You don't have to tackle traffic in Manhattan to experience stress. It's everywhere, even in the relative paradise of Polynesia. Fortunately, there's an herbal treatment for anxiety that may help your condition.
To deal with stress, and just to boost their spirits, many islanders drink a beverage produced from the kava kava root. Because of its reported ability to banish anxiety and induce feelings of bliss, kava has been revered for centuries in certain South Pacific islands and Hawaii.
The kava beverage produced in the islands imparts a mild numbing sensation to your tongue. This is followed by a sociable feeling of relaxation and a marked reduction in fatigue and anxiety.
In Europe and the mainland United States, you aren't likely to ever encounter a cup of kava beverage. Instead, you can purchase capsules filled with powdered kava root. Kava has sedative, tonic, stimulant, diuretic, diaphoretic, and -- reportedly -- aphrodisiac properties.
How Kava Works
Just how kava works is unclear. However, kava appears to work in part by activating GABA receptors in the brain. These receptors calm neurological activity, which reduces anxiety and seizures. Scientists have isolated several compounds from kava root that might be responsible for these effects. These so-called kava pyrones include kawain, dihydrokawain, methysticin, dihydromethysticin, yangonin, and dihydroyangonon. Other constituents and actions are also likely part of the kava puzzle.
Small amounts of kava produce euphoria. If you take larger amounts, you may feel extreme relaxation, lethargy, and a sense of sleepiness.
You may not appreciate kava's effects the first few times you try it. Some people need to become used to the herb before it kicks in.
In Germany, researchers conducted a double-blind study of 58 patients suffering from common anxiety syndromes. None of the patients was considered to be psychotic or to have a severe mental illness. Half of the patients received a placebo (a dummy pill). The other half took 100 milligrams of kava extract three times a day for four weeks.
The researchers then administered several tests to assess patients' anxiety levels. These included the Hamilton Anxiety Scale, a 60-item Adjectives Check List self-assessment scale, and the Clinical Global Impression scale (CGI). After just one week, patients who took kava demonstrated a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms, compared with patients who took the placebo. What's more, the kava patients continued to improve throughout the 28-day study.
None of the patients who received kava complained of adverse reactions. Thus, researchers concluded, kava extract is "suitable for the general practitioner in treating states of anxiety, tension, and excitedness."
In another study of kava's effects, 101 patients suffering from a variety of conditions -- agoraphobia, specific phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, or adjustment disorder -- were examined for 25 weeks at various mental health clinics. Half of the patients received a placebo. The other half took a special kava extract known as WS 1490.
Researchers then rated the subjects' anxiety levels with the Hamilton Anxiety Scale. Patients who had been taking kava for eight weeks scored far better than patients who took the placebo. The researchers reported that adverse reactions during the study were rare and distributed evenly among both groups.
They concluded that kava is a good alternative to tricyclic antidepressants and benzodiazepines because of its "proven long-term efficacy and none of the tolerance problems associated with tricyclics and benzodiazepines."
German researchers also have found that kava produces deep muscle relaxation, modulates emotional processes, and promotes sleep as effectively as most tranquilizers.
Many other studies have confirmed that kava is useful for mild anxiety disorders. A review of all the kava research was published in 2005, and it concluded kava is safe and effective. In fact, some studies have shown kava to be as effective as buspirone and revealed that it can relieve worsening anxiety in people who are trying to stop taking benzodiazepines.
Kava Side Effects
The best news about kava is that it appears to be relatively free of side effects, at least in short-term use. Unlike benzodiazepines, kava reduces anxiety but does not affect motor control, physical performance, or reaction time. Moderate doses of kava have even been shown in some clinical trials to improve cognitive performance, presumably by stabilizing emotional distress. Kava does not appear to interact adversely with alcohol, but for safety's sake, it is probably advisable to avoid combining the two.
In other tests, kava has calmed subjects but has had no adverse effects on electroencephalograph (EEG) readings of brain-wave activity.
No toxicity has been observed in people who took a moderate dose of 200 milligrams of kava a day for eight weeks. In doses greater than 8 ounces, or 30 capsules, per day for months, kava may cause a rash and skin discoloration.
In 2002 and 2003, reports of kava causing liver damage began to appear, particularly in Germany. At first there appeared to be 30 cases of kava-caused liver damage in Europe, but further study made it clear that kava could not be conclusively proven as the cause in many of these cases. The people who had liver damage were drug users or drank excessive amounts of alcohol. They also consumed small amounts of kava or had only taken kava for a very short period of time.
According to Dieter Low, M.D., of Johann Wolfgang Goethe University and his colleagues, "There is only one single well-documented case report showing a clear association between kava intake and the development of hepatoxicity [liver damage]."
Despite this, most countries moved swiftly to ban kava, including the majority of Europe, Canada, and Australia. Among large Western nations, only the United States has kept kava legal. Although it hasn't been conclusively proven that kava can damage the liver, people with liver disease or those who take hepatoxic drugs should not use kava.
If you suffer from a serious anxiety disorder, you may need pharmaceutical medicines as well as psychotherapy for your condition. But if your symptoms are mild, an herbal treatment of kava may help you out of a tough time. Discuss the herb with a doctor experienced in natural remedies. Then the two of you can decide whether kava may help you to reduce the anxiety that all of us find overwhelming from time to time.
Anxiety is a serious condition that can quickly spiral out of control. If you feel that your anxiety might lead to panic attacks, it's time to visit your doctor. If you are only experiencing a mild unease, these home remedies can help you find your inner peace.
For more information about anxiety and other illnesses related to your nervous system, try the following links:
- To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, go to our main Home Remedies page.
- To learn more about the science of depression, read How Depression Works.
- To understand stress and how it can impact anxiety, try How Stress Works.
- Home Remedies for Stress can help you understand ways to protect yourself from the various stressors in your life.
- For more tips on a remedy or two you can use to protect against depression check out Home Remedies for Depression.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Timothy Gower is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in many publications, including Reader's Digest, Prevention, Men's Health, Better Homes and Gardens, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. The author of four books, Gower is also a contributing editor for Health magazine.
Alice Lesch Kelly is a health writer based in Boston. Her work has been published in magazines such as Shape, Fit Pregnancy, Woman's Day, Reader's Digest, Eating Well, and Health. She is the co-author of three books on women's health.
Linnea Lundgren has more than 12 years experience researching, writing, and editing for newspapers and magazines. She is the author of four books, including Living Well With Allergies.
Michele Price Mann is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Weight Watchers and Southern Living magazines. Formerly assistant health and fitness editor at Cooking Light magazine, her professional passion is learning and writing about health.
ABOUT THE CONSULTANTS:
Ivan Oransky, M.D., is the deputy editor of The Scientist. He is author or co-author of four books, including The Common Symptom Answer Guide, and has written for publications including the Boston Globe, The Lancet, and USA Today. He holds appointments as a clinical assistant professor of medicine and as adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.
David J. Hufford, Ph.D., is university professor and chair of the Medical Humanities Department at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. He also is a professor in the departments of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Hufford serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine and Explore.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.