Kava & Depression: Current Research & Understanding

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Kava is a popular relaxing and uplifting herb from the tropical islands of the pacific ocean.

Consuming kava root induces a state of euphoria and a sense of wellbeing — which many people are using to improve mood, support sleep, and ease anxiety.

How does this work? Is there any research available to prove kavas alleged mood-enhancing benefits?

While there’s plenty of formal research studies available on the use of kava for anxiety, other forms of mood disorders have yet to be explored formally.

With that said, it’s hard to deny the copious amounts of user reports online of people successfully using the herb to improve and stabilize mood.

In this article, we’ll discuss how people are using kava for mood, and what the current research says about it.

Let’s get started.

First of All, What is Kava?

Kava is a traditional plant medicine from tropical islands of the South Pacific — especially places like Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga.

Here, the plant is used ceremonially for inducing relaxed, trance-like states. High doses of the herb are used to reach these levels before performing the ceremony.

Outside of ceremonial use, the herb is used socially in family gatherings. The calming effects of the herb make it easy to socialize and relax with friends and family — which has been a common practice among pacific island culture for hundreds of years.

Here’s how the kava circle works.

Everyone will sit around a large bowl of water. Kava roots are then chewed, chopped, or mashed into a pulp before being mixed thoroughly with the water.

The resulting brew looks like a bowl of muddy water and has a strong bitter and peppery flavor (kava is a member of the pepper family).

One by one, members of the circle begin to drink the kava. The effects begin to appear around 30 minutes later, making people feel relaxed and chatty. These social gatherings can go on for the entire day as people continue to drink kava from the central bowl, lay back and relax, and enjoy each other’s company.

Only in recent years has kava become popular outside the pacific islands. People all over the world are using the herb for its uplifting and mood-enhancing benefits.

You can even find kava bars around Europe and the United States that prepare and serve kava to its patrons. These bars work just like a coffee shop or bar — providing a place for friends and family to gather, drink kava, and talk about life and business.

Others use kava on a daily basis as an alternative health supplement for supporting sleep, anxiety, muscle tension, or depression.

Mood Disorders 101: What Are They & What Causes Them?

Mood is different than emotion — although the two are closely related. Many experts consider mood to be an umbrella term for emotions.

Our mood is a subjective thought pattern that can have positive or negative valence (good moods or bad moods).

Mood disorders are defined as inappropriate or uncontrollable changes in mood or emotion. They’re a collection of similar psychological disorders that can change how you feel about yourself, others, or life in general.

There are many different types of mood disorders, including (but not limited to):

What Are the Symptoms of Mood Disorders?

Everybody experiences mood disorders differently. The symptoms you may experience will depend on your individual genetic makeup, the type of mood disorder you’re experiencing, and the causes of the disorder.

With that said., there are a few symptoms that commonly show up in mood disorders:

  • Difficulty concentrating or performing at work
  • Increased/decreased appetite
  • Frequent headaches or migraines
  • Irritability or aggression
  • Long-term sad, anxious, or “empty” moods
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Low self-esteem or feelings of being inadequate
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Low energy

What Causes Mood Disorders?

Mood and emotion are incredibly complicated — relying on physical processes like neurotransmitter function and electrical transmission in the neurons, as well as more philosophical factors like state of mind and our interpretation of past experiences.

As a result, it’s incredibly difficult to determine a specific cause for mood disorders. The causes are often subjective and rely on the past experiences, genetics, and lifestyle habits of the sufferer.

Some common causes of mood disorders include:

  • Stress (financial, social, etc.)
  • Neurochemical imbalance (mainly involving dopamine or serotonin)
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Nutritional deficiencies (B vitamins, magnesium, omega-3, vitamin D)
  • Genetic disorders (Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, MTHFR, etc.)
  • Side effects to drugs or medications
  • Drugs, tobacco, or alcohol consumption
  • Traumatic experience (emotional or physical)
  • Terminal diagnosis (Such as cancer or Parkinson’s disease)

How Are Mood Disorders Treated?

