Dear Kava Guru,
I’m pregnant, can I take Kava?
Marissa, Denver, CO
This is quite a common question, and I will give you the stock answer first: “The Kava Guru is not a doctor and cannot dispense medical advice. Please seek the advice of your family doctor if you want to take Kava during your pregnancy.”
And now, the answer that has been gathered from doctor’s opinions, research papers, and stories taken directly from the people of Oceania who have used this amazing plant safely for thousands of years:
Unfortunately, the short answer is that not enough is known about kava’s safety in pregnancy to recommend it. To give you a better idea of why this is, let’s take a look at kava kava’s common effects: kava is used as a sedative and anxiolytic because of its tranquilizing and antispasmodic properties. In other words, kava calms the central nervous system and also acts as a muscle relaxant. It has been suggested that kava’s relaxant properties could have a negative effect on uterine tone .
When questions of kava safety arise, the first thing to look at is the anecdotal evidence. Kava’s history stretches back thousands of years: in the South Pacific, the root has been used medicinally for pain relief, insomnia, urinary infections, and other conditions. According to Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy, kava kava has also been used to help women more easily give birth and to correct displacement of the womb . However, the book goes on to say that a combination of kava and other pepper species has also been used to induce miscarriage. In Hawaii and Polynesia, the kava leaf was used topically for the same purpose . However, the Kava Guru would like to point out that kava leaf is known to be poisonous to humans. In contrast, the kava root has been proved safe for human consumption by thousands of years of traditional use.
The American Pregnancy Association has given kava a rating of possibly unsafe for use in pregnancy, mostly because there isn’t enough known about the effect of kavalactones on a developing baby. It isn’t known whether kavalactones can be transmitted to the fetus in the womb, and the same kavalactones that are perfectly harmless in an adult might still be harmful for fetuses whose livers and brains are developing . Many prescription anti-anxiety medications such as Valium are listed as unsafe for use in pregnancy because they can harm the developing fetus .
It’s also possible that kava kava may weaken the muscles around the uterus, which could lead to miscarriage or premature delivery . Finally, kava’s sedating effects could amplify the effect of anesthesia if a mother must be sedated during labor for any reason . Physicians recommend that patients stop use of any herbal supplement with sedative effects (such as passionflower, valerian, or kava) 2 weeks before any medical procedure involving anesthesia.
While there are few definitive studies of kava’s safety in pregnancy, a good starting place for herbal safety in pregnancy can be found in this 2002 literature review . Based on the research, it is the Kava Guru’s opinion that kava should not be used in pregnancy. In those times when anxiety or stress becomes an issue during pregnancy, it may be possible to consult a holistic health care practitioner about herbs that are definitively safe in pregnancy, or about other stress-busting techniques such as prenatal yoga and meditation that can help you feel calm and ready for this change.
1. The American Pregnancy Association. “Herbs and Pregnancy”. Last modified January 2013. http://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancyhealth/naturalherbsvitamins.html
2. Livestrong.com. “Kava Kava and Pregnancy”. Last modified February 7th, 2014. http://www.livestrong.com/article/184996-kava-kava-pregnancy/
3. Ernst, E. March 2002. “Herbal medicinal products: are they safe during pregnancy?” British Journal of Gynaecology 109 (3): 227-235.
4. Bone, Kerry and Simon Mills. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine, 2nd ed. Churchill Livingstone, 2013: pg. 711.