What Is Kava Kava?

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on April 09, 2023
3 min read

Kava Kava is an herbal remedy that's made from the roots of Piper methysticum -- a type of plant found in the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Its name literally means “intoxicating pepper.” People who live on Pacific islands like Fiji and Tonga have used it for hundreds of years in social gatherings and traditional medicine. They dry out the roots or crush them into a powder. Then they add water and drink the mixture.

Kava kava (“kava” for short) contains substances called kavapyrones. They act much like alcohol on your brain, making you feel calm, relaxed, and happy. The plant is also thought to relieve pain, prevent seizures, and relax muscles.

You can buy it as an herbal supplement online and in health food stores. It's available in capsules, tablets, or tinctures (that means it’s dissolved in alcohol).

Kava has been used to treat a number of conditions, including:

Doctors aren’t sure how much kava you can take safely. If your doctor gives you the okay, use the smallest possible dose. Don't take it for longer than 3 months, and avoid drinking alcohol while you’re using it.

Kava can have side effects. The most common are:

The most serious concern stems from reports of liver damage in a few people who took kava. In 2002, the FDA released a consumer advisory that warned about the risk of liver disease with the supplements. The herb was linked to cirrhosis (liver scarring), hepatitis (irritation of the liver), and liver failure (this led to a liver transplant or death in a few patients).

It's not clear whether kava caused the liver damage, or if other medications or herbs the people took caused it. Most of the time, the damage improved within a few months after they stopped taking the kava.

A few countries, including France and Canada, have banned kava because of the risk it poses to the liver. But you can still buy it in the U.S. and online.

It might also be addictive, but this hasn't been proven.

Talk to your doctor if you’re thinking about taking kava. Tell them about all the medicines you take. This herb can interact with some medications, including:

Don't use kava if you have liver disease, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or have depression or bipolar disorder.

Make an appointment if you take kava and have any of the following signs of liver damage: