Kava-like Medicinal Plants

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The power of plants is usually underestimated. They are overshadowed by drugs and medications that have become a more popular form of healing. The funny thing is that plants were all the medicine we had before medical drugs were invented. In fact, plants are still the inspiration for many drugs today, like white willow bark has the same active ingredient as aspirin.

Kava is known for its anti-anxiety effects. It acts on the systems in your brain that bring feelings of calm and relaxation. It’s been gaining popularity in recent years as an alcohol alternative, as it has similar effects without the negative side effects like hangover or addiction. 

There are other herbs that have similar effects as kava. Some can be paired with it to boost its effects while others are beneficial in different ways and best used on their own.

St John’s wort

This flowering herb is best known for treating depression. It’s been used for decades by holistic practitioners as an alternative to antidepressant medications that often come with many unwanted side effects. It is also one of the plants that can be used with kava to boost its benefits.

One study reported that using kava and St. John’s Wort together had significant benefits in depressive symptoms in patients with major depressive disorder. Researchers found a small effect in reducing anxiety but it wasn’t significant. They relate this to the kava dose being too low.

Because anxiety and depression so often go hand in hand, it’s logical to think that these two herbs could be a treatment option, however, more research needs to be done.


Cannabidiol is one of the many active components of the cannabis plant. Commonly known by its acronym CBD, it is a part of the plant that has non-psychoactive effects. That is, you don’t get intoxicated or high from it. Some research has shown it can be helpful in managing psychiatric disorders like epilepsy, anxiety and schizophrenia, but it’s most commonly used to treat sleep and anxiety issues.

CBD reduces anxiety by reducing blood flow to specific areas of your brain that are responsible for anxiety. It also acts on special receptors in the cannabinoid system. Receptors are like bouncers for cells, they control what goes in and out. CBD acts on the CB2 receptor, which is known to have different therapeutic effects like, reducing inflammation helps with pain and brain aging disorders. 


This powerful root has been used for centuries in traditional Indian medicine called Ayurveda. Ashwagandha has been used as an adaptogenic herb, which helps manage stress and supports our bodies coming back into balance after stressful situations.  Its effects are linked to the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, which plays a major role in our stress response.  

This is a complex three stage alarm process that moves from sensing stress, to signaling to the body it’s experiencing stress, to releasing the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol helps us prepare for the stressor; it gets us ready for fight or flight. This was much more helpful when we were more primitive and had to watch out for wild animals  

Research has shown that Ashwagandha significantly reduced feelings of anxiety, depression and lowered levels of cortisol. This is really important today since we don’t experience the same types of stress and unfortunately we have evolved to experience a level of continuous stress, known as chronic stress, which keeps our cortisol levels high. This can lead to different health conditions including obesity, muscle tension, headaches, digestive problems, heart disease and sleep issues.


A plant native to southeastern parts of the United States and Central and South America has traditionally been used as a calming herb for treating anxiety, and sleep issues.  Today it has even been used for conditions such as pain, some heart problems and even ADHD. Passionflower has special phytochemicals with health promoting properties. 

Research reports that passionflower significantly may reduce levels of anxiety as well as help with other neuropsychiatric disorders and stress in patients.  Interestingly, scientists believe that passionflower works on the same pathways as kava does. It increases the chemical messenger called GABA which is known to slow down brain cell activity giving you feelings of calm and relaxation. 

Galphimia glauca

This plant is native to Mexico and has been traditionally used to help treat asthma, anxiety, epilepsy, sleep problems and allergies. It has a very diverse set of compounds which make it so therapeutically beneficial. Recent research has shown activities such as anti-inflammatory, gastrointestinal, anti-malarial and protect cells.

SImilar to kava, galphimia glauca has shown therapeutic effects for generalized anxiety disorder. In one study, researchers compared galphimia glauca to the anti-anxiety medication Lorazepam. After 15 weeks, the herb was more effective in lowering anxiety symptoms that the drug.

Final thoughts

While we at Kavahana are big fans of kava, there is comfort in knowing it’s not the only herb that is showing benefits for our health. Thinking about all of the anecdotal tradition behind many of these plant medicines, it’s exciting to think it’s coming back full circle to how we started treating our ailments. Just be sure you know how these plants interact together and with other medications you may be taking. 

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Kava-like Medicinal Plants


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