Read an Excerpt
The term "kava" is the name of the plant as well as the beverage made from it. In some books and articles you may find kava described as a drug, an intoxicant, or a narcotic, although it is a legal, approved supplement. The reason kava is given these other descriptions is most likely due to the intoxicating effect more potent forms of kava--specifically the freshly ground root served in the South Pacific--has on the body. Raw root is unavailable in the United States or Europe. Instead, products are made from processed, dry root powder, which is much weaker, so it's quite unlikely that you would obtain the kava "high" experienced by South Pacific islanders.
The Gift of Tranquillity from the Pacific
Today kava is found in three distinct cultural regions of the world collectively referred to as Oceania: Melanesia, which includes the island countries of Fiji, Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), New Guinea, and Papua New Guinea; Polynesia, which includes Hawaii, Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, Wallis, Futuna, Western and American Samoa, and Tonga; and Micronesia, which includes Pohnpei and Australia. These areas are scattered over nearly a third of the earth's surface and include some ten thousand islands. As then president George Bush told a summit of Pacific island leaders in 1990: "Like a string of pearls spread out across the sea, each nation is unique, each is precious, and each has something to contribute to the value of the whole."
One of Oceania's many contributions is, of course, kava--a true gift of tranquillity. Kava is woven into the very fabric of Oceanian life--religiously, socially, and politically--and is thought to be one of the reasonsbehind the islanders' laid-back way of life. Kava, with its ritual procedure for preparation and use, is one custom that is common to all peoples of Oceania. Consequently, it has attracted a great deal of attention from anthropologists, botanists, chemists, pharmacologists, doctors, and even archaeologists.
Kava is best understood when it is recognized that every culture in the world has some type of special plant customarily used to induce mind-altering and mood-altering effects. Betel nut, one of the world's most popular plants, is chewed, mashed, or pulverized by the peoples of India, Malaysia, and Polynesia and used as a stimulant. In southeast Mexico, Oaxacan tribes consume the psilocybe mushroom for its hallucinogenic and muscle-relaxing effects. African pygmies smoke their psychoactive cannabis, derived from the hemp plant, and Andean natives chew their coca leaf, the source of the illegal drug cocaine. From 1891 until about 1908, the Coca-Cola Company formulated its popular cola drink with cocaine from coca leaves and caffeine from kola nuts, a plant whose seeds are high in the stimulant caffeine. Today Coke's products are made with caffeine and natural flavorings.
More familiarly, tobacco leaves contain a powerfully addictive substance known as nicotine. From the beans of the coffee tree and the leaves of the tea bush come caffeine, the most widely used drug in the world. Thus, a huge array of various plants yields various natural chemicals, ranging from the benign to the very dangerous. In moderate doses, kava is on the benign end of the spectrum.
Why Kava Works
For centuries kava has been used as a folk medicine to treat a vast number of ailments. These have included headaches, joint pain, bladder problems, gonorrhea, stomach problems, leprosy, skin diseases, weight loss, sleeping problems, and tuberculosis.
Since the 1800s much research has been devoted to identifying why kava provides such amazing therapeutic benefits. In fact, kava is one of the most extensively studied herbs, with hundreds of scientific studies backing up its healing properties and verifying its power as a therapeutic agent capable of conferring remarkable benefits. For example, kava:
- relieves everyday stress
- significantly lowers anxiety after only one week of use
- effectively manages long-term anxiety
- is as effective as some prescription drugs in reducing serious anxiety
- induces relaxation
- acts as a muscle relaxant
- has analgesic (pain-relieving) properties
- may help prevent abnormal blood clotting
- acts as an anticonvulsive
- may protect the brain
- may help smokers and alcoholics kick the habit
- improves alertness, memory, and reaction time
- significantly reduces menopausal symptoms (anxiety and depression)
Kava's therapeutic effects are due to at least fifteen different lipidlike compounds, collectively known by two interchangeable names, either "kavapyrones" or "kavalactones." Most of these compounds produce physical and mental relaxation without causing addiction or harmful side effects when the herb is taken in moderate doses.
There are many varieties of kava plants, and their concentrations of kavalactones vary. Certain types of kava may be richer in kavalactones that impart the feeling of calm most kava-users enjoy, while other varieties may be filled with kavalactones that produce nausea and headaches.
Kava is a relatively new herb to the United States, but not to Germany, where it has been available by prescription since 1920. Approximately 350,000 prescriptions for kava are written annually in Germany for anxiety-related disorders. In 1990 kava was approved by the German Commission E, Germany's equivalent to our FDA, for treating anxiety, stress, and restlessness. French pharmaceutical companies also import a great deal of kava for medicinal use.
The most significant body of research on herbs--including kava--and their clinical applications comes from the observations made during the thousands of years in which they have been used in Europe. And the best clinical reference tool is the German Commission E monograph, a publication describing scores of herbs and their therapeutic applications.
To date, very few clinical trials have been conducted in America; most kava studies have been done in Europe. However, the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States is considering a closer look at kava.
In the United States kava is available without a doctor's prescription. It comes in several forms: capsules, standardized extracts, dried ground root, teas, and multiherb formulations. Taken as directed in moderate dosages, these forms of kava are quite gentle, and certainly not as strong as the kind used by South Pacific islanders, who grind fresh kava root daily and brew a quite potent, mind-altering beverage.
Is Kava Safe?
Kava has a long history of safe usage. Modern pharmaceutical grades of kava extracts, standardized for kavalactone strength and quality, have passed the extensive safety scrutiny required for drug registration in Germany.
To promote kava's safety and avoid any regulatory problems connected with its use, twenty-one manufacturers of herbal supplements banded together in 1996 to form the Kava General Committee. Its thrust has been to play up kava's therapeutic value. One of the group's first actions was to commission a safety review of the herb by the Herb Research Foundation of Boulder, Colorado, and under the auspices of the American Botanical Council, a trade association of herbal supplement manufacturers. This safety review, which included information from several well-designed, well-controlled German studies, helped catapult kava into the limelight as a superior therapeutic remedy.
In the kava review, more than eighty sources of information were consulted to search out facts about the herb's chemical, therapeutic, and cultural properties. In its report, the Herb Research Foundation concluded that kava is virtually a safe and effective anti-anxiety agent and muscle relaxant when taken in normal therapeutic doses.
Further, the German Commission E monograph on kava states that there are no side effects, except with extended, continual intake. And those side effects include temporary yellowing of the skin, hair, and nails. Kava is not without other side effects, too, particularly with irresponsible use. Megadoses, for example, can cause muscular weakness, visual problems, dizziness, and drying of the skin. Long-term use can lead to high blood pressure, protein metabolism problems, blood cell abnormalities, or liver damage. Among South Pacific islanders, continual chewing of the root destroys the tooth enamel.
But when taken for short-term usage in recommended doses for stress, anxiety, and other mood disorders, kava is one of the safest agents available--certainly far safer than many prescription medications.
There have been no studies to date on whether kava causes cancer, produces fetal malformations, or causes genetic mutations. However, kava use by islanders for centuries gives no indication of any of these effects.
As attention on this once-obscure herb intensifies, more and more consumers are flocking to health food stores, pharmacies, and Wal-Marts everywhere to check out this amazing supplement for themselves. What we now know about it, from its fascinating history to its present-day medicinal value, forms a persuasive body of knowledge that kava is truly nature's solution to stress, anxiety, and many other ills. Just read on, and you'll find out why.