Kava Kava (Piper methysticum)

Photo by Stephen Foster

With the amount of stress and anxiety experienced by so many people living in modern society, millions of prescriptions for anxiety-relieving drugs are written every year.  For instance, 44 million prescriptions were written in 2009 for Xanax (alprozolam), a drug used to treat anxiety disorders and panic attacks.  Lexapro (alprazolam), used to treat generalized anxiety disorder and excessive worry, was prescribed over 27 million times in the same year. All together over 173 million prescriptions for drugs used to treat anxiety (and also depression in some cases) were issued in 2009. 

Americans need to take a lesson from the Polynesian people and switch from using caffeine and alcohol to self-medicate for stress and fatigue and start using kava kava.  Kava is the traditional herbal beverage of the South Seas. In Fiji you can find Kava Bars as commonly as one can find a coffee shop in America.    In parts of Polynesia, it is consumed every day as a recreational drink that relaxes the body.

Known for its energy-promoting and communication-enhancing effects, kava kava is a plant that relaxes muscles, eases tension, promotes sleep and helps create a clear, calm and relaxed state of mind.  Unlike alcohol, which dulls your brain and sensory systems, and can bring out anger or depression, kava kava relaxes you while keeping you mentally alert and aware.

Native to the South Sea Islands, kava is a shrub that can grow to twelve feet, but it is typically harvested around seven feet.  The part used is the plant’s sprawling rhizomes, which can reach nine feet in length.

Kava kava was introduced to the Western world by Captain James Cook, who collected it during his first voyage to the South Pacific (1768-1771).  It is a relative of black pepper and its botanical name, Piper methysticum, means “intoxicating pepper.”

Using Kava Kava

In the South Seas, kava is traditionally consumed as a beverage, like tea in the Orient and England and coffee in America.  Kava has an acrid taste that is someone astringent, biting and numbing, which is not pleasant to most Westerners.  So, in the United States and Europe it is typically used in capsules or tincture form, often as a standardized extract.

The consumption of kava does not cause one to be angry, unpleasant, quarrelsome or noisy, common problems associated with drinking alcohol.  It does not dull the brain or senses either.  The drinker remains master of his consciousness and his reason.  The mind is still keenly alert and hearing and sight are sharpened, not dulled.

One can take enough kava that one will appear drunk however.  The muscles become so powerfully relaxed that a person starts to go limp and can’t co-ordinate movement.  Smaller doses will not have this effect, but large doses of kava shouldn’t be taken when driving or operating heavy machinery. 

Kava as a Social and Psychological Remedy

Kava also helps people feel empathy for one another. In fact, it’s reported that you can’t feel hate after drinking kava. So, it’s been traditionally used to help settle quarrels. In Polynesia, it is common for marriage counselors to have a kava ceremony before counseling to get everyone relaxed and in a good mood.  Ceremonial consumption of kava kava has also been used to begin treaty negotiations, political meetings and business dealings.  Keep that in mind next time you have to discuss a problem with your spouse or confront a difficult negotiation and give everyone involved some kava before starting the discussion.

Besides being relaxing and stress-reducing, kava is also a euphoric, which means it causes euphoria or a sense of well-being.  Traditionally, kava has been used as a plant for acquiring inner knowledge and wisdom, in other words, the ability to “know oneself.”   

Fijian spiritual healers (called dauvagunu, which literally means “the expert in drinking kava”) got their power by strategically using kava to gain access to the Vu (a spirit force) when a patient requests help.  Taking kava, the dauvagunu gained greater powers of perception and insight.

High-quality kava has the ability to suspend a person’s perpetual “mental chatter” for a period of time, stopping the incessant stream of thinking and giving the mind a true rest.  While relieving tension in the muscles, kava also gives access to the subconscious, so the source of the tension, and in some cases pain, may be discovered and dismissed.

Kava kava does not make you “high” however, the way recreational drugs do.  It does not force a person into an altered state of consciousness, but simply creates a more peaceful and aware state of mind.  Given these facts it would be nice if more people turned to kava for help with their troubles and tension instead of alcohol, marijuana and other recreational drugs.

A Powerful Antispasmodic and Analgesic

Coming back to more physical uses, kava is one of the best herbal antispasmodics we have.  It can be used in a manner similar to lobelia to ease muscle tension, cramping and pain.  Like lobelia it can be used for panic attacks, anxiety attacks, asthma and whooping cough.

It is used in Europe to treat menstrual cramps, and can ease other tension-related conditions, including back pain, neck spasms, headaches and renal colic (spasms in the urinary system).  I have personally found that kava kava taken with Magnesium Complex relaxes tension in my body better than any other remedy I’ve found.  It can be taken with magnesium and Cramp Relief for menstrual cramps.

