WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- There's a popular new drink catching on, here in our area, but is it totally safe? Kava Kava drinkers say it's better than alcohol or drugs because it's not addictive and doesn't change your personality, but doctors say it can be dangerous, for another reason. For some people, it can actually cause organ failure. The CBS 12 I-Team investigates, as Tara Cardoso interviews a patient who wants people to be aware of the potential side affects.
It's the latest fad and it's being marketed as an "alternative to alcohol." Kava Kava bars are popping up everywhere: Boca Raton, Delray, Lake Worth, West Palm Beach, and Jupiter. Yet, still many people have no idea what it means to "get rooted."
Bar Patrons tell us, "It's natural anti anxiety, a muscle relaxer... very mild... It's not like people are staggering out of kava bars...." and "I like Kava cause I can still have clarity of mind."
The South Pacific pepper plant is mixed with hot water to make a drink with calming affects. It's made from the root of a plant called piper methysticum. However, doctors say there is also a dark side to Kava for some people. Dr. Eugene Schiff, the director of the University of Miami Center for Liver Diseases says, "When somebody gets an injury from Kava Kava, it can be life threatening... I'm not trying to be an alarmist. I'm trying to be real."
Here's a prime example from our area. Mike is a healthy 35 year old tri-athlete. He says it happened to him after two drinks from the "Kavasutra" bar in Lake Worth. He says he felt, "Nausea, headache, groggy." However, he says, that was just at first. His fiancé Pearl told us, "He thought he was drinking something healthy because it's natural," but Mike got sick, really sick. His fiancé noticed he was yellow and in real trouble. He says the doctors told him, "Your liver is in failure... hearing that... I was like whoa."
Mike is one of a very small percentage of people whose liver can not handle the plant. Dr. Schiff, says drinking Kava is like playing with fire, because you don't know how kava will affect you, until you drink it and the doctor says there's no way to estimate how many people get sick from it, because it's often not reported, "Most of this never gets reported. If someone dies, it gets reported."
Negative symptoms, Dr. Schiff says sometimes don't show up for weeks, so many patients never put two and two together, and not everyone gets as sick as Mike. There are varying degrees of intolerance. Dr. Schiff says, "I obviously wouldn't encourage anyone to take this, yet I'll be the first to say you might have thousands of people who have been taking it at the business who haven't had any problems."
The FDA does not regulate all supplements or herbal products, so there are no restrictions on potency. It's consumer advisory says: "Although liver damage appears to be rare, FDA believes consumers should be informed of this potential risk."
Pearl says the whole experience was very frightening for her and Mike and she believes people need to know this can happen, "Just because you're walking into a place that is a legit looking restaurant, doesn't mean it's safe."
We tried to talk to the owner of Kavasutra in Lake Worth, but he never got back with us. The owner's father, who owns a separate Kava bar in West Palm Beach was concerned to hear the news. Toby Harrison told us, "I think that's a drag and my heart goes out to him, but there is a small percentage of people everywhere who are allergic to something or can't metabolize something."
The bar owner says he would consider putting up a warning if he had solid proof that Kava was a real threat, but he still stands by Kava, drinking it every single day. Harrison points out that millions of people have been consuming Kava for thousands of years, saying, "We hear about children who eat peanuts, peanuts are not off the market."
In Mike's case, he was out of commission for two month and couldn't eat or sleep well the whole time. His liver has finally healed, but he still feels people should be informed about all the risks before they choose to experiment, saying, "They could drink it and feel off and never know why."
The patient and doctor we spoke with, both feel it's important for you to know the signs of a potential liver problem. They are: itching, nausea, vomiting, weakness, stomach pain, loss of appetite, and yellowing of the skin. For the CBS 12 I-Team, I'm Tara Cardoso.
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