by Steven Horne, RH(AHG)
Today, almost everyone is subjected to conditions that cause far too much stress and anxiety. One possible answer for reducing nervousness, insomnia, anxiety, muscle tension and other symptoms of stress is the Polynesian herb, kava kava.
This plant is native to the South Pacific islands where it has been cultivated for over 2,000 years. If you think of the “laid back” energy of the Polynesian people, kava kava may play a role in creating that mellow and relaxed “island” feeling.
In the warm moist environment of the South Pacific where kava grows, it has been cultivated for over 2,000 years. The rhizomes of specific varieties of kava have been used by these people both as a medicine and as a cultural exchange of goodwill in ceremonies, festivals and negotiations.
Once reserved as the beverage of chiefs and noblemen, it was and is still used to welcome visiting dignitaries or other important guests at formal gatherings, initiations and in negotiating agreements. Pope John Paul II, Queen Elizabeth, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, and Hillary Rodham Clinton are all known to have drunk kava upon being welcomed to Fiji and Samoa.
Kava kava has also been used to honor births, marriages, and deaths, in making preparations for a journey, as well as for honoring the gods, removing curses, and as a preparation for battle in tribal wars. Kava bars in Fiji are as common as coffee shops in America. In parts of Polynesia and Indonesia, it is consumed every day as a relaxing, recreational beverage.
Relaxed But Alert
Kava’s botanical name, Piper methysticum, means, “intoxicating pepper.” Kava is a relative of black pepper, but it is not stimulating like pepper, coffee, tea or cola nuts. Instead, it is relaxing, helping a person to feel a sense of calmness, relaxation and even euphoria.
Unlike alcohol, commonly used in the west for similar purposes, kava kava does not dull the senses or cause one to lose control of oneself. People do not become angry, noisy, unpleasant or quarrelsome when drinking kava.
Kava allows the mind to remain sharp, while the body feels relaxed. It promotes restful sleep which replenishes energy, making it a better remedy for fatigue than stimulants like caffeine.
Kava also enhances communication, which is why it is used when treaties or other important issues are being negotiated. Kava does not cause the drinker to lose consciousness and does not result in after affects like the hangover that follows alcohol consumption. Kava also increases empathy and is used to help negotiations and marriage counseling.
Kava has been used in native medicine for its relaxing qualities, for urinary tract infections, asthma and as a topical anesthetic. The primary interest in the West has been its well-documented anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects. Numerous clinical studies and laboratory testing carried out in Germany have shown that kava extracts safely reduce symptoms in patients with anxiety disorders.
Kava contains a blend of several kavalactones that work together to give this herb its remarkable psychoactive effects. Kava affects the central nervous system, influencing the emotional command center of the brain producing both psychological and physical relaxation effects.
Kavalactones have been shown to relieve anxiety and pain. Medicinally kavalactones have muscle relaxant, analgesic, sedative, anti-spasmodic and tranquilizing activities. It is also quite helpful for difficulties in concentrating and memory loss.
Human testing has shown that kavalactones change brain activity without sedation. One study showed that people taking measured doses of kava extract did better in word-recognition tests than those taking a synthetic tranquilizer (benzodiazepine).
A 1993 report in the British Journal of Phytotherapy referred to kava as one of few herbs that can safely relax skeletal muscles, while maintaining clear mental functions. 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.
For anxiety, mild depression, pain, muscle tension or tension headaches, take 1 capsule with a meal twice daily. Take 1–2 capsules 30 minutes before bedtime for insomnia. It can be combined with Valerian or Herbal Sleep for insomnia. Do not exceed 4 capsules per day.
Considering the many benefits of kava kava and it’s long history of safe use, it is unfortunate that it has had some bad press in recent years. Reports from Europe of kava causing liver damage resulted in the product being pulled from the market in many countries. However, this problem was due to an improper preparation of the plant.
European manufacturers made standardized extracts of kava from the stems (instead of the roots) or from varieties natives do not use. These parts of the plant were not used by natives, who considered them toxic. Given the long history of safe use for kava kava in the South Pacific, you don’t have anything to worry about kava extracts sold in the United States because they are made from roots of the correct species.
Still, it is wise to observe the following precautions. Do not use kava kava while driving a motor vehicle or operating machinery, or if you are pregnant or nursing. Avoid kava if you have liver problems, frequently use alcohol or take any medication that can damage the liver. However, the liver is far more likely to be damaged by alcohol, acetaminophen (Tylenol) and prescription drugs (like cholesterol-reducing statins) than it is from kava.