Kava is also an excellent as a remedy for insomnia.  Taken in the evening before bedtime, it relaxes tension, calms the mind and makes it easier to fall asleep.  It promotes more restful sleep, with long, vivid dreams and helps a person wake up more refreshed.  I find it combines well with Herbal Sleep or Valerian as a sleep aid.

If you chew on kava root, you will notice that it numbs your tongue.  This is because kava contains a potent topical analgesic. It contains two pain-relieving chemicals, dihydrokavain and dihydromethysticin.  These chemicals are as effective as aspirin, according to Albert Leung, Ph.D and Arkansas herbalist Steven Foster in their book The Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients. Kava can be applied to wounds or chewed to ease toothache pain, sore throat, sore gums and canker sores. 

Kava kava can also taken internally to reduce back pain, neck pain and pain associated with tension headaches.   It can also help pain associated with nerve or skin diseases and injuries. Internally, it is particularly helpful for easing pain associated with the passage of kidney stones and painful urination.

Other Medicinal Uses for Kava

This brings us to another, less well known use for kava.  It is a good remedy for kidney and bladder infections and has a mild diuretic effect.  It also has mild antiseptic properties.  For these reason, I find it useful to combine kava kava with other herbs (like goldenseal and Echinacea) when treating urinary tract infections where there is burning or painful urination.  It can also be used as a douche for pain associated with vaginitis.

In many parts of the South Pacific, it was generally thought that regular, judicious use of kava has a positive impact on overall health.  It is used in many cultures, for example, as a remedy for fatigue.  So, instead of trying to overcome fatigue by jacking one’s system up on stimulants like caffeine, one relaxes the system, resulting in better sleep, less muscle tension and a more relaxed but energized state. 

Kava is valued as a cure for rheumatism, worms, obesity and neuralgia.  It is considered safe enough to give to children who are weak and recovering from illness.  It eases teething pains and crying spells.  Kava has also been applied topically as a remedy for fungal infections like athlete’s foot and thrush.  It cures ringworm and is great for soothing stings and skin inflammations, including leprosy.

Kava has been found to inhibit gonorrhea.  The number of low incidences of gonorrhea in kava-drinking populations has been substantially documented.

 In Chinese medicine, kava is a powerful heart medicine, increasing blood and Chi flow without increasing the heart rate.  In 1985, Japanese newspapers said kava was an effective remedy for the common cold because it induces sweating.

How Kava Works

Kava contains compounds called kavalactones, which influence the emotional command center of the brain producing both psychological and physical effects.  Kavalactones have been shown to relieve anxiety and pain in laboratory animals.  In humans, they have been shown to change brain activity without sedation (dulling thought processes). 

One study showed that people taking measured doses of kava extract did better in word-recognition tests than those taking a synthetic tranquilizer (benzodizepine), and a 1993 report in the British Journal of Phytotherapy referred to kava as one of few herbs that can safely relax skeletal muscle.  The author of this report prescribed it for nervous tension and conditions associated with skeletal muscle spasms, such as headaches caused by a tense neck.  Another study showed that those taking kava had an improved sense of well-being and marked reduction in nervousness and tension compared to those on a placebo.

An interesting characteristic about kava is that its effectiveness does not stem from a single active substance but rather from a mixture (or a blend) of several kavalactones.  Each kavalactone greatly depends on the presence of the others to produce kava’s effects.  In fact kava’s unaltered extracts produce more potent psychoactive results than do any single isolated substance. 

Research has isolated fifteen lactones from kava rootstock, five of which bear the following characteristics:  The lactones kawain and dihydrokawain are muscle relaxants, analgesics and sedatives; dehydrokawain and dehydromethysticin are spasmolytic; and yangonins are used against symptoms of neurological disregulation and difficulties in concentrating and memory loss.

A number of compounds referred to as “Kava pyrones” (kawain, dihydrokawain, methysticin, and dihydromethysticin) are said to have mild sedative and tranquilizing effects.  Kawain is sold in Europe as a mild sedative for the elderly.  Extracts of kava, and most of the kava pyrones have been shown to have antiseptic properties in test tube experiments.

In studies on adult human and animal models anticonvulsant activity has been observed.  However, the component in kava enabling this effect has not yet been discovered.

With so many different kavalactones that produce differing effects, it is not surprising that kava taken from various areas will have noticeably different effects.  This means that you may not get all of the benefits above just from taking Nature’s Sunshine’s standardized kava extract in capsules.  For this reason, I also keep kava around in several different forms, including a tincture for when I need a fast-acting effect.  However, I personally prefer to take kava in capsules as I really don’t like the taste.

Kavalactones are not water soluble, so kava does not work in tea form. Kavalactones do extract in alcohol and glycerin however, which is why extracts are better than the raw plant material. 

