This herb, a member of the pepper family, grows as a bush in the South Pacific. Explorer Captain James Cook, who gave this plant the botanical name of "intoxicating pepper", first discovered kava kava. Kava has been used for over 3,000 years for its medicinal effects as a sedative, muscle relaxant, diuretic, and as a remedy for nervousness and insomnia.
The botanical has been used in parts of the Pacific at traditional social gatherings as a relaxant and in cultural and religious ceremonies to achieve a higher level of consciousness. The roots can be made into a mildly narcotic beverage that is comparable to popular cocktails in our culture. In Germany, Kava kava is used as a nonprescription drug to reduce anxiety. Kava was first mentioned in scientific records in 1886, and it is gaining popularity in the US for its relaxing effects.
More recently, Kava kava has also gained popularity with the natives of Hawaii, Australia and New Guinea where it is used medicinally as well as recreationally. Kava also is effective as a pain reliever and can be used instead of aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
Recent clinical studies have shown that the herb kava is a safe nonaddictive anti-anxiety medicine, and as effective as prescription anxiety agents containing benzodiazepines such as valium. While benzodiazepines tend to promote lethargy and mental impairment, kava has been shown to improve concentration, memory, and reaction time for people suffering from anxiety. Kava has been clinically demonstrated as a means of achieving a state of relaxation without the adverse side effects.
Several rhizome components and lactones have been isolated in the kava root. Of the fifteen lactones isolated from kava, there are six major lactones (kavalactones) known to provide psychoactive activity: kawain, methysticin, demethoxy-yangonin, dihydrokawain, dihydomethysicin, and yongonin. All kavalactones are physiologically active, though it is the fat-soluble kavalactones derived from kava resin that have the greatest effect on the central nervous system. Kava also has a direct effect on muscle tension similar to tranquilizers. The activity of the kava rhizome is related to several arylethylene pyrones similar in structure to myristicin, which is found in nutmeg.
Kava is mildly narcotic and produces mild euphoric changes characterized by elevated mood, fluent and lively speech and increased sense of sound. Higher doses can lead to muscle weakness, visual impairment, dizziness and drying of the skin. Long term use of the herb can contribute to hypertension, reduced protein levels, blood cell abnormalities, or liver damage. Alcohol consumption increases the toxicity of the pharmacological constituents. It is not recommended for those who intend on driving or where quick reaction time is required.
Kava is the most relaxing botanical herb with exception of the opium poppy. Pharmacological studies show kava kava's active ingredients, kavalactones, produce physical and mental relaxation and a feeling of well being. It has also been used in the treatment of ailments of the genitourinary tract including vaginitis, gonorrhea and menstrual cramps. Kava is a diuretic and an anti-inflammatory, thus useful for gout, rheumatism, bronchial congestion, cystitis and prostatis. It is an effective local anesthetic and pain reliever when applied externally as a liniment. The relaxed state and sharpening of senses also contribute to aphrodisiac effect.
Parts Used: Root and rhizome. Used as powder, fluid extract, and tonic beverage.
Common Use: Kava root is primarily used as a natural sedative and sleep enhancement. Herbalists have traditionally used it as a remedy for nervousness and insomnia. Kava kava is an effective relaxant able to induce a feeling of relaxation, peace and contentment, along with a sharpening of the senses. As a sleep aid it promotes deep and restful sleep. It is also a muscle relaxant that can help relieve cramping due to spasms.
NOTE: Do not use if pregnant, nursing, or being treated for depression.