Is Kava Safe?
Yes, it is. In fact, kava is the safest thing you can consume to get a buzz or take the edge off, according to The Australian Drug Harms Ranking Study (2019)1, which ranked kava 9 positions lower than even cannabis, in terms of relative harm to both users and society, giving it a total score on the harm index of just 0.7 out of 100; Kava is non-toxic, non-addictive, and not only is it likely to be essentially harmless, but it in fact may also have a host of amazing health benefits associated with it.
Looking at all of the available data, it is easy to see that kava can be considered safe and is especially so when used in moderation, with the caveat that there is a small risk with any substance that a subset of the population may experience an allergic reaction of some kind; In the case of kava, the manifestation of allergic reactions is uncommon, but when it is present, it is usually in the form of mild discomfort due to skin irritation, which can often be managed by antihistamines if consumption of kava continues, or generally goes away on its own after consumption of kava ceases. Fortunately, severe allergic reactions to kava are all but unheard of, unlike many other natural products or medications.
But what about liver health?
You may have heard of cases of liver toxicity associated with the use of kava products, particularly if you were on the kava scene in the early 2000s. Most of this disinformation is a cyclic repetition of the same old poor-quality data which temporarily led to the ban of kava in Germany (which has now been lifted, after more modern high-quality evidence has come to light). The fact is, evidence that kava causes liver damage is all but entirely nonexistent; Even the FDA Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS) database2 (which has over 15,000,000 adverse events on record) records virtually no association between kava and liver damage over the past 2 decades, let alone providing a causal link between the two, and this is despite the use of kava increasing massively in the United States over the same time period.
The same is true in Australia, where there continues to be warnings being regurgitated about kava and liver toxicity, yet we have been unable to find even one account of liver damage in Australia caused by kava in the past 20 years, during which time consumption has skyrocketed. If this risk is real, where is the proof? The simple answer is, there is none; Properly processed noble kava roots from a reputable source have never been shown to be hepatotoxic, despite great amounts of effort by researchers, regulatory agencies, and pharmaceutical companies to find this link.
The fact that numerous studies have found no association between kava and liver harm and that research conducted in regions where kava is traditionally consumed, like the South Pacific, has not consistently shown a higher incidence of liver problems among kava users is further evidence that kava is not the culprit it has been made out to be.
Despite the massive damage done to the kava industry and the increased difficulty in obtaining this beautiful gift of nature in many parts of the world due to fear mongering over this persistent myth, the cause of these purported liver-related issues was never traced back to properly processed noble kava roots, and is now believed to have been more likely to have arisen from underlying medical conditions of the patients, and/or they were also consuming other substances (such as hepatotoxic medications) concurrently with kava. In the very rare (and very old) reports that did claim some kind of association between kava and liver problems, there was no effort made to determine the quality or source of the kava in question, and it was probably poorly quality-controlled extracts which were involved, rather than clean noble kava roots which had been ground into a powder. These extracts may have included above-ground portions of contaminated or mouldy ignoble plants, and even then, the evidence that they caused harm is severely lacking. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that any reputable modern producer would allow such material into their finished product.
That said, once the message is out there, these “warnings” become very persistent; Even ChatGPT will warn you about the risk of liver toxicity, but when pressed it is unable to cite one source or firsthand account – It is just repeating the same token warning that has been baselessly repeated ad nauseum throughout the internet. Even some peer-reviewed scientific papers continue to state that “kava has been associated with liver toxicity”, but they all point to previous papers that said the same thing or to the German kava ban as a source for this claim, not to any actual evidence that supports it, and when you look up those original papers being cited, they almost never actually make any claims that kava is associated with liver toxicity, they are speculating on kava being the cause, or they are referring to very old, very poor quality data; There just simply isn’t a high-quality contemporary study that has found cause for concern about kava consumption and hepatotoxic effects. On the contrary, the newest peer-reviewed evidence is suggesting that yangonin, one of the most abundant kavalactones (to learn more about Kavalactones, read our Kava Science page: https://rootandpestlekava.com.au/kava-science/ ) after kavain and dihydrokavain, is actually hepatoprotective!3,4,5
Jimmy Price has some excellent and well-referenced articles on his kavafacts substack (https://kavafacts.substack.com/) if you’d like to learn more about the German kava ban or the evidence for and against kava in relation to liver toxicity.
