kavalactones having neuroprotective effects based on the pathways they act on. One study discussed that methysticin may activate an antioxidant cascade that led to improvements of symptoms in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease.6
Health benefit #4: Reducing the risk of cancer
Recently, there has been interest in looking into kava’s impact in fighting cancer. In the south pacific, where kava originates, there are very few cancer cases and this has been possibly linked to the amount of kava they drink.7
Kavalactones appear to be the component of kava with the most anticancer activity. They show different pathways of action including triggering apoptosis, or programmed cell death, of cancer cells and slowing down cancer cell growth. They may also be able disrupt the growth and division of cancer cells, and intrerupt molecules that impact cell movement and growth of cancer cells reducing their spread. 8
While this is all very promising there is still research that needs to be done to better understand how kava works in this and other health condition. However, the interest and historical evidence is very exciting in getting kava more recognition as a potential therapeutic treatment.
Disclaimer: This story discusses research and potential health benefits related to a specific supplement and its possible cancer-fighting qualities. It is important to note that the findings presented are based on preliminary research, which may not be conclusive. This story is not intended as medical advice. Before making any changes to your health regimen or considering any supplement, always consult with a qualified healthcare professional. Individuals may react differently to supplements, and there is no guarantee of specific results. The use of any supplement should be approached with caution, and it’s crucial to be aware of potential interactions with medications or other health conditions.
8. Celentano, A. et al. The protective effects of Kava (Piper Methysticum) constituents in cancers: A systematic review. J. Oral Pathol. Med. Off. Publ. Int. Assoc. Oral Pathol. Am. Acad. Oral Pathol. 48, 510–529 (2019).