Nature’s Xanax? Why People Are Turning to Kava To Help With Anxiety

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Xanax is one of the most prescribed medications in America and one of the top 20 prescription medications sold illegally on the black market.

In light of some serious problems associated with this common drug — a lot of people are looking for more natural options to relieve anxiety and insomnia. A quick search of “natural Xanax alternatives” will quickly lead you to a herb called kava kava (Piper methysticum).

Kava is widely considered to be the best natural Xanax alternative. It uses the same mechanisms and provides the same benefits — only much safer. Kava isn’t addictive, doesn’t cause memory loss, and you can’t die from kava withdrawal.

None of which can be said for Xanax or other benzodiazepine medications.

It’s no surprise kava has become one of the most popular herbal supplements for anxiety sufferers around the world.

In this article we’ll discuss the dangers of using Xanax and what makes kava such an excellent alternative.

Before we begin, it’s important to note that this article is intended for educational purposes only and shouldn’t be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Always speak with your doctor before using kava — especially if you suffer from underlying health conditions like severe anxiety, depression, or other psychiatric disorders. Kava should never be taken at the same time as Xanax, benzodiazepines, or alcohol.

With that aside, let’s begin.

The Dangers of Xanax

Short term use of Xanax (less than 2 weeks) rarely results in issues.

Most prescriptions for the drug are only meant to last a week or two to help people get through severe bouts of anxiety or insomnia.

Xanax is widely referred to as the “ultimate chill pill” for its powerful ability to relax the mind and create a sense of well being and calmness — despite whatever problems might be happening in your life.

The drug is used with a lot of cancer patients or other terminally-ill patients to ease existential anxiety, and for people suffering conditions such as social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The problems with Xanax begin after you’ve been using the drug past the two-week mark (approximately).

Your body quickly forms a tolerance to Xanax — which means you need ever-increasing doses of the drug to experience the same level of benefit. Whenever the drug starts to wear off, you quickly lose the ability to resist anxiety on your own.

Your initial anxiety or insomnia symptoms come back with a vengeance.

A lot of people feel they have no choice but to keep using the drug past the prescribed amount of time because they can no longer manage symptoms on their own.

It only takes a few weeks to become addicted to Xanax, which marks the start of a long and slippery slope of physical and psychological problems. Any attempts to quit the drug result in withdrawal symptoms — which can be severe.

The longer you take the drug, the worse the side effects are when you try to quit.

Side Effects of Xanax Withdrawal May Include

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Severe insomnia
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts
  • Panic attacks and debilitating anxiety
  • Heart palpitations
  • Muscle tension and stiffness
  • Dry heaving and vomiting
  • Shakes and tremors
  • Headaches

These side effects are often enough to make it impossible to quit the drug.

Most people end up sourcing more Xanax or similar benzodiazepine drugs from illegal sources when doctors refuse to refill the prescription. This is a dangerous path to follow as well because street Xanax is notoriously contaminated with deadly drugs like fentanyl.

If the addiction goes on for too long, quitting can actually become life-threatening.

Withdrawals from benzodiazepines like Xanax can be fatal. More severe addictions to these medications will require medical supervision just to be able to quit — so it’s critical you don’t let the addiction get to this point.

(Xanax Bars)

The Rising Popularity of Xanax Alternatives

In an ideal world, you could treat your anxiety or sleeping issues through lifestyle, diet, and mentality changes — but it’s not as simple as that.

Anxiety will forever plague humanity no matter how advanced our civilization becomes, how many friends you have, or how much money you make.

For proof of this, take a look at the number of high-profile celebrities who use anxiety medications like Xanax on a daily basis.

People are now looking for safer, more natural alternatives to these dangerous anxiety medications such as Xanax, Ativan, Librium, Valium, or Klonopin before they become addicted. Others are looking for ways to get off these medications without suffering the debilitating side effects of withdrawal.

The search for natural Xanax alternatives starts by looking at how Xanax works in the body.

Xanax & GABA: Searching For Alternatives

Xanax (and other benzodiazepines) work by increasing the activity of a neurotransmitter called GABA. This neurotransmitter is responsible for slowing down electrical activity in the brain. It’s often referred to as the “brake pedal for the brain”.

When we experience stress, hormones and neurotransmitters are released by the body to increase electrical activity in the brain. Sometimes this increase is so significant it causes us to lose control — resulting in what we perceive as an anxiety or panic attack.

Imagine your brain is a car. You have the gas pedal and the brake pedal.

When we reach a hill (a stressor), the car will quickly begin to pick up speed. As the car continues to gain momentum we begin to lose control. At any moment you could lose control of the car and crash into a ditch on the side of the road, or worse.

This is a metaphor for anxiety — which can make it hard to control our own thoughts and emotions.

GABA is used to reduce electrical activity in the brain — just like pressing the brakes in the speeding car to slow it down and regain control.

In a lot of anxiety sufferers, GABA is either not doing its job effectively, or the cause of stress is too strong for GABA to overcome it.

Xanax, and other drugs or herbal supplements that boost GABA activity help you put the brakes on mental stimulation and anxiety. They’re effective for alleviating anxiety, as well as other processes that rely on relaxing the mind (like falling asleep or concentrating).