So what are the risks then?
The biggest risk with kava is the same as with many other substances: Quality and source. Ensure you purchase kava from reputable sources to minimise the risk of contamination or poor-quality products. Root & Pestle kava undergoes the strictest quality control regime; Every plant we process is closely examined by an expert prior to processing, and every batch is thoroughly lab tested in our state-of-the-art facility to ensure both microbial and chemical safety. For more information about how we process our kava and how we keep you safe, please check out our Kava production blog here.
As a processor of kava, we are a biased source, but we whole-heartedly believe what we are saying; Our opinions are well researched, and we have never intentionally misrepresented any facts. Nevertheless, please note that this is an opinion piece, and although we are happy to provide some guidance and point you in a direction for further learning, you should always do your own research and consult a qualified health care practitioner about your own personal wellbeing, and what role kava should play in it.
Although we can’t find evidence that it’s harmful (and we have searched hard!), we likewise do not believe there is sufficient evidence to say that kava is entirely safe for pregnant women or for mothers who are breast-feeding their babies, for young people whose brains are still in development, or that kava is safe when combined with other substances or medications, particularly those which may cause impairment, so for now, we recommend playing it safe and abstaining for those folks. The same goes for people who operate heavy machinery or drive cars – kava is a wonderful relaxant and can cause drowsiness and muscle impairment, which isn’t compatible with situations where you are putting other people’s lives on the line, such as driving, but if you’re at home and want to relax, you can be confident that kava is a safe way to do that.
1 Bonomo, Yvonne; Norman, Amanda; Biondo, Sam; Bruno, Raimondo; Daglish, Mark; Dawe, Sharon; Egerton- Warburton, Diana; Karro, Jonathan; Kim, Charles; Lenton, Simon; Lubman, Dan I; Pastor, Adam; Rundle, Jill; Ryan, John; Gordon, Paul; Sharry, Patrick; Nutt, David; Castle, David. “The Australian Drug Harms Ranking Study.” Journal of Psychopharmacology 2019, 1-10. DOI: 10.1177/0269881119841569.
3 Dong, Renchao; Yang, Xiaobo; Wang, Changyuan; Liu, Kexin; Liu, Zhihao; Ma, Xiaodong; Sun, Huijun; Huo, Xiaokui; Fu, Ting; Meng, Qiang. Yangonin protects against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease through farnesoid X receptor. Phytomedicine 2019, 53, 134-142. doi: 10.1016/j.phymed.2018.09.006. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0944711318302873.
4 Kong, Lina; Dong, Renchao; Huang, Kai; Wang, Xiaohui; Wang, Dalong; Yue, Nan; Wang, Changyuan; Sun, Pengyuan; Gu, Jiangning; Luo, Haifeng; Liu, Kexin; Wu, Jingjing; Sun, Huijun; Meng, Qiang. Yangonin Modulates Lipid Homeostasis, Ameliorates Cholestasis and Cellular Senescence in Alcoholic Liver Disease via Activating Nuclear Receptor FXR. Phytomedicine. 2021 Sep;90:153629. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34304130/.
5 Dong, Renchao; Wang, Xiaohui; Wang, Lu; Wang, Changyuan; Huang, Kai; Fu, Ting; Liu, Kexin; Wu, Jingjing; Sun, Huijun; Meng, Qiang. Yangonin Inhibits Ethanol-Induced Hepatocyte Senescence via miR-194/FXR Axis. European Journal of Pharmacology. 2021, 890, 173653. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0014299920307457.