Drinking Kava for Sleep
A sedative, which is a drug promoting calm or inducing sleep, is exactly what a person with restlessness might want to pursue, and sedation (which according to Wikipedia1, “is the reduction of irritability or agitation by administration of sedative drugs, generally to facilitate a medical procedure or diagnostic procedure”) is a well-documented attribute of kava. Unlike other sedative drugs though, airway obstruction, apnea, and hypotension are not commonly reported risks with kava; With its excellent safety profile and long history of effectiveness, there is ample justification for the many claims made by the proponents of kava for sleep, but we’d rather not make these claims ourselves. Instead, we have collated some references for your perusal, should you like to look up the results of a few studies for yourself – feel free to skip down to the bottom of this article if you just want to get straight to the source material, otherwise, keep reading.
There is plenty of empirical evidence supporting the notion that kava has demonstrated sedative properties, and amongst indigenous peoples of the South Pacific, particularly in places like Vanuatu, the cultural heart of kava, it has of course been used as an aid to improve sleep and relaxation for eons, however, you should consult with your licensed healthcare practitioner regarding treatment options for your own personal situation, as everyone is different and we are not in a position to be able to say what is right for you; At Root & Pestle, we don’t promote our kava for the treatment of any disorder, nor do we make any claims about its usefulness as part of any therapeutic regime – please talk to your doctor for advice appropriate to your own situation.
What we can tell you, is what other people have to say about kava for sleep, including what scientists, researchers, and professors have published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. We haven’t evaluated their studies or conclusions and we can neither endorse nor refute their findings, but perhaps we can steer you towards the start of a journey of discovery, and a pathway which countless other people have found benefit from.
Let’s start with some quick quotes from a few of the more accessible sources:
Healthline.com (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/kava-kava#TOC_TITLE_HDR_7) says that, “Kava is a natural alternative to prescription sleep medications”, and that kava is, “effective at treating stress-induced insomnia…”, and upon review of the material they state that, “Kava has a long history of consumption in the South Pacific and is considered a safe and enjoyable beverage”.
Among many others, our good friends at The Kava Society in New Zealand have also written about kava for sleep: https://kavasociety.nz/blog/2018/2/5/kava-and-sleep-quality, saying, “In our personal experience, the best way of coordinating kava consumption with sleep is to drink kava a couple of hours before going to bed, especially if the kava is used to relax after a stressful day or to contemplate over a difficult problem”.
This is a commonly held perspective by those who regularly drink kava for sleep, and it makes sense according to the science: In one of the most recent peer-reviewed studies on the pharmacokinetics (how the body affects drugs) of kavalactones (the main active constituents of kava), Kunamuri et al verify in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology2 that, “Fast absorption of five kavalactones was observed with time to reach the maximum plasma concentration of 1–3 h”, meaning that (generally speaking) kavalactones are likely to be accessible in abundance at their sites of action in the brain right as you are nodding off, if you have your shells a couple of hours before you hit the hay.
Kava has been shown to reduce sleep latency (which is essentially the time it takes to fall asleep), and as anyone who has had trouble nodding off will tell you, it can sure feel nice to be able to fall asleep faster; A 2005 study3 found that, “A significant shortening of the sleep latency in sleep-disturbed rats was observed following the administration of kava-kava extract”, but it wasn’t just sleep latency that improved; “Kava-kava extract showed a significant increase in delta activity during non-REM sleep in sleep-disturbed rats…” and their research paper concludes with, “Kava-kava extract is an herbal medicine having not only hypnotic effects, but also sleep quality-enhancement effects”.
These findings were corroborated by research published in the Journal of Pharmacological Sciences in 20094, where a study on kavain, one of the most abundant kavalactones in all noble kavas, including every variety sold by Root & Pestle, came to virtually the same conclusion; “results clearly indicate that kavain is a compound with not only hypnotic effects, but also sleep quality-enhancement effects”.
