Kava Kava your passport to relaxation

For some, the name alone evokes relaxation. Kava kava, plant of the Pacific Islands, plant of far away -- from romantic destinations like Fiji, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Plant whose tropical origins summon images of palm trees, pretty beaches, gentle waves, and soft breezes; a perfect picture of repose. Kava, an herb which, for thousands of years, has helped people relax, venerate, and explore connections with their past, and solve current-day problems.

In our ever-more anxious and sped-up world, plants with the ability to safely bring quietude are in increasing demand. In the February 26, 1998 issue of the Wall Street Journal, writer Andrea Petersen explores the booming popularity of kava. It seems this tropical plant may be the next "herbal superstar."

Why all the interest in kava? What does it offer to North Americans living in decidedly un-tropical regions? Let's look at its history, then explore its use for us, today.
Cultural origins rooted in tropical islands

Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is a perennial plant whose natural habitat and area of historic cultivation are tropical Pacific Islands. In such places as Melanesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, indigenous people have been employing kava for centuries.

Cultural use of this plant includes ceremonies both formal and informal -- gatherings to honor royalty, community meetings, and informal social settings.

In some populations, differing varieties were used for different occasions, with the more rare, and precious, varieties being saved for special ceremonies. Gifts of kava have been a prominent part of many Pacific societies; kava was exchanged at marriages, initiation ceremonies, and political events, used to welcome new neighbors, and to acquire goods and services. Traditionally, it is only the male population which ingests kava.

The fresh root of a four- to six-year old plant is used. In the consumption of kava, the roots are washed, scrubbed free of all dirt, and cut into pieces. According to custom, the kava root is then either chewed, or finely grated, until a pulp-like mass is created. The pulpy mass is then added to cold water and left to steep into a strong "tea," or infusion. (In some cultures, only virgin members of the village are allowed to touch the masticated plant, protecting drinkers from "sexual pollution.") The thick infusion is then poured into cups, bowls, or coconuts shells. Some drinkers strain the mixture through palm or coconut fronds; others consume the infusion complete with bits of kava, taking time to chew the root, releasing even more of its beneficial, active compounds.

Between 1886 and 1927, a scientist named Lewin attempted to describe the effects of a well-prepared kava infusion:

"When the mixture is not too strong, the subject attains a state of happy unconcern, well-being, and contentment, free of physical or psychological excitement. At the beginning, conversation comes in a gentle, easy flow and hearing and sight are honed, becoming able to perceive subtle shades of sound and vision. Kava soothes temperaments."

Lewin goes on to warn against the problems of a highly concentrated mixture: "Drinkers can be found prostrate at the place where they have drunk their kava."

According to Pacific Island culture, kava drinking is a channel for inspiration, for communion with ideas, with ancestors, with the divine. In many Pacific societies, kava drinkers will sit quietly, enjoying their state of kava "intoxification" in silence, listening for messages from within or from another realm; while under the influence of kava, talk ceases. Because light and noise can interfere with the effects of kava, darkness is preferred, and children and passersby are hushed when nearing a kava drinking ground.

Varied and interesting mythology surrounds the kava plant, acknowledging its importance and specialness. In one myth, kava grew from the grave of a beloved sister; the bereaved and grief-stricken brother observed a rat eat the root and die. When the sorrowful boy tried to kill himself by consuming kava, he instead forgot all his unhappiness. He taught others how to use this root which sprang from his lost sister.
How to recognize the kava plant

Piper methysticum, or kava, is a member of the pepper family, Piperaceae, a plant family which includes over 2,000 species of herbs, shrubs, small trees, and woody vines, living throughout the tropics. Kava is slow-growing, and hearty, often reaching heights of over nine feet. Active ingredients are located in the "stump," or rootstock, often a yellow color due to the rich resins responsible for kava's pharmacologic activity. The plant has sparse, green, heart-shaped leaves, six to eight inches in length.

Piper methysticum cannot reproduce by itself; it is dependent upon its human farmers, who create new growth by taking and planting cuttings from existing stems. The plant grows well in Pacific farming systems because it likes warmth, humidity, and shade, and can be planted along with other crops, such as banana and yam. As might be expected, increasing amounts of kava are grown commercially, as an exported cash crop. As with coffee and cocoa, kava takes several years to reach profitable maturity.
What makes kava such a special herb?

Kava pyrones or kava lactones are the plant constituents which give kava its anticonvulsant, analgesic, and anti-anxiety properties. Lactones are found in resins in the root of the kava plant, and can make up between 3-20 percent of the root stock's dry weight. Age, cultivation conditions, and plant variety will result in differing amounts of lactone percentages.

