At the beginning of this month, Kava resurfaced in the news as part of a concerted campaign spearheaded by Consumer Reports. It was listed as part of the "dirty dozen" supplements that can be purchased online and in health food stores - aconite, bitter orange, chaparral, colloidal silver, coltsfoot, country mallow, germanium, greater celandine, kava, lobelia, yohimbe. According to Consumer Reports, these "dirty dozen" supplements have been proven beyond a doubt to be detrimental to your health. Kava kava (Piper methysticum) was included in that list, based on research that led to the banning of Kava in Europe in 2002 (see Escher et al 2001; Kraft et al 2001). The story quickly spread throughout American news networks, newspapers, and internet sites. Once again, our beloved beverage is in the cross hairs of regulators. Unfortunately, the same data that was used to ban Kava in Europe eight years ago was cited by Consumer Reports to support increased regulation of dietary supplements - including Kava.
The European Union's ban on Kava was lifted in 2008. In 2006, Germany led the way by lifting the Kava ban in its own country. Why? Because Kava is safe. Early reports of the relationship between Kava consumption and liver problems were based on samples that involved parts of the Kava plant not recommended for consumption by, well, anyone. The only part of Kava that is traditionally consumed in its home islands are the roots. Many tinctures and supplements sold in Europe prior to the Kava ban were amalgamations of leaves, stems, and roots. The leaves and stems (and pretty much any above-surface part of the plant) contain chemicals that may be toxic and lead to liver damage. The studies that led to the banning of Kava were biased towards doses of Kava that were incorrectly prepared and would never be imaginable in Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii, Papau New Guinea, or any other island in the south Pacific.
Kava liver damage is a myth. Even those cases of liver damage cited on the CDC's website are purely circumstantial - there is no way to know that Kava was the variable for liver disease in the cases mentioned. Furthermore, these studies were sponsored by pharmaceutical companies that have a vested interest in giving Kava a bad name. After all, how could they possibly compete with a natural, safer alternative to their anti-anxiety medications? They can't. Now, with the help of Consumer Reports, pharmaceutical companies, and possibly even big alcohol, the war on Kava is resurfacing. What is so amazing about this second attack is that it is based on the same biased, completely bogus data that was used ten years ago.
A great resource for reading more about this issue is Erowid Kava Vault, which supplies links to many of the original statements and arguments made against Kava, and finally evidence that supports the position that Kava is safe.
For more on this issue, visit Kona Kava's "Kava Safety" link on their website. They have done a very good job defending Kava.
Escher M, Desmeules J, Giostra E, et al. Hepatitis associated with kava, a herbal remedy for anxiety. BMJ 2001;322:139.
Kraft M, Spahn TW, Menzel J, et al. Fulminant liver failure after administration of the herbal antidepressant kava-kava. Dtsch Med Wochenschr 2001;126:970--2.