This review critically analyzes the clinical data of patients with suspected kava hepatotoxicity and suggests recommendations for minimizing risk. Kava is a plant (Piper methysticum) of the pepper family Piperaceae, and its rhizome is used for traditional aqueous extracts in the South Pacific Islands and for commercial ethanolic and acetonic medicinal products as anxiolytic herbs in Western countries. A regulatory ban for ethanolic and acetonic kava extracts was issued in 2002 for Germany on the basis of reports connecting liver disease with the use of kava, but the regulatory causality assessment was a matter of international discussions. Based on one positive reexposure test with the kava drug, it was indeed confirmed that kava is potentially hepatotoxic. In subsequent studies using a structured, quantitative and hepatotoxicity specific causality assessment method in 14 patients with liver disease described worldwide, causality for kava ± comedicated drugs and dietary supplements including herbal ones was highly probable (n = 1), probable (n = 4) or possible (n = 9) regarding aqueous extracts (n = 3), ethanolic extracts (n = 5), acetonic extracts (n = 4), and mixtures containing kava (n = 2). Risk factors included overdose, prolonged treatment, and comedication with synthetic drugs and dietary supplements comprizing herbal ones in most of the 14 patients. Hepatotoxicity occurred independently of the used solvent, suggesting poor kava raw material quality as additional causative factor. In conclusion, in a few individuals kava may be hepatotoxic due to overdose, prolonged treatment, comedication, and probably triggered by an unacceptable quality of the kava raw material; standardization is now required, minimizing thereby hepatotoxic risks.
Key words. Kava hepatotoxicity, Herbal hepatotoxicity, Drug induced liver injury, Herbs induced liver injury, Toxic liver disease, Liver injury