Part of the pepper family, kava is an all-natural tranquilizer that users say helps soothes unready nerves and ease anxiety with little of the mind-dulling effect associated with many prescription sedatives.
The Latin name for kava, Piper methysticum, translates as “intoxicating pepper”, and in the South Pacific islands where kava is grown, it is made into a traditional beverage that is drunk at ceremonies and on social occasions – such as weddings and holidays – as a way to relax and induce a sense of well-being.
In Europe, doctors have long prescribed kava as a soothing alternative to prescription sedatives. However, that practice quickly began to change when reports of liver damage were linked in association with drinking kava. Between 2003 and 2005, roughly 40 cases of liver toxicity were reported in relation to drinking kava, of which six required liver transplants, and three patients died.
These cases were enough for Germany and Switzerland to both ban kava products. Canada and Great Britain followed suit shortly thereafter.
However, as more research has delved into kava’s affect on the body, the more evidence has accumulated that suggest kava is actually safe to consume when used correctly, and that previous links between kava and liver failure were actually inaccurate.
Currently, the Food and Drug Administration has no ban in place for the use of kava, and many nations outside of Europe and Canada allow kava consumption. Many within the kava community, such as Portland kava bar own Judd Rench, have worked hard to dispel the myth that drinking kava can present a risk to an individual’s health. Instead, establishments like Bula Kava House on SE Division seek to educate people on the many health benefits research has associated with drinking kava.
The Healthy Benefits of Kava
The primary active ingredients found in kava are located in the plant’s dense roots that contain kavalactones and other therapeutic components. Researchers believe that kava works by acting on the limbic system, a part of the brain that control emotions, among other functions. Unlike prescription sedatives, kava doesn’t appear to cloud the mind, and studies have found that the plant can even improve reaction time and alertness.
Research suggests kava has a variety of benefits, including:
- Reduce stress-induced panic and anxiety. A number of studies have found that kava is highly efficient at relieving the symptoms associated with anxiety, such as dizziness, restlessness and nervousness. It can also relieve the intense period of anxiety and heart palpitations associated with panic attacks.
- Reduce depression related anxiety. Kava can be used either alone or in conjunction with St. John wort, 5-HTP or ginkgo biloba to relieve anxiety in individuals with mild to moderate depression.
- Reduce insomnia. Individuals suffering from insomnia have reported that drinking kava before bed helps them relax enough to fall asleep. Kava is usually used along with other sedating herbs like valerian, passionflower and chamomile to help promote sleep.
- Relieve chronic pain and muscle ache. Kava is believed to have muscle-relaxing properties, and could therefore help to reduce muscle spams. Proponents of kava suggest the plant can even be used in the treatment of the stiffness and chronic muscle pain caused by fibromyalgia.
- Help with the secession of smoking or drinking. Kava’s relaxing effects have been found helpful for individual’s trying to quit smoking or drinking.
- Recovery from stroke. While early on in their studies, researchers have found some evidence that suggests kava may help stroke patients recover by minimizing the amount of permanent brain damage that could occur. While these results are not conclusive, they do provide some hope for victims of stroke.
Tips for Buying Kava
If you’re interested in seeing if kava is right for you, there are a few things to consider before buying. Here are a few tips:
- Buy kava extracts standardized to contain at least 30 percent of the herb’s primary active ingredient, kavalactones.
- Buy kava products extracted from the plant’s root rather than kava that only contains purified kavalactones, as some herbalists believe the root contains additional beneficial substances in addition to the kavalactones.
- Only buy products made solely from kava root. Also, avoid products that contain any other parts of the kava plant – leaves, stems, etc. Researchers believe that any potential links between kava and liver toxicity occurred because either the whole plant was used – the plant’s leaves are actually toxic – or because contamination occurred during the harvesting process. Because of these concerns, you should only buy kava from a reputable kava merchant.
Drinking kava offers a number of healthy benefits. But like any supplement, you need to use kava responsibly so that you remain healthy and happy now and in the future.