What Is Kava Kava?
Kava Kava is an herb that is botanically known as Piper methysticum and is found predominantly in the western Pacific. Kava Kava is a popular herb especially in the following areas – Polynesia, Vanuata, Micronesia, Melanesia and Australia. The scientific name of this herb is derived from the Latin word piper which means pepper and the Greek word methysticum which means intoxicating. The herb is also known by the following other names – Kava, Yaqona, sakau and ava.
The herb is a perennial shrub found in the Pacific Island region that can grow up to a height of 3 meters and has bright green heart-shaped leaves. To grow, the herb requires shade and a good amount of rainfall.
Kava kava is used not only for medicinal purposes but also is used for religious, cultural and social events. The roots of this herb are usually masticated, grounded and then used with plain water or coconut water during ceremonies and cultural events in the South Pacific Islands. Traditionally, Kava kava is powdered using hands as mortars and dead coral blocks as pestles.
The medicinal part of this herb is its root which is known for its sedative and anesthetic properties. The root of Kava kava has an active ingredient known as kava-lactone. In Vanuata and Fiji, kava kava is grown as a cash crop.
Recently, there have been many safety concerns regarding the usage of kava kava as some studies highlighted that the herb may lead to liver toxicity. As a result of this finding the European Union banned Kava Kava imports in the year 2001. However, many studies have come out with strongly worded findings that claim that liver toxicity may be the result of using stems & leaves of the herb instead of the roots. However, a study published by the University of Aberdeen showed that kava kava may help in treating cancer. Subsequently, the import ban on kava kava was lifted in the year 2008 by the European Union.
How Does It Work?
As mentioned above, Kava kava contains kava-lactones. Studies have identified and isolated fifteen such lactones from the herb. Dried roots of the herb contain the following components – water, starch, dietary fiber, kavalactones, sugar, protein and minerals. To get the highest amount of kava-lactones, roots of kava kava are harvested only after 4-5 years when they are considered ‘mature’.
Health Benefits Of Kava Kava
Kava Kava roots are mainly used to treat anxiety and insomnia. However, inhabitants of the pacific islands have used the herb for treating many other unrelated disorders of the human body. The herb offers the following health effects – anti-convulsive, anesthetic, anxiolytic, muscle relaxant and anti-inflammatory.
Kava kava is popular for its relaxing and calming effects. Many say that kava kava has euphoric effect making it an ideal herb during social rituals and ceremonies. The herb is known to relieve symptoms of anxiety, stress, restlessness and depression. Another related advantage of using kava kava is that the herb while calming the nerves does not interfere with the mental alertness of the individual.
Some also add that the herb can be used instead of anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs such as benzodiazepines (Valium) and tricyclic. Also, unlike such commercial drugs kava kava does not lead to drowsiness. In a review of evidences from seven scientific studies it was found that the herb is more effective in treating short-term anxiety than commercial drugs. According to one such study, kava kava can improve symptoms of anxiety and depression in just one week.
Another health benefit of using Kava kava is in improving sleep quality and in decreasing the time needed to fall asleep.
Related studies and traditional belief show that kava kava can help in reducing pain associated with certain conditions. Pacific Islanders prefer using kava kava roots for treating menstrual pain and discomfort. As an anti-inflammatory agent kava kava also helps in reducing symptoms of bronchial congestion, gout and rheumatism. Traditionally, the herb was used to treat painful conditions such as headache, migraines and even fever. The herb works by relaxing the muscles from tension and pain.
In 2006, researchers from Scotland and Luxembourg found in a clinical study that kava kava can fight ovarian cancer and leukemia. The compounds found in kava kava showed inhibitory action against cancer cell growth. The in-vitro study showed that methanol extracts from kava kava effectively identified and killed leukemia and ovarian cancer cells over healthy cells.
Apart from the above, kava kava can also be effective against the following – canker sores, toothache, leprosy, wounds, tuberculosis, venereal disease, urinary problems, ADHD, epilepsy, psychosis and asthma. The herb is also used as an aphrodisiac.
To reduce anxiety, a dosage level ranging from 70 mg to 210 mg of kavalactones was effectively used in one study. Whereas, to treat insomnia a dosage level ranging between 60 and 150 mg of kava was found to be effective. As per the FDA, the maximum recommended daily dosage level of kava-lactone is 250 mg.
Side Effects, Overdose & Other Considerations
Kava kava may cause severe liver damage as per scientific studies conducted in Germany and Switzerland. However, many studies have contradicted this claim. The FDA recommends that the herb should not be taken continuously for three months and without consulting a physician.According to the US FDA, one week gap has to be given after every month of Kava Kava usage. Other side effects due to overdose may include the following – yellowing of skin and nails, nausea, weakness, allergic reactions (which is rare), abdominal pain, breathlessness, facial swelling etc.Kava kava should be avoided by those suffering from liver diseases and also by alcoholics.
Traditionally, Kava kava has been used as a medicine as well as a recreational drink or tea during ceremonies. In the market the herb is today available as a dietary supplement in powder and tincture forms. It is said that drinking Kava kava at the end of the day alleviates inhibitions and stress in individuals. According to Kava supporters, the herb does not slow down the mental clarity and at the same time relieves stress, pain & anxiety.
Kava Kava may interact with alcohol and psychotropic drugs such as antidepressants and mood stabilizers.