In humans, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trials have also clearly shown that non-psychotic anxiety sleep disorders can also be treated efficiently and safely with kava extract.5 Their results: “…after 4 weeks of double-blind treatment compared to baseline, demonstrated statistically significant group differences in favor of kava extract… Superior effects of kava extract were also present in the HAMA psychic anxiety sub-score (P=0.002). More pronounced effects with respect to the self-rating of well-being and the global clinical evaluation also indicated superior therapeutic efficacy of kava extract. Safety and tolerability were good, with no drug-related adverse events or changes in clinical or laboratory parameters”.
Not all studies about kava are specifically about its potential to benefit sleep, but nevertheless, the appearance of that conclusion is seemingly a recurring theme. For example, a systematic review of the neuroprotective profile of kava published in 20206 had this to say, “Results: Piper Methysticum [kava] demonstrated significant positive responses to reduce oxidative stress and neuroinflammation in neurodegenerative diseases. In addition, Piper methysticum extract can have anti-ischemic and anticonvulsant effects mediated by blocking the Na+ channel voltage, as well as behavioural changes similar to anxiolytics and significant sedation.”
Another study about kava, published in 2021 in the peer-reviewed journal, Drug Research7, and involving 156 patients, found that of 12 typical symptoms of nervous anxiety, tension and restlessness, “All individual symptoms showed significant and clinically relevant improvements. The most effective results were seen for nervous tension and restlessness, with better effects in patients with acute versus chronic complaints. The safety of the treatment was found to be excellent, which included the assessment of laboratory data”. With results like this, it’s no wonder that people looking for a better rest are turning to a natural product proven to improve the symptoms of restlessness.
Kava, by some accounts, is among the “most important plant species in the management of insomnia and sleep apnea”, and the recent (2021) book by Reuben S. Maghembe, Phytochemistry, the Military and Health; Phytotoxins and Natural Defenses8, has a whole chapter called, “Plants effective against insomnia and sleep apnea”, which might be worth checking out if you’re looking for more suggestions for natural solutions to problems with sleep.
The source of sleep difficulties is also worth consideration. For example, some people feel that their insomnia is exacerbated by daytime anxieties, and therefore it follows that amelioration of their overall stress levels will lead to improved sleep. The peer-reviewed article, Therapeutic potential of kava in the treatment of anxiety disorders (in CNS Drugs)9, has this to say, “Clinical studies have shown that kava and kavalactones are effective in the treatment of anxiety at subclinical and clinical levels, anxiety associated with menopause and anxiety due to various medical conditions… Its biological effects, due to a mixture of compounds called kavalactones, are reported to include sedative, anxiolytic, antistress, analgesic, local anaesthetic, anticonvulsant and neuroprotective properties”.
Similarly, the “extremely promising” finding reported in Human Psychopharmacology10 that “Total stress severity was significantly relieved by both compounds [kava and valerian] individually…” adds credence to the thought that if sleep troubles are the result of stress, it’s no wonder that kava gets such high reviews when it comes to combatting insomnia.
Although for many people, these findings are just coming to light now, they are nothing new in the world of neurological research. For example, Saroya and Singh cite in “Piper methysticum G.Forst: A Potent Antianxiety Agent. In: Pharmacotherapeutic Potential of Natural Products in Neurological Disorders” from 201811, references from 200012, 196713, and 196014 all making it clear that the sedative action of kava was well known in the scientific community, and in particular, in Pacific Island cultures, more than 60 years ago.
As with all studies, these have their limitations, and one kava extract may have different effects from another, not to mention that each person’s body may respond differently to different substances, so of course the real answer as to whether you will find kava to be beneficial for sleep can only be answered by an individual after trying it for themselves.
