A recent article in Hampton Roads titled “Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids May Impact Overall Health” shone some light on the drawbacks of many of the non-prescription sleep aids people in our overstressed, overworked society use to help them get to sleep at night . Besides the short-term risks of delayed awakening and daytime drowsiness—no small consideration if you have to get behind the wheel of a car every morning!—the article pointed up long-term risks of habitual sleep aid use, including worsening sleep apnea, increased risk of heart disease and even cancer.
As the Kava Guru, I could only say, “Really? And all while a totally natural herbal sleep aid has been used in the South Pacific for millennia with no issues?” While the article did mention briefly that some people use kava kava (Piper methysticum) as a sleep aid, as well as other popular calming herbs like valerian, lavender essential oil, and chamomile, it was quick to label these remedies as lacking in scientific evidence. And of course, it also repeated the long-discredited information that use of kava may be linked to liver damage, which anyone who has read the new studies defending kava’s superior safety record knows was based on studies that were flawed at best, sensational at worst. But uneven as it was, the article got me thinking: can kava help you sleep?
Dr. Michael Breus, a sleep specialist writing on WebMD, stated that kava kava has been used a sleep aid in the South Pacific for its sedating and calming qualities . However, at the time he was writing in 2011, there was much more uncertainty as to why some people experienced idiosyncratic reactions to kava kava, so he still recommended avoiding its use. However, as recently as last year, new evidence has emerged suggesting the culprit in the mid-2000s liver toxicity cases might be flavokavain B, a non-kavalactone compound found only in ignoble (or “Tudei”) kava strains that are now banned from export .
Diagnose Me, an online diagnosis website similar to WebMD, suggests that kava kava may encourage sleep by reducing the anxiety and stress that is a common cause of sleeplessness for many people . Makes sense to me! Everyday stress, especially the inability to settle one’s thoughts before bedtime, is a huge factor in sleeplessness. The less sleep you get, the harder it is to get a handle on projects and tasks the next day, the more stressed you become, and the harder it is to get to sleep…you see the pattern developing here? Kava could very well offer harried Westerners a giant “reset” button by helping them achieve a state of relaxed calm, making it that much easier to drift into restful sleep. Other studies have suggested that kava has mild analgesic and muscle relaxant properties , so it might reduce mild aches and pains that can interefere with rest and help the body unwind physically before bed.
The site also references a very intriguing study on kava’s effects on brainwaves that was done by Saletu et al in 1989 . The double-blind placebo-controlled study found that doses of synthetic kavain between 200 and 600 mg “enhances brain activity that favors restorative sleep… EEG [electroencephalogram] activity showed that kavain increased the alpha-1, theta, and delta waves that are associated with sleep while decreasing beta waves, which are a sign of wakefulness” . As if that wasn’t enough evidence, these effects also increased as the dose of kavain was increased, so that “600mg of kavain produced sedation comparable to 30mg of clobazapam”, a benzodiazepine drug used as a control.
Well readers, I think it’s pretty clear that kava kava does have some scientifically backed evidence of effectiveness as a herbal sleep aid, especially in cases where anxiety or stress is a root cause of sleeplessness. Other methods for getting to sleep naturally include limiting your intake of caffeine, alcohol and sugar (especially right before bed); reducing the amount of ambient light and noise in your bedroom; and developing other healthy sleep routines such as ceasing the use of electronics 2 hours before sleep and making sure to eat your last meal about 3 hours before sleep. One creative strategy even suggested eating foods high in magnesium (which is a natural sedative) before you go to sleep. Some magnesium-rich foods include dark leafy greens, cashews, almonds, legumes, whole grains, brewer’s yeast, and blackstrap molasses.
However, many health sites still identify mental stress as the number one cause of difficulty sleeping. Perhaps the best way to ensure you get a great night’s sleep is to combine the above strategies with a high-quality kava supplement to round out your healthy sleep toolkit!
1. Ferguson, Pat. ‘Over-the-counter Sleep Aids May Impact Overall Health, According to Study”. Hampton Roads. August 3rd, 2014. http://hamptonroads.com/2014/08/overthecounter-sleep-aids-may-impact-overall-health-according-study.
2. Breus, Michael J. “Kava For Sleep? Why It Continues to Be a Mystery”. Huffington Post. August 20th, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-michael-j-breus/kava-sleep_b_924318.html.
3. Teschke, Rolf. March 2011. “Special Report: Kava and the Risk of Liver Toxicity: Past, Current, and Future”. American Herbal Products Association Report 26 (3): 9-17.
4. “Treatment: Kava”. Diagnose Me. Accessed September 23rd, 2014. http://www.diagnose-me.com/treatment/kava.html.
5. Saletu, B., Grünberger, J., and Linzmayer, L. (1989). “EEG-brain mapping, psychometric and psychophysiological studies on central effects of kavain–A kava plant derivative”. Human Psychopharmacology 4: 169-190.