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Dear Dietitian – Is Kava Kava safe for reducing anxiety?

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PICT Leanne McCrate Dear Dietitian
Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD, CNSC

Dear Dietitian,

I have been worried about a second wave of COVID-19, and this gives me anxiety. I just went back to work last week, but if there’s a second wave of COVID, I am worried about my financial future. My friend was telling me she takes an herbal supplement called kava, and it helps her feel calm. Is it safe?


Dear Meredith,

Any type of uncertainty may bring anxiety, and as many as 50% of Americans report they have anxiety surrounding COVID-19. You are not alone. We all deal with some level of stress at times. It’s normal, but when it affects your everyday life, interferes with sleeping or eating patterns, it’s time to do something about it.

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It is wise to seek professional advice before purchasing a supplement, as products often vary in quality, effectiveness, and cost. Kava Kava, or just kava, is a member of the pepper family and is native to the South Pacific. South Pacific islanders have used it in ceremonies to produce relaxation. Its effect is similar to that of alcohol, creating a calm, happy feeling. Proponents claim that kava provides many of the benefits of alcoholic beverages without the worry of a hangover.

Traditionally, the root of the plant is used to make a drink. Today it can be purchased in powder, capsule, or as a tea. It is craftily marketed as a ‘chill pill’ or ‘quality, affordable relaxation.’ The kava drink contains about 30 calories per serving and reportedly has an earthy taste, one that must be acquired. There are approximately 100 kava bars in the US, where people enjoy the drink while relaxing and socializing.

Kavalactones are the active ingredients found in the kava plant. They interact with the limbic system, the part of the brain that deals with emotions. More specifically, kavalactones act on the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates fear and anxiety.

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© iStock - Ridofranz

Studies on kava are mixed, but overall, it is believed to have a small impact on reducing anxiety. Scientists think it is safe for short-term use, but as with any supplement, there are risks.

Prolonged use of kava has been associated with dry, scaly skin. It has also been linked with severe liver damage. Kava may also impact other medications, so always talk to your doctor before beginning any herbal remedy.

To ensure quality when purchasing kava or any dietary supplement, be sure it has USP on the label. The United States Pharmacopeia (USP) tests products to verify their contents, purity, quality, and strength. The following websites will also help you make a sound decision:


  1. The National Institutes of Health’s Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine website:
  2. The National Institutes of Health Medline Plus website

Until next time, be healthy! Dear Dietitian

Disclaimer: This column is for educational purposes and is not meant to be used as a substitute for medical care. Consult your doctor before beginning any herbal supplement.

Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD, CNSC, aka is an award-winning dietitian based in Missouri. Her mission is to educate consumers on sound, scientifically-based nutrition. Do you have a nutrition question? Email her today at Dear Dietitian does not endorse any products, health programs, or meal plans.