In order to be considered an alternative to Xanax, the alternative option needs to work through the same mechanism of action. So what we’re looking at here is essentially alternative GABAergic compounds (compounds that can increase GABA activity in the brain).

What Are Some Popular Xanax Alternatives?

There are a few natural substances commonly used in place of Xanax, but by far the most reliable is kava (more on this later). First, here’s a list of the most common GABA alternatives currently available:

  1. Kava — This is the focus of our discussion here and the strongest GABAergic herb on our list. Kava has been studied in comparison to benzodiazepines several times with most researchers concluding that kava has very comparable effects to this class of pharmaceutical drugs.
  2. GABA — GABA itself can be used as a supplement. However, it’s not as effective as you might expect. GABA needs to be broken down to cross the blood-brain barrier before being reconstructed, significantly limiting its usefulness. Supplementing GABA also doesn’t help when the issue involves the GABA receptors themselves.
  3. L-Theanine — This popular extract from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) works in a similar way to Xanax, but much much weaker. It’s useful for mild anxiety but doesn’t hold a candle to some of the other herbs on this list.
  4. Magnolia — This herb has a long history of use for supporting sleep. It was no surprise when researchers started to look for a mechanism of action for this herb and discovered that it upregulates GABA activity in the brain in a similar manner to Xanax.
  5. Cannabidiol (CBD) —CBD is one of the primary ingredients in cannabis plants. It’s completely non-psychoactive and offers a host of benefits to the body. Although this compound primarily works on the endocannabinoid receptors, it’s also been shown to have some effect on GABA. This could explain the relaxing and anti-anxiety benefits of the compound.
(Magnolia Flower)

Kava vs. Xanax: Which is Better?

Out of all the potential alternatives on our list kava has shown the most promise.

There are several academic studies already published that compare the effects of benzodiazepine anxiety medications with this tropical island herb. Most of these studies report dramatic similarities between kava and the pharmaceutical versions.

A large meta-analysis published in 2005 looked at the results of 6 randomized, double-blind clinical trials done in Germany. The trials accounted for 345 patients diagnosed with anxiety disorders and took place over 4, 8 and 24 weeks. 180 patients were given doses of kavalactones, while 165 served as the placebo-control group [3].

The results of this meta-analysis showed substantial improvement in anxiety scores by the end of the treatment period.

The researchers running the study were so impressed with the results, they concluded the article by stating:

“We are convinced that WS®1490 and perhaps other Kava products as well are effective for patients with non-psychotic anxiety disorders. Hence, WS®1490 can be an alternative to benzodiazepines and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)”.

* Note: WS®1490 is a common standardized kava extract used in a lot of research studies.

Kava vs. Xanax: At a Glance

Metrics Kava Xanax (And Other Benzodiazepines)
Potential For Addiction Very Low Very High
Strength of Effects Medium to High Very High
Benefits • Anti-anxiety  
• Sleep-supportive
• Muscle relaxant
• Pain-killer
• Anti-anxiety  
• Potent sedative
• Muscle relaxant
Method of Use • Teas  
• Capsules
• Tinctures/Liquids
• Root Powder
• Tablets
Source Natural Synthetic
Active Ingredients Kavalactones Alprazolam
Side Effects • Nausea  
• Lightheadedness
• Fatigue
• Low blood pressure
• Lightheadedness  
• Sedation
• Confusion
• Jaundice
• Weight gain
• Addiction
• Low heart rate
• Low blood pressure

What Exactly is Kava?

Kava (or kava kava as it’s commonly referred to) is a medicinal plant species from the tropical islands of the pacific ocean — such as Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Hawaii, and the Solomon Islands.

The roots of the kava plant are used locally for ceremonial use and in social gatherings.

After being chopped, chewed, or mashed into a paste, the roots of the kava plant are used to make a strong tea. The tea looks like muddy water and has a bitter and peppery flavor.

Kava produces powerful feelings of relaxation, a sense of wellbeing, sedation, and euphoria. Lower doses are used in social settings to help users relax and enjoy deep conversations, or to reduce symptoms of anxiety, stress, and insomnia. In higher doses, kava becomes a powerful herbal sedative.

These applications are virtually identical to that of benzodiazepine medications. The only difference is that kava isn’t as forceful as Xanax. It provides its benefits through the interaction of its active ingredients (the kavalactones) and a handful of neurotransmitters in the brain.

Kava works through GABA just like a benzo, but interacts with the dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, and glutamate receptors as well. This diversity of effects from the kava plant dramatically reduces the addictive potential and adds versatility to the effect profile of the plant.

Kava is also popular for improving focus and concentration and is even suggested to be a promising candidate as an Adderall alternative as well. Conversely, Xanax tends to limit our ability to concentrate — making us feel tired and groggy instead.

What Are the Benefits of Kava?

