Is kava hard on the liver?

Picture of Kavahana

Kava and the liver. It’s a challenging topic that has been a huge debate and has ruined kava’s reputation since the early 1990s. It’s probably the most publicized myth about kava there. What makes it even more complicated, is that the information about it is so polarized; you can find evidence for both sides of the coin if you want it.

So we are going to break it down here and talk about where this all came from, the evidence against this and what it all means for you.

Where the story started

The issues about kava being hard on the liver started back in the 1990s in western Europe when there were increasing reports of people getting liver damage and some even dying after taking an herbal kava supplement. Of course this caused alarm and led to the EU banning kava in many countries based on safety concerns. 

However, it turns out that the issue wasn’t actually kava itself. There is an unfortunate assumption that many natural supplements are automatically safe. And while they are mostly free of many side effects that you find with pharmaceutical drugs, they still may have interaction effects, that mean how they work with other medications or supplements you may be taking.

Supplements vs. Traditional Kava

Supplements, on the other hand, often contain additives and fillers to products to boost sales profits and increase shelf stability. This means that other ingredients may be present that could affect how the supplement works. In kava’s case, most of the supplements given in the studies were in tablet form, which is very different from the traditional tea preparation that pacific islanders use. 

Furthermore, when looking at many of the case studies involving liver transplants or death, shows that most of the patients were either taking a kava supplement with other ingredients, or medication alongside it. 

Traditionally, kava is used in a tea form. The root is dried, ground and steeped into an earthy beverage that’s drunk with friends, family and at community gatherings. There are no other additives except the water or coconut milk that the powder is mixed with. 

The WHO report

In the early 2000s, World Health Organization (WHO), did an in depth review of kava’s effects on the liver. It examined all of the research, clinical reports, and historical and cultural stories to try and determine if kava was in fact hard on the liver. And what they found was that the liver damage was connected to kava supplements being used being impure or contaminated with other unwanted ingredients or being used with other medications, or substances that caused problems.

The conclusion was that kava root is safe, especially if used traditionally, that is in a pure form as a beverage away from other substances. We still don’t fully understand how kava interacts with other substances so like alcohol, it’s best not to mix. That’s great news for us!

The takeaway

So despite what you may have heard, traditional kava is safe and not hard on your liver.  It’s exciting that we can challenge old evidence and start to reframe and re-educate people about how the benefits of kava outweigh the claimed harms.

There’s growing evidence challenging misconceptions about kava, suggesting its benefits in treating conditions like anxiety, sleep disorders, depression, and possibly ADHD. As outdated myths about kava’s harmfulness fade, this opens up opportunities for more research and advocacy and helping people find kava for its health benefits.

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Is kava hard on the liver?


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