ClickCease Is Kava a Drug: Uses, Dangers, and More

Is Kava a Drug? Revealing the Pharmacological Effects of Kava

Table of Contents

In their bid to avoid relying solely on prescription or over-the-counter drugs for daily relief, many people resort to using what they believe are natural alternatives for conditions like anxiety, insomnia and pain. One of the more popular alternatives includes kava.

However, kava itself can pose serious risks to people, particularly individuals who are either in the process of drug addiction rehabilitation or have just completed their drug rehab program. You can decide for yourself if kava is right for you by understanding what it is and what detriments it may have for people who are recovering from drug addictions. kava in a metal bowl on table outside

Exploring Kava: Drug or Herbal Remedy?

Kava is a tropical plant that grows naturally in the Pacific Islands, including Tonga and Hawaii. Its scientific name is Piper Methysticum, which means “intoxicating pepper.”

People who are native to the Pacific Islands have used kava for generations for purposes like pain relief, insomnia and relief from anxiety. It is still commonly used in these countries for tribal ceremonies. It is most commonly ground up into a paste, mixed with water and then strained and consumed.

Kava has gained popularity around the world because of the medicinal effects it offers for common conditions like minor to moderate pain and anxiety. Scientists believe it works by targeting the neurotransmitters for pain, anxiety and other distressing symptoms in the brain. People who use it believe that kava is a safer and gentler alternative to prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen.

Is kava a drug, however? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate kava or classify it as anything more than an herbal supplement. This lack of official FDA kava classification can lull people into a false sense of security and make them believe that taking it in any amount and for any length of time is safe.

Risks Associated With Kava Use

Despite being a natural herbal supplement, kava carries with it numerous hazards that should give anyone, especially those in recovery, pause. In particular, it can heavily damage the human liver if people use too much of it or use it for too long.

While scientists believe that kava is not especially addictive and is relatively safe for most healthy people to take, they note that its continued use can cause liver toxicity if a person uses too much of it. In that respect, kava is no different than many over-the-counter medications, including acetaminophen, that can cause liver damage with prolonged use.

Scientists are not entirely sure how and why kava causes liver toxicity. They do know, however, that many people who have used kava in significant quantities or for long periods have gone on to develop liver damage.

Kava can negatively interact with other medications that people may take for conditions like anxiety or depression. It can enhance the pharmacological effects of these commonly prescribed medications and create distressing side effects, such as intense sleepiness, panic attacks, and pain.

People who are recovering from a substance use disorder (SUD) may likewise encounter negative side effects if they use kava. Recovering addicts can be drawn to the supplement’s ability to enhance feelings of sleepiness or relief from pain. Taking kava in addiction recovery can also lead to withdrawal when kava use stops.

Kava has several other noteworthy side effects that could give people reason for alarm. They include nausea, dizziness and severe headaches. Some people have also reported difficulty with normal daily tasks, such as driving, after using kava.

Because scientists continue to study the potential side effects and long-term harm of kava, they do not recommend that pregnant women or mothers who are breastfeeding use this tropical natural supplement. They advise recovering substance addicts likewise to check with their physicians to review any potential kava addiction risks.

In fact, while some debate exists about kava and sobriety and whether recovering addicts should use this supplement, scientists do know that kava can produce effects that mirror those of alcohol. In that respect, the kava dangers for recovering addicts can be significant because this supplement can take the place of alcohol, which does not resolve the issue of substance abuse.

Even more, there are risks of kava misuse. One instance may be a recovering addict arguing that kava is a supplement and therefore not risky like illicit drugs or alcohol. Recovering addicts may falsely say that taking alternatives to kava in recovery could drive them back to drinking or using drugs again. Scientists have numerous kava safety concerns when it comes to recovering addicts.

Kava Risks in Recovery and Why Kava Is Not Recommended for Recovery

While the FDA does not classify kava as a drug in the same class as illicit substances like heroin or cocaine, it still details its pharmacological effects, such as sleepiness and nausea, which are not helpful for people in recovery. The FDA also warns of the risk of liver damage.