The most important treatments for mood disorders are lifestyle and dietary changes. It’s most important to identify what’s causing the depression or mood disorder and eliminate or minimize any potential triggers.

In many cases, this isn’t enough to completely mitigate the side effects of the condition, so other forms of therapy are used on top of the diet and lifestyle changes.

Common therapeutics used for mood disorders:

  1. Pharmaceutical medications (tricyclic antidepressants, benzodiazepines, MAO inhibitors, SSRIs, SSNRIs)
  2. Herbal supplements (kava, St, John’s Wort, L-theanine, passionflower, catuaba, damiana, etc.)
  3. Counseling (visits with a therapist or psychiatrist)
  4. Drug-abuse rehabilitation (rehab & detox centers)
  5. Vitamins and nutritional supplements (Vitamins B, C, and D, trace minerals, amino acids, L-tryptamine, fish oil)
  6. Art Therapy (creative healing)

Can Kava Help With Mood?

Kava has shown a lot of promise as an alternative treatment option for mood disorders like depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Although more research is needed to confirm these effects in a larger population over long periods of time — we do have some solid evidence to suggest kava can help people experiencing difficulty maintaining or managing their mood.

Some of this research even includes large scale randomized double-blind clinical trials — which is considered the gold standard for research.

Let’s dig into some of this research and decipher what it means.

1. Kava & Depression

One of the most common medications used in the treatment of depression is MAO inhibitors. These medications have been used for treating depression and other psychological disorders since the 1050s.

MAO stands for mono-amine oxidase — which is a key enzyme in the brain tasked with breaking down neurotransmitters in the monoamine category. Monoamine neurotransmitters include serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine.

By blocking the enzyme that breaks these neurotransmitters down, MAO inhibitors increase the mood-regulating compounds like serotonin and dopamine. The idea is that by increasing the concentration of these neurotransmitters in the brain we can reduce symptoms of depression — especially if the cause is low levels of these compounds to begin with.

A screening study published in 2013 analyzed 905 different plant species in search of natural MAO-B inhibitors. Kava was shown to have a high inhibition of the enzyme [7].

This MAO inhibitory action is thought to be one of the main mechanisms behind kavas mood-enhancing benefits.

What the Research Says About the Use of Kava for Depression

A randomized, double-blind crossover study was conducted in 2009 to investigate the effects of a water-soluble kava extract on anxiety and depression scores [8]. The study came as a direct result of a recommendation the WHO made for countries like Canada or the United Kingdom to take a closer look at the plant and consider updating their laws. Kava was banned in these countries prior to this point.

The WHO suggested more research be done on water-soluble extracts of kava instead of alcohol-based extracts which were thought to have toxic effects.

The study gave 250 mg of kavalactones to 60 study participants experiencing at least one month of generalized anxiety symptoms. Beck Anxiety Inventory and Montgomery–Asberg Depression Rating Scale scores were used to assess mood changes in participants throughout the study.

Researchers taking part in the study concluded that “The aqueous Kava preparation produced significant anxiolytic and antidepressant activity and raised no safety concerns at the dose and duration studied.”

Another study published back in 1997 compared the effects of kava against common antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications (tricyclic antidepressants and benzodiazepines respectively) [6]. Researchers used the HAM-A scale (Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale-A) to track any changes in patients’ moods throughout the 25-week study.

At the end of the study, kava was reported to be a promising alternative to benzodiazepines and tricyclic antidepressants.

It’s important to note that the main focus of this study was on the effects of the herb for anxiety, rather than depression. Researchers only noted improvement in depression scores as a byproduct of using the HAM-A scale which measures perceived levels of both anxiety and depression.

2. Kava & Anxiety

One of the main therapeutic applications of kava is for supporting anxiety — an effect that’s been backed up numerous times through scientific investigation including randomized clinical trials and meta-analysis involving thousands of patients.

The main mechanism of action for kavas anti-anxiety effects is through a neurotransmitter known as GABA. This compound acts as the brake pedal for the brain — slowing down electrical activity produced in response to stress and anxiety.

