News & Perspectives

Caveat on Kava
Several months ago, in the fall of 2001, health authorities in Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain, and other European nations began issuing safety warnings on the anxiety-relieving herb kava. And certain countries actually banned its sale altogether. These measures were prompted by reports of liver problems--cirrhosis, hepatitis, and others--among kava users.

For millennia, South Pacific islanders have used kava (Piper methysticum) to make a ceremonial drink. In Europe and the United States, thousands of people take the herb in supplement form to reduce stress, soothe nerves, and promote sleep.

The European authorities were not specific as to whether the liver damage they observed was due to the kava itself, or to a contaminant that may have been introduced during the processing of the herb into supplements. Nor did they reveal whether the complications were confined to kava users with preexisting liver disease, or to those who had been taking the herb for a long time (over many months).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently looking into the situation to determine whether kava supplements available domestically pose a public health risk. So far, they have found no reports of liver damage directly associated with kava use.

What is a consumer to do? "The best course of action seems to be one of caution," says Dr. David Edelberg, chief medical advisor of WholeHealthMD. "Kava is likely quite safe if used on a short-term basis (less than one month), or if used only intermittently--as needed--for anxiety."

And you should probably avoid the herb altogether if you know you have a liver disease such as hepatitis or cirrhosis, Edelberg cautions. The same is true if you regularly take drugs with known adverse effects on the liver (such as acetaminophen) or if you regularly consume alcohol, a substance that also taxes the liver.

Edelberg notes, however, that it's important to put the warnings into perspective. "Kava has been in use for many years," he points out, "and liver toxicity has never been a problem."

Date Published: 04/30/2002
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