Kava and Sleep Quality

sleeping seal

One of the most common questions we receive are related to kava’s effects on sleep. We’ve decided to write this quick post to share our thoughts on this topic and to hopefully present a useful perspective on kava’s effects on sleep.

Over the last few years kava has become quite popular among those who seek natural remedies for insomnia or other sleep problems. If you google “kava and sleep” or “kava for insomnia” you will find hundreds of posts, testimonies, recommendations, discussions and reviews. It appears that many people find kava to be quite effective when it comes to addressing some of the common sleep problems. Many consider kava to be vastly superior to any of the potential alternatives because, as noted by drinkers, unlike in the case of many of the manufactured drugs, kava is seemingly capable of bringing a truly restful and deep sleep without potential for addiction or high risk of harmful side effects. The belief that kava may assist in attaining restful sleep is often supported by traditional knowledge and accounts presnted by kava’s traditional users on the islands of the South Pacific. This anecdotal endorsement of kava’s potential for assisting with sleep-related problems is certainly very encouraging. However, it is worth noting that more research needs to be done to properly understand how exactly kava can affect our sleep patterns.

To date, there have been few studies that focused on this question. Two studies (one from 2001 and the other one from 2004) examined the effects of kava extracts (administered alone or together with other herbal extracts) on sleep disturbances experienced by people suffering from stress and/or anxiety. While their findings are promising (both studies found kava to be potentially effective in the treatment of stress/anxiety related disturbances), they suffered from such limitations as: limited scope, number of participants and duration of the trial, lack of information about the quality or type of the plant material, the presence of other medications, etc. Another, more recent, study that focused on the question of kava and sleep quality looked at the effects of kava on the sleep-wake cycle in sleep-disturbed rats. While its findings seem to confirm those of the previous examinations (the study found that kava may have both sleep-inducing and sleep-quality improving effects), the study was also limited in its scope and its findings may not necessarily apply to humans. Importantly, none of the above studies provided any comprehensive answers as to what mechanism might be behind kava’s observed effects on sleep. It is thus clear that more research is required in order to determine the specific effects of kava on the sleep quality in humans, and what forms, doses and methods of consumption of kava might be optimal from the point of view of sleep quality. In particular, more research is needed to determine the effects of traditionally prepared kava (which is widely recognised as the safest and most suitable for regular consumption form of kava) on sleep.

At the same time, we feel it might not be unreasonable to speculate what might potentially explain why so many people appear to be finding kava useful when it comes to addressing sleep disturbances. It seems that the effect of kava on sleep is linked to its well-documented potential for reducing anxiety and stress. Unlike alcohol or many pharmaceutical products, kava does not appear to be diminishing mental clarity, awareness or ability to process external stimuli. Instead, it brings a unique sensation of tranquility which does not shut the mind off. Many people observe how kava can calm the mind by stopping the uncontrollable flood of worrying thoughts. It allows one to focus, carefully examine various events and emotions, to bring a sense of tranquility and control. In a sense, it’s not unlike meditation (which may also be an excellent way of addressing sleep problems!).

As we wrote in an earlier post on the art of “listening to the kava”, the word “meditation” is indeed often used to describe the strong kava experience. Chris Kilkham, the author of a popular book on kava and an experienced meditator, argues that kava “replicates some dimensions of the inner peace achieved through meditation very well”.  As noted by Prof Robert Gregory from Massey University: “Kava makes you quiet and able to think and listen to your thoughts. Your mind opens to what has been and should be done. The subjective feeling after kava is to be slowed down, for it almost forces one to become quiet. Sometimes it is like entering a light relaxed dream.”

It is this experience of peaceful contemplation, regaining control over one’s thoughts, that may be behind some of the observed effects of kava on sleep. Kava won’t “knock you out” or make you unconscious. What it might do instead is to potentially assist you with attaining a feeling of peace and in calmly contemplating over your problems, important decisions or stressful events.

In our personal experience, the best way of coordinating kava consumption with sleep is to drink kava a couple of hours before going to bed, especially if the kava is used to relax after a stressful day or to contemplate over a difficult problem. This is how it is often used by traditional users of the plant in Vanuatu. As observed by Prof Gregory: “Use of kava for thinking about current problems and how to solve them is frequent. When a man has important decisions to make, he thinks about them during the kava meditation. After meditating under the influence of kava for an hour or two, a man goes home to eat with his wife and children, and then goes to sleep.”

Many people seem to enjoy drinking kava this way and find that it can indeed assist in improving their sleep. However, please note that we are all different and in the light of limited available research, it is impossible to say whether kava can help you with your specific sleep issues. It is also important to remember that many of the sleep problems (just like stress and anxiety) have much deeper causes and while some substances or exercises could help to allievate symptoms or work as short term solutions, they won’t replace addressing the root causes of your stress, anxiety , insomnia or any other health conditions that may be causing your sleep disturbances.

It is always a good idea to talk to your GP about your health problems and to rely on professional medical advice when it comes to addressing them. If you want to use kava for strictly medicinal purposes (rather than as a traditional beverage), we strongly advise that you contact your qualified medical professional to enquire whether or not it might be the right thing to do.