GABA is also tasked with preparing the mind for sleep or relaxation and is the primary regulator of the parasympathetic nervous system — the effects of which are commonly referred to as our “rest and digest” functions.

Kava doesn’t activate GABA receptors directly — rather, it binds to the outside of the receptor to allow GABA naturally produced in our brains to bind more easily to the receptors.

This is the same mechanism of action used by pharmaceutical-grade anti-anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines (like Xanax) and barbiturates.

What the Research Says About Kava & Anxiety

One study published in 2001 looked at the effects of kava on non-psychotic anxiety in comparison to conventional treatments such as benzodiazepines [5].

The study used benzodiazepines to treat patients first, before tapering them off benzodiazepines and onto gradually increasing doses of kava or a placebo.

The goal of the study was to mark the effects of the herb on maintaining any improvements induced by benzodiazepines, as well as assess the role of kava in eliminating the withdrawal symptoms of benzos — which can be severe.

The results of this study showed that kava had effects comparable to the pharmaceutical antidepressants and was significantly more effective than the placebo.

Kava & The Neurotransmitters

Most of the mood-supportive activity of kava relies on an interaction between the active constituents — called kavalactones — and neurotransmitters in the brain like serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and norepinephrine.

These neurotransmitters are tasked with regulating everything from mood to memory.

This is a big topic on its own, but let’s briefly cover how each of the six primary kavalactones found in kava affects each of the neurotransmitters highlighted above.

What Neurotransmitters Are Affected By Kavalactones?

Code Kavalactone Neurotransmitters Affected
1 Desmethoxyyangonin (DMY) Dopamine (↑)
2 Dihydrokavain (DHK) Serotonin (↑)
GABA (↑)
3 Yangonin (Y) Dopamine (↓)
Serotonin (↓)
Endocannabinoids (↑)
4 Kavain (K) Glutamate (↓)
Serotonin (↑)
Dopamine (↓)
5 Dihydromethysticin (DHM) GABA (↑)
Serotonin (↑)
6 Methysticin (M) GABA (↑)
Glutamate (↓)

(Sources: 1 –3)

What’s the Best Kava For Mood & Depression?

Most kava used today is the same species (Piper methysticum). This species of kava is the most reliable for producing positive benefits and has the lowest chances of causing side effects like nausea, fatigue, or malaise.

With that said, there are dozens of different cultivars within the species. Each cultivar comes with slight variations in the ratio of chemical compounds responsible for kavas benefits (the kavalactones).

Some cultivars are better for their heady effects — which include euphoria and improved concentration and focus.

Other strains are better for the heavy effects — which describes kava that has a stronger impact of effects on the body (muscle relaxation, sedation, pain-reduction). There are also kava strains that fall somewhere in the middle of heady and heavy — referred to as balanced kava.

You can find out where kava falls on the scale of heady to heavy by reading our product reviews for the kava you’re interested in trying.

When it comes to supporting mood, heady kava cultivars are generally regarded as being the best — but there are some exceptions.

There are currently no formal research studies that compare the effects of different kava strains for mood disorders, so there’s no guarantee that one particular strain is going to have a greater impact than another.

It helps to try a few different kava products out to find what works best for you. Everybody is different, so one strain that works well for someone else may not work for you — and vice versa. 

With that said, here’s a list of our favorite kava cultivars reported to help regulate mood:

Kava For Mood: What’s The Correct Dose?

The dose of kava will depend on your body individually and is affected by factors like body weight and underlying health conditions you may have. The effects of kava will change depending on what medications or supplements you’re taking as well.

The average dosage range of kava is between 10 and 30 grams (3 – 6 tablespoons) of raw powder.

This dose can vary depending on the strength of the kava and the factors noted above. We recommend you always follow the directions listed on the packaging — especially if using high-concentration kava or kava capsules/tinctures. The dose for these products can vary dramatically depending on the manufacturer.

For a detailed discussion on how to properly calculate the dose of different kinds of kava, and how to take kava safely for the first time, visit our kava dosing guide.

