Kava is an ancient crop of the western Pacific. Other names for it include ‘awa ( Hawaii), ‘ava ( Samoa), yaqona ( Fiji), and sakau (Pohnpei). Kava is related to black pepper, and has a peppery taste. It has long been part of religious, political, and cultural life throughout the Pacific.
In the Western world, Kava is used as an herbal remedy to ease symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. Pharmacologically, Kava is not addictive and is considered safe.
What does it do?
Kava is traditionally consumed as an herbal tea; that is, an infusion made from straining a mixture of water and shredded, pounded, dried, or fresh root and/or stump. It may also be chewed as part of preparing Kava – the enzymes in saliva will affect the final product. In the West, Kava is often taken in pill form.
The effects of drinking Kava include slight tongue and lip numbing, mildly talkative and euphoric behavior, calming, sense of well-being, clear thinking, and muscle relaxation. Sleep after consumption is restful with no after-effects the following day.
As well, Kava is often used to provide concentration, focus, and muscle control before sports or music performances; to reduce the anxiety associated with public speaking; use in corporate board rooms to aid in mental clarity, sociability and improved decision making.
What about side effects?
Recently, concerns have been raised about the safety of Kava. There have been numerous reports of liver toxicity, including liver failure in some people who have used dietary supplements containing Kava extract. While no conclusive link has been established, the severity of liver damage has prompted regulatory agencies to take action.
Drug agencies in France and Switzerland have outlawed Kava completely, while Germany has made it available by prescription only. The United States CDC has released a report expressing reservations about its use and possibly adverse side effects, as has the FDA. Some counter that the liver toxicity included concomitant use of alcohol or other drugs. The issue is controversial and debate is fuelled by economic interests of Kava-exporting nations of the Pacific Islands as well as disagreements between the medical establishment and proponents of herbal and natural medicine.
There is ongoing research into the causes of Kava liver toxicity and why it apparently has no affect on traditional Kava users. One study at the University of Hawaii at Manoa found that an alkaloid called pipermethystine may be responsible for the liver toxicity cases, based on its effects on liver cells in vitro. The alkaloid is primarily seen in stem peelings and leaves of the plant, but not in the roots; users of Kava in the South Pacific traditionally discard the peelings and leaves, using only the roots for the consumed product. Since traditional users avoided consumption of these parts of the plant, this may explain the extensive use of Kava in the Pacific with no ill effects, whereas the novel use in Europe and America witnessed cases of liver toxicity due to improper use of the plant.
Heavy Kava use is associated with Kava dermopathy, a scaly eruption of the skin which is reversible by discontinuing its use. It is considered to be a harmless curiosity at most. Ancient Hawaiians would drink copious amounts of Kava to encourage this in order to bring about a smoother layer of new skin. With normal use Kava dermopathy is non-existent.
Additional Kava Kava Resources:
Kava: Clinical Study and Analysis
Clinical Study References
The Scienece of Kava
Complementary and Alternative Medicines