Natural Remedy to Anxiety? Ancient Extract, Kava, May Be the Answer

First Posted: May 17, 2013 03:42 PM EDT

If you're looking for a more natural way to treat anxiety, scientists may have the answer.

According to findings from an Australian study, Kava may be a good substitute for those wanting another approach. Patients with generalized anxiety disorders who took kava extract tablets for six weeks showed a significant reduction in their symptoms, compared with a control group that took placebo pills, according to the results.

The study shows the anti-anxiety effects of this psychoactive plant, which can be found in the Pacific region.

Kava is culturally important among many Pacific Islanders, and is used in rituals and ceremonies. Consuming kava may induce a mild sedation and euphoria, a numbing effect and enhanced social interaction. It is prepared in various forms, such as grinding the plant or brewing its roots.

Many cultures have believed that the roots contain powerful ingredients that may be used to treat anxiety. The active ingredients of the plant are compounds called kavalactones. These chemicals have similar effects to medications such as Xanax, which are used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. 

In the new study, 75 patients with anxiety disorders were given either kava or placebo pills, and their anxiety levels were regularly assessed over the next six weeks.

Patients who consumed kava tablets showed significant improvements in their symptoms, as measured by a commonly used psychological test.

By the end of the experiment, 26 percent of kava-consuming patients were in remission from their symptoms compared with 6 percent of the placebo group, according to the study, which was published this month in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology.

A benefit to the drug is that it is less addictive than other prescription drugs commonly used to treat anxiety disorders. It also has a much lower risk of side effects than others as well, according to the study. 

In the study, some people taking kava reported headaches, but no other side effects were seen. Previous studies have suggested the plant may have negative effects on the liver, but liver tests in the study participants showed no problems.

Researchers also found that people's genetics may affect their response to kava. Genes that code for proteins that transport a brain chemical called GABA may play a role in this, .

"If this finding is replicated, it may pave the way for simple genetic tests to determine which people may be likely to have a beneficial anxiety-reducing effect from taking kava," said Jerome Sarris, study author from the University of Melbourne.

The study also gives evidence of the plants potent medical potential. A 2010 review of 12 controlled trials shows that kava is likely to be an effective treatment for anxiety. Its short-term use is likely to be both safe and effective.

However, researchers note that more studies will need to be conducted in order to confirm the degree of benefits. 

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