Dear Dietician: Kava may reduce stress, anxiety, but know the risk involved

Leanne McCrate

Dear Dietitian,

I know everyone has stress in their lives, but mine seems to be piling up! I’ve had financial worries and family problems. I read about a supplement called kava that’s supposed to help with stress. I’d rather take an herbal supplement than a drug. What is your opinion?

Meredith

Dear Meredith,

We all deal with some level of stress at times. It’s normal, but when it affects your everyday life and interferes with your sleeping or eating patterns, it’s time to do something about it.

It is wise to seek professional advice before purchasing a supplement, as products often vary in quality, effectiveness, and cost. Kava Kava, or just kava, is a member of the pepper family and is native to the South Pacific. South Pacific islanders have used it in ceremonies to produce relaxation. Its effect is similar to that of alcohol, creating a calm, happy feeling. Proponents claim that kava provides many benefits of alcoholic beverages without worrying about a hangover.

Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD, CNSC

Traditionally, the root of the plant is used to make a drink. Today it can be purchased in powder, capsule form, or tea. It is craftily marketed as a “chill pill” or “quality, affordable relaxation.” The kava drink contains about 30 calories a serving and reportedly has an earthy taste that must be acquired. There are approximately 100 kava bars in the United States, where people enjoy the drink while relaxing and socializing.

Kavalactones are the active ingredients found in the kava plant. They interact with the limbic system, the part of the brain that deals with emotions. More specifically, kavalactones act on the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates fear and anxiety. 

Studies on kava are mixed, but overall, it is believed to have a small impact on reducing anxiety. Scientists think it is safe for short-term use, but as with any supplement, there are risks. Prolonged use of kava has been associated with dry, scaly skin. It has also been associated with severe liver damage. Kava may also impact other medications, so always talk to your doctor before beginning any herbal remedy.

To ensure quality when purchasing kava or any dietary supplement, be sure it has USP on the label. The United States Pharmacopeia (USP) tests products to verify their contents, purity, quality, and strength. The following websites will also help you make a sound decision:

  1. The National Institutes of Health’s Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine website: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/supplements/wiseuse.htm
  2. The National Institutes of Health Medline Plus website www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/herb_All.html

Until next time, be healthy!

Dear Dietitian

Disclaimer: This column is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for medical care. Consult your healthcare provider before beginning any herbal supplement.

Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD, aka Dear Dietitian, is an award-winning dietitian based in Missouri. Her mission is to educate consumers on sound, scientifically-based nutrition. Email her today at deardietitian411@gmail.com. Dear Dietitian does not endorse any products, health programs, or diet plans.