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Kava (Piper methysticum)

What is Kava?

Kava (also known as kava kava of ava) is a member of the pepper family (Piperaceae). There are a few species, but by far the most commonly used today is Piper methysticum.

Kava comes from the scattered islands of the pacific ocean. Although it’s not clear which island the plant first originated, it owes it’s an extensive range to indigenous cultures who set off in search for new lands by boat. The explorers often carried samples of kava roots with the goal of beginning new kava plantations when they eventually reached their destination.

This demonstrates how important the plant was to the indigenous cultures of the pacific islands.

Today, the kava plant is primarily used in the form of a tea for inducing states of relaxation, fighting stress, and supporting sleep.

In small doses, kava is particularly useful as a euphoric and stress-reducer — but in higher doses, the herb has strong sedative effects, and can even cause a feeling similar to being drunk from alcohol.

What Else is Kava Known As?

  • Kava Kava
  • Awa (Hawaii)
  • Ava (Samoa)
  • Yaqona (Fiji)
  • Sakau (Pohnpei)
  • Malok (Vanuatu)

Herbal Actions/Properties of Kava

  • Anxiolytic (anti-anxiety)
  • Relaxing nervine
  • Antifungal
  • Anticonvulsant
  • Sedative
  • Analgesic
  • Antipruritic
  • Urinary Antiseptic

What is Kava Used For? 

Kava is used as a sedative for supporting sleep (higher doses), for alleviating anxiety, and in social circles for its euphoric effects.

People take the herb when feeling particularly stressed to feel more at peace and relaxed, and to help them get to sleep. Kava is used to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

Many people use the herb while working on creative projects because of the mild euphoric effects, and for the plant’s ability to reduce stress and worry that may be interrupting the creative process.

Folklore & History of Kava

Traditional uses of kava primarily involved ceremonial use — as it was thought the herb could bring those that consumed it closer to ancestors that have passed away.

There are other species of kava that are used more as medicine than for recreational or social reasons. These other species tend to be much stronger sedatives, and have powerful emetic effects (causes nausea and vomiting) — which was used therapeutically to clear the body of infection or other causes of illness.

There’s a lot of folklore around kava. The story changes depending on the culture the story originated from, but in most cases, kava is regarded as a gift from the gods, leading to its strong spiritual use during ceremony among the local cultures of the pacific islands.

Kava Side-Effects & Safety

There’s not enough information to prove the safety of kava during pregnancy — as such, kava should never be consumed if you’re breastfeeding, pregnant, or think you could be pregnant.

There are some reports that kava can cause damage to the liver. While these reports have been proven to be inaccurate, it’s important to avoid using kava if you have pre-existing liver disease, or are taking other medications with known liver interactions. This includes alcohol.

How Much Kava Do I Use?

According to KavaGuides.com, the ideal dose of kava is 150 – 250 mg of the active kavalactones per day. This is the dose of the active ingredients. The potency of kavalactones can vary from one strain of kava to the next.

The kavalactone content can be used to measure the dose of kava extracts and tinctures but can be hard to measure in raw powders — which is the most common form you’ll find the herb.

For raw powders, the recommended dose is usually around 10 grams per person — but it’s wise to start with a lower dose whenever trying a new strain or batch of kava, and build up from there until you reach a comfortable dose.

Scientific Studies Involving Kava

  1. [2003] Kava-Kava extract LI 150 is as effective as Opipramol and Buspirone in Generalised Anxiety Disorder–an 8-week randomized, double-blind multi-centre clinical trial in 129 out-patients.
  2. [2000] Delayed-type hypersensitivity reaction to kava-kava extract.
  3. [1998] Treatment of intracerebral hematomas with kava in rats.
  4. [1998] Sebotropic drug reaction resulting from kava-kava extract therapy: a new entity?
  5. [1998] Inhibition of platelet MAO-B by kava pyrone-enriched extract from Piper methysticum Forster (kava-kava).
  6. [1998] Effect of kava extract and individual kavapyrones on neurotransmitter levels in the nucleus accumbens of rats.
  7. [1997] Kava extract ingredients, (+)-methysticin and (+/2)-kavain inhibit voltage-operated Na(+)-channels in rat CA1 hippocampal neurons.
  8. [1997] Effects of kawain and dihydromethysticin on field potential changes in the hippocampus.
  9. [1997] Actions of Kavain and Dihydromethysticin on Ipsapirone‐Induced Field Potential Changes in the Hippocampus. Human
  10. [1997] [3H]-monoamine uptake inhibition properties of kava pyrones. Planta medica.
  11. [1996] Kavain inhibits non-stereospecifically veratridine-activated Na+ channels. Planta Med.
  12. [1996] Hematogenous contact eczema caused by phytogenic drugs exemplified by kava root extract. Hautarzt.
  13. [1996] Anticonvulsive action of (±)-kavain estimated from its properties on stimulated synaptosomes and Na+ channel receptor sites.
  14. [1996] Kavain inhibits the veratridine- and KCl-induced increase in intracellular Ca2+ and glutamate-release of rat cerebrocortical synaptosomes.
  15. [1994] Kavapyrone enriched extract fromPiper methysticum as modulator of the GABA binding site in different regions of rat brain.
  16. [1992] Extract of kava (Piper methysticum) and its methysticin constituents protect brain tissue against ischemic damage in rodents.
  17. [1991] The action profile of D,L-kavain. Cerebral sites and sleep-wakefulness-rhythm in animals.
  18. [1971] On the sedative action of the kava rhizome (Piper methyst.).
  19. [1970] Strychnine antagonistic potency of pyrone compounds of the kavaroot (Piper methysticum Forst.).
  20. [1969] Comparative studies on the anticonvulsant activity of the pyrone compounds of Piper methysticum Forst].
  21. [1968] Characterization and physiological activity of some Kawa constituents.
  22. [1965] Spasmolytic effect of dihydromethysticin, a constituent of Piper methysticum Forst.
  23. [1964] Hemmung des elektrokrampfes durch die kawapyrone dihydromethysticin und dihydrokawain.
  24. [1963] Die analgetische wirkung der Kawa-inhaltsstoffe dihydrokawain und dihydromethysticin.
  25. [1962] Pharmakologie der wirksamen prinzipien de kawarhizoms (Piper methysticum Forst.).

Other Resources

  1. [2003] Medical herbalism: The science and practice of herbal medicine.
  2. [2003] A clinical guide to blending liquid herbs: Herbal formulations for the individual patient.
  3. [2002] Kava Monograph. Journal Of Herbal Pharmacotherapy.
  4. [1997] Distribution, mythology, botany, culture, chemistry and pharmacology of the South Pacific’s most revered herb

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