Does Kava have Side Effects?

As with any psychoactive compound, side effects are possible. The most common side effects of kava are nausea and fatigue.

It’s wise to start with a low dose of kava for your first time and increase the dose gradually over time as you become more familiar with how the herb affects your body individually.

If you suffer from underlying health conditions, including mood disorders, it’s important you speak with your doctor before using kava.

This is especially the case if you’re taking any medications because kava may interact with your medications in a bad way. It’s important your doctor knows that you plan on using kava to make sure you don’t experience any serious side effects from mixing kava with your medications.

It can help to take kava at least 2 hours away from other medications or supplements.

It’s also important that you never combine kava with alcohol. These two compounds have very similar effects and the combination can wreak havoc inside the body — leaving you feeling very ill, and may even result in damage to your liver.

Potential Side Effects of Kava

  • Dilated pupils
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Indigestion
  • Lightheadedness
  • Facial puffiness
  • Visual disturbances

On very rare occasions, there are more serious side effects from the herb — such as increased red blood cell count, kava dermopathy (scaly dermatitis), or enlarged liver (hepatomegaly).

Key Takeaways: Kava For Mood & Depression

Mood disorders are a group of psychological disorders involving uncontrollable or abnormal emotional changes. This can include excessive happiness, sadness, or rapid fluctuations between the two.

The most common mood disorders are depression and anxiety. Most of the research for kava and mood disorders involves anxiety, with depression studies tagging along due to similar assessment scores for both conditions. 

So far, the research has shown a lot of promise for the use of kava as a mood-enhancing supplement. Some studies even suggest the herb has comparable effects to pharmaceutical treatments for anxiety and depression.

More research is needed to further elucidate the role of kava and its active constituents on improving and maintaining a healthy mood.

Always consult your doctor before using kava if you suffer from any health conditions, and make sure to mention kava use if you’re prescribed any medications to ensure you won’t experience any negative interactions between the two.

Scientific Studies Cited in This Article

  1. Baum, S. S., Hill, R., & Rommelspacher, H. (1998). Effect of kava extract and individual kava pyrones on neurotransmitter levels in the nucleus accumbens of rats. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 22(7), 1105-1120.
  2. Yuan, C. S., Dey, L., Wang, A., Mehendale, S., Xie, J. T., Aung, H. H., & Ang-Lee, M. K. (2002). Kavalactones and dihydrokavain modulate GABAergic activity in a rat gastric-brainstem preparation. Planta medica, 68(12), 1092-1096.
  3. Ligresti, A., Villano, R., Allarà, M., Ujváry, I., & Di Marzo, V. (2012). Kavalactones and the endocannabinoid system: the plant-derived yangonin is a novel CB1 receptor ligand. Pharmacological Research, 66(2), 163-169.
  4. Thompson, R., Ruch, W., & Hasenöhrl, R. U. (2004). Enhanced cognitive performance and cheerful mood by standardized extracts of Piper methysticum (Kava‐kava). Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 19(4), 243-250.
  5. Malsch, U., & Kieser, M. (2001). Efficacy of kava-kava in the treatment of non-psychotic anxiety, following pretreatment with benzodiazepines. Psychopharmacology, 157(3), 277-283.
  6. Volz, H. P., & Kieser, M. (1997). Kava-kava extract WS 1490 versus placebo in anxiety disorders-a randomized placebo-controlled 25-week outpatient trial. Pharmacopsychiatry, 30(01), 1-5.
  7. Mazzio, E., Deiab, S., Park, K., & Soliman, K. F. A. (2013). High throughput screening to identify natural human monoamine oxidase B inhibitors. Phytotherapy Research, 27(6), 818-828.
  8. Sarris, J., Kavanagh, D. J., Byrne, G., Bone, K. M., Adams, J., & Deed, G. (2009). The Kava Anxiety Depression Spectrum Study (KADSS): a randomized, placebo-controlled crossover trial using an aqueous extract of Piper methysticum. Psychopharmacology, 205(3), 399-407.