Kava lactones and the kava-kava controversy

Phytochemistry. 2003 Oct;64(3):673-9. doi: 10.1016/s0031-9422(03)00381-9.


Kava-kava is a traditional beverage of the South Pacific islanders and has had centuries of use without major side effects. Standardised extracts of kava-kava produced in Europe have led to many serious health problems and even to death. The extraction process (aqueous vs. acetone in the two types of preparations) is responsible for the difference in toxicity as extraction of glutathione in addition to the kava lactones is important to provide protection against hepatotoxicity. The Michael reaction between glutathione and kava lactones, resulting in opening of the lactone ring, reduces the side effects of the kava kava extracts. This protective activity was demonstrated using Acanthamoebae castellanii in which 100% cell death occurred with 100 mg ml(-1) kava lactones alone, and 40% cell death with a mixture of 100 mg ml (-1)glutathione and 100 mg ml (-1) kava lactones. A comparison of kava lactone toxicity with other pharmaceutical products is discussed and recommendations made for safe usage of kava-kava products

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Acanthamoeba / cytology
  • Acanthamoeba / drug effects
  • Animals
  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • Chemical and Drug Induced Liver Injury
  • Drug Interactions
  • Glutathione / adverse effects
  • Glutathione / analysis
  • Glutathione / chemistry
  • Glutathione / toxicity
  • Humans
  • Kava / chemistry*
  • Lactones / adverse effects*
  • Lactones / chemistry
  • Lactones / isolation & purification
  • Lactones / toxicity
  • Plant Extracts / adverse effects
  • Plant Extracts / chemistry
  • Plant Extracts / toxicity
  • Plant Roots / chemistry
  • Plant Stems / chemistry
  • Pyrones / chemistry
  • Tissue Distribution


  • Lactones
  • Plant Extracts
  • Pyrones
  • Glutathione
  • kavain