 Traditionally kava was prepared by having virgin girls chew the root and spit it into a bowel.  By mixing it with saliva, it allowed the kavalactones to be extracted in water and made into a beverage.  It also made the beverage more intoxicating.  Fortunately, modern extraction procedures are a little more sanitary.

Social and Recreational Use of Kava

Kava was traditionally used as a social beverage, not just as a medicine.  It was consumed by chiefs and noblemen and used to welcome distinguished royalty or other important guests at formal gatherings. It was also ceremonially used at initiations, upon completion of a big accomplishment, in preparing for a journey or ocean voyage, installation in office, validation of titles, acceptance of agreements, celebration of important births, marriages, and deaths, honoring the gods, to remove curses and as a prelude to tribal wars.  In fact, it was used in almost all phases of life in the islands, in much the same way that people in Europe and North America use alcohol.

Some people in the United States have used kava in this manner and have thrown kava parties.  Kava is prepared as a beverage and served to get everyone into a relaxed and pleasant mood.  It would be nice if kava parties replaced drinking parties.  It might prevent a lot of fights and other antisocial behavior.

Using Kava Kava

Although Kava was traditionally used as a liquid, most people today prefer to take their herbs in capsules.  Kava is available as a standardized extract in capsule form.  For non-standardized kava the dosage is three to six herbal capsules of 500 milligrams each of kava daily.  The dosage on standardized Kava, which is what is found in Nature’s Sunshine’s kava product, is one or two capsules once or twice daily.

Follow instructions on the product label or those of your health-care provider.  Kava shouldn’t be taken for more than three months without consulting your doctor for medical advice.  Because kava is a strong relaxant that helps to induce sleep, take one capsule with dinner or before going to bed.

For pain management combine with valerian or IF Relief.  For anxiety, especially during the day use 1-2 capsules of standardized kava and Nutri-Calm, Stress-J or Nervous Fatigue Formula.  Using more kava and less valerian allows for more communication and light sleep.  It takes the edge off the pain, discomfort and fear.  For severe pain and difficulty sleeping take more valerian and less kava.

Safety Concerns

Some years ago there were reports of kava products in Europe causing liver damage.  The problem was traced to the fact that European companies were creating their extracts from the above-ground portions of the plant, which are considered toxic by the Polynesian people.  Extracts of the roots have never produced these problems and kava kava has a history of safe use for hundreds of years.

At the recommended dosage, side effects are rare but include mild stomach upset or allergic skin reactions (a dry, itchy rash).  Constant use of large doses will cause an accumulation of toxic substances in the liver, a problem that disappears within days after kava use is discontinued.

When one over-doses on kava the muscles become completely loose and relaxed.  The person feels the need to lie down and if enough kava has been taken may not feel like moving a muscle.  This symptom wears off within a matter of hours.  An overdose of kava can also make co-ordination difficult.  However, it takes a very large amount of kava to create these symptoms. But for safety’s sake don’t drive or operate heavy machinery if you’ve taken more than two capsules of NSP’s standardized kava extract.

 If kava is taken at higher that the recommended doses for a prolonged period, your skin and nails may turn yellow temporarily.  If this happens, simply stop taking kava for a few days until they clear up.  Again, these symptoms show up very rarely and only in people who use kava excessively for long periods of time. 

Kava is not recommended for pregnant or breast-feeding women. If you are suffering from Parkinson’s disease, depression or using other substances or medications that act on the central nervous system, such as alcohol, antidepressants, barbiturates or benzodiazepines, consult with a competent health practitioner before using kava as it may interact with these drug medications. 

Selected References

“Kava A Safe Herbal Treatment for Anxiety” by Kerry Bone, Master Herbalist (Townsend Letter for Doctors, June 1995).“Kava Kava: The Pacific Herb” by Mark Blumenthal (Whole Foods, April 1996).
Kava Medicine Hunting in Paradise by Chris Kilham. (Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press, 1996).
“Kava Root: Traditional Euphoric & Modern Pharmaceutical” by Ed Smith, (7th Annual AHG Symposium: June 7-9, 1996).
The Green Pharmacy by James A. Duke, Ph.D. (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1996).
“The Medicinal and Spiritual Properties of Kava” by Bill Brevoort (NFM’s Nutrition Science News, April 1996).
The Way of Herbs by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D. (Denver, CO: Washington Square Press, 1980).


Comments (2)

Deborah Mix
Said this on 8-30-2010 At 06:37 am

I am not able to print your articles, can you help?

Melissa
Said this on 2-25-2011 At 06:33 pm

Thank you for this outstanding article on kava-kava, the best I've read yet & I've been doing a LOT of research!

I am "financially challenged" but would like to know the names of some brands that are affordable yet those of good to best quality.  I am especially interested in the tincture. 

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