The story behind the myth of kava causing liver damage

Picture of Kavahana

Photo via Body Genesis Institute

For decades now, kava has gotten a bad reputation for potentially causing liver damage. The worst part about this myth, besides not being true, is that even though there is evidence that shows kava is not completely to blame, people continue to believe it.

Thankfully, an in depth study done by the World Health Organization, provided concrete evidence that kava itself is not to blame for the liver damage.

The history behind the myth

It all started in the 1990s, when there were a series of liver issues reported in Europe and the United States from patients using products containing kava. Its calming effects made it a popular supplement especially for those struggling with anxiety, sleep issues and emotional distress.

But in the early 2000s, the reports of liver damage in those using kava supplements gained media attention. The German Federal Institute had 83 cases documented including conditions as severe as liver transplants and death. This led to many European and North American countries banning or heavily regulating kava supplements.

This caused confusion as the island nations who had been using kava for centuries never experienced liver issues and some researchers argued that kava was safer and more effective for anxiety and mood disorders than conventional medications.

It wasn’t until 2014, when Germany’s Federal Court finally concluded that kava does not lead to liver damage and these results came from poorly conducted research and badly defined herbal remedies. In fact, it was decided that side effects from kava were so rare that it should be considered insignificant.

Detangling misinformation

The biggest issue is that the term “kava supplement” was used quite loosely. Quality control in the supplement world is a huge issue as products labeled as natural supplements aren’t strictly regulated.

Unfortunately many supplement companies add ingredients and fillers to products to boost sales profits. 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.

Other evidence 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. This would explain a lot considering there have been no cases of pacific islanders having liver issues.

When reading the research included in the WHO report, many studies didn’t include the information of additional medications or supplements that may have been taken while also taking kava. It is an important point to remember that even though things are “natural” they still may negatively interact with other ingredients.

The bright future for kava

Thankfully, things seem to be shifting for kava. The more we talk about the limitations of the research claiming liver damage from kava, the more deflated the claims become.

It’s important to remember that we can’t make assumptions when it comes to natural supplements. Even though they may be natural, there are still cautions that need to be taken when it comes to interacting negatively with other ingredients or medications. So it’s critical to always look into that and talk to your doctor before trying anything new. While kava on its own is safe, it is known to have negative interactions with alcohol and other medications.

It’s promising that we can challenge the ideas and highlight that the benefits of kava outweigh the claimed harms. Research has shown that kava helps people with anxiety, sleep issues, depression and even potentially ADHD. And as these myths of kava being harmful fade even more, it opens doors to more research and advocacy for kava as an important medicine for mental health and wellness.

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The story behind the myth of kava causing liver damage


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