Kava for Insomnia Relief

For help in sleeping more easily, some people with insomnia use an herb called kava. Most commonly used as a natural remedy for anxiety, kava is thought to promote healthy sleep in part by producing a calming effect on the mind and body.

Woman sleeping
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Why Is Kava Sometimes Used as a Sleep Aid?

Kava is rich in kavalactones, a class of compounds found to possess sedative properties. Kavalactones are thought to play a key role in kava's possibly sleep-promoting effects.

In preliminary research, tests on animals have shown that kava may help regulate the sleep-wake cycle. In a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology in 2005, for instance, an experiment involving sleep-disturbed rats demonstrated that treatment with kava helped shorten the time it took for animals to fall asleep.


So far, few scientific studies have examined kava's effectiveness as a sleep aid. What's more, the available research on kava and sleep has yielded mixed results.

Clinical trials testing kava's potential benefits for people with sleep problems include a small study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2004. For the study (which focused on people with sleep disturbances related to anxiety or stress), 61 patients received daily doses of either kava or a placebo for four weeks. By the end of the treatment period, those given kava showed significantly greater improvements in sleep quality and in wellbeing (compared to those given the placebo).

In an earlier pilot study (published in Phytotherapy Research in 2001), an experiment involving 24 patients suffering from stress-induced insomnia found that six weeks of treatment with kava led to significant improvements in the time it took to fall asleep, total hours slept, and mood upon waking. Kava also appeared to reduce the severity of participants' stress.

However, in an Internet-based clinical trial published in the journal Medicine in 2005, researchers found that kava may not be an effective treatment for insomnia. The study involved 391 people with both anxiety and insomnia, each of whom was given a 28-day supply of kava, valerian, or a placebo. Results revealed that neither kava nor valerian relieved anxiety or insomnia more effectively than the placebo.


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) warn against using kava, since the herb may cause liver damage (even when taken in the short term and consumed in normal doses), and possibly lead to death. If you do use kava, it's crucial to speak with your doctor first. Early signs of liver damage include:

  • Jaundice (i.e., yellowing of the eyes and skin)
  • Fatigue
  • Dark urine

Kava may trigger a number of other side effects, such as indigestion, headache, drowsiness, and decreases in blood pressure. Additionally, kava may interfere with blood clotting and aggravate symptoms of Parkinson's disease and depression.

Alternatives to Kava for Better Sleep

Closely linked to insomnia, chronic stress and anxiety are thought to disturb sleep in part by causing increased tension. To soothe that tension and improve the quality of your sleep, some people find it helpful to wind down before bed with stress-reducing techniques like yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery.

There's also some evidence that practicing aromatherapy with calming essential oils like lavender can help you find sounder slumber. 

Furthermore, lifestyle practices like limiting your intake of caffeine and alcohol, exercising regularly, and keeping to a regular bedtime and wake time can go a long way in fighting insomnia.

Other Uses for Kava

In addition to potentially promoting sleep in some individuals, kava appears to alleviate anxiety.

Using Kava for Insomnia

Due to the potential safety concerns, kava is not recommended for the relief of insomnia (or for the treatment of any other condition). If you have trouble sleeping or are considering using kava, talk with your doctor first. Self-treating can have serious consequences.

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  1. Shinomiya K, Inoue T, Utsu Y, et al. Effects of kava-kava extract on the sleep-wake cycle in sleep-disturbed rats. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2005;180(3):564-9. doi:10.1007/s00213-005-2196-4

  2. Lehrl S. Clinical efficacy of kava extract WS 1490 in sleep disturbances associated with anxiety disorders. Results of a multicenter, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trial. J Affect Disord. 2004;78(2):101-10. doi:10.1016/s0165-0327(02)00238-0

  3. Wheatley D. Kava and valerian in the treatment of stress-induced insomnia. Phytother Res. 2001;15(6):549-51. doi:10.1002/ptr.840

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