What does kava do for the body?

Picture of Kavahana

Kava has long been used for its calming and relaxing effects. But did you know it has other medicinal  benefits? In the pacific islands It’s been used as a nutritional supplement for generations and science has now suggested that kava’s health benefits range from relaxation, up to potentially helping fight cancer.

Recent research has started looking into how kava can support different health conditions. Here we highlight five conditions that have drawn the most attention from both the public and research. 

It helps manage anxiety

Kava is probably best known for how it supports anxiety. These anti-anxiety properties come 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 most responsible for helping with anxiety.

Kavain acts on certain receptors in the brain. Receptors help manage what chemicals come in and out of the brain. These receptors, called GABA receptors, are responsible for kava’s well known calming and relaxing effects. It turns out that these are the same receptors that benzodiazepines, barbiturates and anesthetics trigger for treating anxiety. There is even some research that shows kava helps women experiencing anxiety due to menopause. This is promising for both the effectiveness of kava as well as the potential for it to be considered a therapeutic treatment. 

Helps with sleep issues 

Kava’s relaxing effects have also been connected to helping people with sleep disorders. Many sleep issues are linked to anxiety and the kavalactones actions on the brain can also help those with anxiety related insomnia.  

There’s also been research that shows kava can help you fall asleep faster. Kava’s that are classified as “heavy” are known to have more of a body effect. They leave your limbs feeling weighted down and you feel tired and sedated. This makes it a great option in helping with sleep.


It helps Lower 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. 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

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.

It can help protect 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. 

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.

It may lower 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.

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.

While this is all very promising, there is conflicting information on its effects and more research needs to be done to better understand how kava works in this and other health conditions. However, the interest and historical evidence is very exciting in getting kava more recognition as a potential therapeutic treatment.

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What does kava do for the body?


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