Overview: Kava (Piper methysticum) is a South Pacific psychotropic plant medicine that has anxiolytic activity. This effect is achieved from modulation of GABA activity via alteration of lipid membrane structure and sodium channel function, monoamine oxidase B inhibition, and noradrenaline and dopamine re-uptake inhibition. Kava is available over the counter in jurisdictions such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand. Due to this, a review of efficacy, safety and clinical recommendations is advised.
Objective: To conduct a comprehensive review of kava, in respect to efficacy, psychopharmacology, and safety, and to provide clinical recommendations for use in psychiatry to treat generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Methods: A review was conducted using the electronic databases MEDLINE, CINAHL, PsycINFO and the Cochrane Library during mid 2010 of search terms relating to kava and GAD. A subsequent forward search was conducted of key papers using Web of Science cited reference search.
Results: The current weight of evidence supports the use of kava in treatment of anxiety with a significant result occurring in four out of six studies reviewed (mean Cohen's d = 1.1). Safety issues should however be considered. Use of traditional water soluble extracts of the rhizome (root) of appropriate kava cultivars is advised, in addition to avoidance of use with alcohol and caution with other psychotropic medications. Avoidance of high doses if driving or operating heavy machinery should be mandatory. For regular users routine liver function tests are advised.
Conclusions: While current evidence supports kava for generalized anxiety, more studies are required to assess comparative efficacy and safety (on the liver, cognition, driving, and sexual effects) versus established pharmaceutical comparators.