2 Siva Rama Raju Kanumuri, Jessica Mamallapalli, Robyn Nelson, Christopher R.McCurdy, Carol A. Mathews, Chengguo Xing, Abhisheak Sharma. Clinical pharmacokinetics of kavalactones after oral dosing of standardized kava extract in healthy volunteers. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 28 October 2022, Volume 297, 115514 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2022.115514
3 Kazuaki Shinomiya, Toshio Inoue, Yoshiaki Utsu, Shin Tokunaga, Takayoshi Masuoka, Asae Ohmori, Chiaki Kamei. Effects of kava-kava extract on the sleep-wake cycle in sleep- disturbed rats. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2005, Jul;180(3):564-9. doi: 10.1007/s00213- 005-2196-4. Epub 2005 Feb 8. PMID: 15700178 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15700178/
4 Ryuki Tsutsui, Kazuaki Shinomiya, Yasuhiro Takeda, Yoshihito Obara, Yoshihisa Kitamura, Chiaki Kamei. Hypnotic and sleep quality-enhancing properties of kavain in sleep-disturbed rats. J Pharmacol Sci. 2009, Nov;111(3):293-8. doi: 10.1254/jphs.09167fp. Epub 2009 Oct 31. PMID: 19881224 DOI: 10.1254/jphs.09167fp https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19881224/
5 Lehrl S. Clinical efficacy of kava extract WS® 1490 in sleep disturbances associated with anxiety disorders: Results of a multicenter, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trial. Journal of affective disorders. 2004;78(2):101–10
6 Elaine Cristina Gurgel Andrade Pedrosa, Ana Paula Carvalho Bezerra, Ianara Mendonça da Costa, Francisco Irochima Pinheiro, Fausto Pierdoná Guzen. Neuroprotective profile of Piper Methysticum (Kava Kava) and its effects on the Central Nervous System: a systematic review. Journal of Pharmacological, Chemistry and Biological Sciences. 2020, Vol.: 2(1). pp. 55-84, Jan- Feb DOI:10.36619/jpcbs.2020.2.56.80 ISSN: 2674-886X https://journalpcbs.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/620Pedrosa20et20al202020.pdf
7 Kenny Kuchta, Marie Hladikova, Michael Thomsen, Adolf Nahrstedt, Mathias Schmidt. Kava (Piper methysticum) Extract for the Treatment of Nervous Anxiety, Tension and Restlessness. Results of an Open, Observational Study. Drug Research (Stuttg) 2021; 71(02): 83-93 DOI: 10.1055/a-1268-7135 https://www.thieme- connect.com/products/ejournals/abstract/10.1055/a-1268-7135
8 Reuben S.Maghembe. Phytochemistry, the Military and Health; Phytotoxins and Natural Defenses. 2021, 17 – Plants effective against insomnia and sleep apnea. Pages 313-351.
9 Yadhu N. Singh & Nirbhay N. Singh. “Therapeutic potential of kava in the treatment of anxiety disorders”. CNS Drugs. 2002, 16 (11): 731–43. doi:10.2165/00023210-200216110- 00002. PMID 12383029. S2CID 34322458.
10 Wheatley, David. Stress-induced insomnia treated with kava and valerian: singly and in combination. Human Psychopharmacology. 1 June 2001, 16 (4): 353–356. doi:10.1002/hup.299. ISSN 1099-1077. PMID 12404572. S2CID 37457833. https://doi.org/10.1002/hup.299 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hup.299
11 Saroya, A.S., Singh, J. Piper methysticum G.Forst: A Potent Antianxiety Agent. In: Pharmacotherapeutic Potential of Natural Products in Neurological Disorders (20 June 2018). Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-0289-3_7 Print ISBN 978- 981-13-0288-6 Online ISBN 978-981-13-0289-3
12 Balick MJ, Roberta L. Traditional use of sakau (kava) in Pohnpei: lessons for integrative medicine. Alter Thera. 2000;8:96.
13 Riesenberg SH. Ancient kava ceremony re-enacted on Pahn Kedira, Ponape. Psychopharmacol Bull. 1967;4:5–8.
14 Readon E. A drug from Polynesia with central nervous activity: Piper methysticum Forst (“kavakava”). Gazz Med Ital. 1960;119:231–3.