Fifteen lactones have been identified from Piper methysticum, although, in commercial preparations of the plant, they are simply referred to as "lactose." Though the exact mechanism of action of these lactones has not yet been made clear, a 1997 study at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Freiburg, Germany, suggests that certain kava lactose effect the flow of ions in parts of the brain. Though more research is needed, this information is fascinating and potentially far-reaching since brain ion flow is essential to innumerable human functions --those as diverse as seizures, memory, and anxiety. Kava lactose also seem to have a direct effect on muscles, decreasing contractility and causing them to relax.
Kava's use away from the Pacific Islands

Kava's use by non-Pacific Island populations is primarily as a relaxant and an anti-anxiety agent. Studies confirm its effectiveness in nonpsychotic anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety, specific phobias, adjustment disorders with anxiety, and agoraphobia (an abnormal fear of being in public or open places). The German Commission E, citing several reliable German studies, collectively involving over 400 people, found the herb helpful in relieving stress, restlessness, and nervous anxiety.

Because long-term use of the plant can result in some unpleasant side effects, I find the plant is best used in temporary situations; for example, a difficult period of one's life -- a divorce, a job or residence change -- or in managing a known stressor, such as an in-law, airline travel, or a challenging social event. Some people find the plant helpful in assisting with a temporary case of insomnia, and with restless, crampy legs after a strenuous weekend workout. Kava can also play a role in smoking cessation.

From time to time, claims are made that kava is a potent aphrodisiac. In fact, according to custom, the opposite is true. Traditional use of kava highly discourages the mixing of sex and kava drinking. Kava drinking is a state of rapture in and of itself; sexual activity is counter to this state and is said to negate the beneficial effects of kava, rendering it ineffective and, some say, unpleasant!
Side effects and precautions taking kava safely

According to Michael Murray, N.D., and Joseph Pizzorno, N.D., in their revised second edition of Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, "Although no side effects have been reported using standardized kava extracts at recommended levels in the clinical studies, several case reports have been presented indicating that kava may interfere with dopamine-production [in the brain], [...] exert an additive effect when combined with benzodiazepines, and produce impaired driving ability when consumed in very large doses ...."

A dry, scaly, yellow skin rash is the most commonly reported side effect of long-term kava use. In very heavy kava use, eye irritation, puffy face, shortness of breath, changes in blood pressure, and identifiable changes in certain blood and urine test values may occur.

Kava can also have the unwanted effect of potentiating, or increasing the effect of, certain drugs. This can particularly occur with barbiturates -- drugs commonly used as sedatives -- with alcohol, and with anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication.

For this reason, I recommend that anyone who is currently taking a medication, who has significant allergies, skin reactions, or a history of drug or alcohol addiction, check with a health-care provider before taking kava.

Kava is contraindicated in persons with depression, and in pregnancy, breast-feeding, and in children. Because it is a sedative, kava may interfere with your physical performance (i.e., your ability to operate machinery or drive a car). Use caution with kava and note your individual reactions. If you are not certain if it is right for you, ask your health-care practitioner.

If used appropriately, kava can be a soothing and therapeutic herb. With its tropical origins, its long history of use, and, thus far, positive research results, kava may become a significant substitute for several drug therapies that have unwanted side effects.

Brunton, R. The Abandoned Narcotic: Kava and cultural instability in Melanesia. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Groth-Marnat, G. "Tobacco control in a traditional Fijian village: indigenous methods of smoking cessation and relapse prevention," Soc Sci Med 43(4): 473-7, August 1996.

Lebot, V. Kava, The Pacific Drug. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

Norton, S.A. "Kava dermopathy," J Am Acad Dermatol 31(1): 89-97, July 1994.

Peterson, A. "The Making of an Herbal Superstar," Wall St. Journal February 26, 1998.

Ruze, P. "Kava-induced dermopathy: a niacin deficiency?," Lancet 335(8703):1442-5, June 16, 1990.

Volz, H.P. "Kava-kava extract WS 1490 versus placebo in anxiety disorders -- a randomized placebo-controlled 25-week outpatient trial," Pharmocopsychiatry 30(1): 1-5, January 1997.

PHOTO (COLOR): Jamison Starbuck


By Jamison Starbuck, J.D., N.D., Contributing Writer

Adapted by J.D., N.D.

Jamison Starbuck, J.D., N.D., is a licensed naturopathic and homeopathic physician. Her Missoula (Montana)-based family practice treats the whole person via constitutional homeopathy, botanical medicine, nutrition, counseling, and other natural modalities.

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