If nothing else, the effects of kava can compel people who are already prone to substance abuse into transferring their dependence to kava. They may get so used to taking kava to help them sleep or find relief from pain or anxiety that they cannot get through a day without taking it.

Even more, kava acts by depressing the central nervous system, impacting the gamma-aminobutyric acid neurotransmitters in the brain and increasing the production of dopamine. Dopamine induces feelings of calmness and boosts users’ moods. These effects can make it difficult for people who are already inclined to abuse drugs to resist kava.

When people become dependent on kava, they must then go through the same withdrawal process as they did when they stopped using other substances, such as alcohol or codeine. Even people who have used kava only for a short period can experience severe withdrawal symptoms that they find distressing. They may need professional help to stop using kava and learn to live without taking it every day.

Alternatives to Using Kava in Addiction Recovery

While taking kava can be too risky for people who are going through or have just finished substance abuse recovery, they can use a number of other safer and nonmedicinal resources to help them find relief and comfort from physical, mental and emotional distress. One of the more helpful options available to them is mindfulness.

Mindfulness involves calming the mind while sitting or lying still and focusing on the present moment. People often combine mindfulness with meditation as a way to relieve distress, feelings of panic, or depression.

Mindfulness has shown promise in lowering blood pressure and helping people better regulate their emotions. It can also improve cognitive function and promote objectivity. People who are recovering from drug addiction may feel like they sleep better and have more control over their thought processes and physical reactions when they practice mindfulness regularly.

Progressive relaxation is another technique that recovering addicts can rely on rather than kava for daily relief. This method involves tensing the muscles in key areas of the body, such as the legs, feet and arms, then taking a deep breath, exhaling and progressively releasing the tension in each tensed area.

Progressive relaxation distracts the mind and compels it to focus on the sensation of tensing and releasing. It also promotes calmness and better sleep.

Exercise is another method that can promote better health and pain control in recovery. Scientific studies show that exercising for 30 minutes a day improves heart health and blood flow in the body. It also burns adrenalin and increases dopamine production which is key to helping the brain remain calm.

People who exercise each day often report sleeping better and for longer periods each night. They also feel more confident in the way they look and may avoid the urge to fall back into dependency.

Finally, proper nutrition can promote better health and become a healthy alternative to kava. Good nutrition helps the body heal itself and avoid developing conditions like high blood pressure and arthritis. People in recovery looking for an alternative to kava can focus on improving their daily nutrition.

Seeking Professional Guidance

As tempting as it might be to use kava for relief from symptoms like pain and anxiety, when you’re recovering from a substance use disorder, you may find it helpful to seek professional guidance first. Chances are you may not know for sure how kava can interact with any medications you already take on a daily basis. You may also not know for sure how it can impact your overall health, particularly if you have high blood pressure or Parkinson’s disease.

Your ultimate goal in recovery is to remain as healthy and safe as possible without falling back into your old habit of using drugs or drinking. Kava can induce side effects that mimic the high that you obtained while dependent on these substances.

Rather than risk taking something, even a natural supplement like kava, and undermining what you achieved in rehab, consult with your recovery team to find out if kava is really the best option for you. The healthcare providers on your team can tell you if you run the risk of misusing kava, what negative impacts it can have on your health, and why it may compromise the medications you already take daily. Working together with the doctors, nurses, therapists and nutritionists assigned to you during your drug rehab stint may help you come up with a more solid plan to find relief from distressing symptoms.

Your healthcare providers may help you identify forms of meditation that you can practice at home or work to help ease feelings of anxiety. You may also learn to use sensations, like coldness from ice, to distract your mind and calm panic attacks. There are also exercises you can engage in to avoid using kava and still gain some sort of relief from your discomfort.


Kava may initially seem like a harmless natural supplement to take for conditions like pain and anxiety. However, it can pose serious side effects, especially for people who are in recovery. People who are recovering from a substance use disorder may find it best to seek professional guidance before using kava or use alternatives, such as meditation and exercise, to gain relief from their anxiety, insomnia, and other health conditions.

If you need help with your substance use disorder, our team at Granite Recovery Centers can help. We offer a variety of treatment programs for substance use, alcoholism and dual diagnosis. Contact us today to get started on your recovery journey!