  • Relieves anxiety
  • Supports sleep
  • Relaxes tense muscles
  • Combats stress
  • Helps prepare the mind for stressful events like public speaking
  • Uplifts mood
  • Aids meditation
  • Enhances deep creative work
  • Eases social tension and promotes conversation

Is Kava Safe? Side Effects & Addiction

As with any other active substances, there are some potential side effects to kava —, especially in higher doses. Nothing is completely free from side effects, no matter how natural it is.

Despite the potential for a few side effects, kava has been proven safe many times in clinical research — even over long periods of time.

Here are a few examples of studies proving the safety of the herb so you can check them out yourself:

  1. Effect of Kava-Special Extract WS 1490 combined with ethyl alcohol on safety-relevant performance parameters. (1993)
  2. Kava-kava extract WS 1490 versus placebo in anxiety disorders-a randomized placebo-controlled 25-week outpatient trial. (1997)
  3. Kava kava: examining new reports of toxicity. (2004)
  4. Toxicity of kava kava. (2008)

Even more evidence for the safety of kava comes from its place of origin. People living on tropical islands where kava grows consume significant amounts of kava on a daily basis — yet there are almost no reports of addiction or long-term side effects from using the herb in these regions.

Only people who drink excessive amounts of kava for several years tend to show any signs of addiction. Even in these rare instances, the withdrawal and recovery period after ceasing the herb is described as being moderately uncomfortable for a week or two before returning completely back to normal.

Withdrawal from kava has also never been reported to cause death — which can’t be said for benzodiazepine medications.

The Potential Side Effects of Kava:

  • Nausea (most common)
  • Fatigue
  • Indigestion
  • Lightheadedness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Allergic skin reactions (rare)
  • Dilated pupils
  • Enlarged liver (rare)
  • Headaches

A Note On Mixing Kava With Benzodiazepine Medications

Some people use kava as a way to wean themselves off benzodiazepine medications. The process works by gradually reducing the dose of the benzos (like Xanax) while simultaneously increasing the dose of kava until no more benzos need to be used at all.

There are even a few clinical trials that use a method similar to this as a way to halt anxiety symptoms with benzodiazepines, and then replace the benzo with kava to see if these benefits persist (they do) [2].

While this method certainly works, and there are a lot of people using this method to get out of crippling addiction — it shouldn’t be taken lightly.

You should never attempt to combine kava with benzodiazepines yourself. If done incorrectly, this could make the problem even worse. As we’ve covered at length in this article, the effects of Xanax and kava are very similar — which is why the herb is such a viable alternative option for Xanax medications.

However, the overlap also means that taking the two together will produce double the effects. This can significantly increase the chances of experiencing side effects from the medication — such as liver damage, heart arrhythmias, fainting, low blood pressure, or worse.

Always follow the guidance of an experienced health practitioner to help you wean off your medication slowly. Never take kava as a way to boost the effects of Xanax.

List of Benzodiazepine Medications

  • Xanax — alprazolam
  • Onfi — clobazam
  • Klonopin —clonazepam
  • Tranxene — clorazepate
  • Librium —chlordiazepoxide
  • Valium — diazepam
  • Ativan — lorazepam
  • Restoril — temazepam
  • Halcion — triazolam
(Kava Root Powder)

Final Thoughts: Kava as a Natural Alternative to Xanax

Kava and Xanax are both used for the same reasons — to ease symptoms of anxiety and insomnia. To achieve this, both compounds rely on an interaction with a neurotransmitter known as GABA — which serves to slow down electrical activity in the brain. This effect can stop anxiety in its tracks and improves our ability to fall asleep at night.

However, that’s where the similarity ends.

Xanax is a powerful pharmaceutical drug with a long list of side effects and addictive potential. It’s only intended to be used for about a week or two at a time and should never be used long-term. Once addicted to the drug it can be nearly impossible to stop taking it or risk experiencing debilitating anxiety, insomnia, heart arrhythmias, and potentially even death.

Kava, on the other hand, is a plant with a long history of use (over 2500 years). It’s used by the indigenous tribes of the pacific islands in social and spiritual ceremonies, and to relieve anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia, and uplift the mood. In the western world the herb has also become popular for its ability to improve focus, concentration, and boost the creative thought process.

Kava is not addictive in reasonable doses, and is proven to be significantly safer than benzodiazepine medications in both the short-term and long-term.

As a result of this, it’s no surprise that kava has become one of the most promising candidates for Xanax alternatives — with more doctors turning to this herb instead of Xanax for their patients.

Always speak with your doctor before using kava if you suffer any underlying medical conditions or are taking any medications.

References Cited in This Article

  1. Lydiard, R. B. (2003). The role of GABA in anxiety disorders. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 64, 21-27.
  2. 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.
  3. Witte, S., Loew, D., & Gaus, W. (2005). Meta‐analysis of the efficacy of the acetonic kava‐kava extract WS® 1490 in patients with non‐psychotic anxiety disorders. Phytotherapy Research: An International Journal Devoted to Pharmacological and Toxicological Evaluation of Natural Product Derivatives, 19(3), 183-188.
  4. Herberg, K. W. (1993). Effect of Kava-Special Extract WS 1490 combined with ethyl alcohol on safety-relevant performance parameters. Blutalkohol, 30(2), 96-105.
  5. 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.