Kava

Nutritional Compound

OVERVIEW

Summary

Kava appears to help us relax while enhancing a sense of well-being and reportedly reduces nervousness, tension, and feelings of anxiety. Whether used to “mellow out” or to fall asleep easier, kava is certainly one to keep in mind for anyone who feels mentally or physically stressed out. And along with dramatic tension reduction, kava offers remarkable therapeutic benefits — including relief from PMS, tension headaches, and muscle aches. It may even help you get your best night’s sleep in years!

Other names for Kava

kava kava, Piper methysticum, Piperis methysstici rhizoma, awa

Where to find Kava

This herb is native to the Pacific ocean islands and, interestingly enough, is a member of the pepper family. The underground stem (referred to as the rhizome) is commonly used.

PERFORMANCE BENEFITS

Why athletes use Kava

Kava isn’t just for people who want a better night’s sleep. Because of kava’s combined effects of enhancing mental functioning while reducing anxiety and stress and helping the body relax, it appears quite suitable for a variety of athletes who wish to attain greater mental clarity and focus. Athletes may also find it helpful for relieving muscle cramps and mild aches and pains.

Ways that Kava can enhance Mental Functioning:
  • Enhance mental functioning by increasing focus, awareness, and memory
  • Improve mood and sense of well-being, imparting feelings of contentment
  • Help improve sleep with its “mellowing” or calming effects

HEALTH BENEFITS

Signs of Kava deficiency

No deficiency conditions are known to exist.

Potential uses for Kava

Research indicates that Kava may be useful in the treatment of:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Insomnia/sleep disorders
  • Muscle spasms and tension
  • Stroke (recovery from)
  • Menopause

DISCUSSION

More about Kava

Historically, kava root was prepared as a nonalcoholic drink that imparted both a sense of tranquility and sociability to people on the islands of Oceania, including the Polynesia islands. More recently, this herb has grown popular in both Europe and the United States for similar reasons, and research has supported its potential to influence the emotional command center of the brain and help people relax, while enhancing well-being and reducing nervousness and tension.

How it works

Kava contains a natural, mild muscle relaxant called kavalactones, which are what scientists theorize are responsible, at least in large part, for kava’s apparent ability to calm the body and the mind. It should be noted, however, that research has shown that extracts of the root are more rapidly absorbed and more effective than isolated kavalactones.

Mental effects

Both research and anecdotal reports suggest kava can help people attain a mental state of “happy unconcern, well-being, and contentment,” while their senses are brought into sharper focus, enhancing both awareness and memory.

Several studies have shown that kava is as effective for reducing the symptoms of anxiety as some anti-anxiety drugs. One of the earlier studies, for example, compared a purified kavalactone (called D,L-kavain) with a drug called oxazepam, which is similar to Valium. Both kavain and the drug lessened anxiety over the four-week study. But kavain was free of the addictiveness and side effects typically associated with oxazepam.

Plus, unlike the drugs used in this and similar studies, kava doesn’t appear to be associated with depressed mental functioning or impairment. In other words, at the amounts recommended to relieve anxiety, kava doesn’t promote sedation, so you can still drive after using kava. In fact, some research has shown it actually improves mental functioning.

Relax the body and relieve muscle cramps

Because kavalactones have been shown to relax muscles, relieve spasms, and even prevent convulsions, some people have begun experimenting with it to help relieve muscle cramps. It also appears to cause mild drowsiness, at least for some people, and may be especially effective for people who suffer from muscle cramps while they’re trying to sleep, either on a regular basis or after an especially intense workout or physical competition.

As a sleep aid

Kava may be best known as a sleep aid. While it does cause drowsiness in some, especially when greater amounts are consumed, it appears to help people sleep more because it helps them relax, mentally and physically, enough to fall sleep. So people who have a difficult time falling asleep during high-stress occasions report that kava helps them fall asleep quicker. And, unlike many other sleep aids, such as alcohol and sedatives, kava doesn’t leave the person feeling drowsy or “hung over” the next morning.

As a pain reliever

One aspect about kava has researchers scratching their heads in wonder. That is, kava appears to also be an effective mild pain reliever, but scientist can’t figure out how it works. Its pain-relieving effects aren’t the same as those caused by most other pain killers, including morphine or aspirin. And, they aren’t due to its effects as a muscle relaxant or sedative. What’s more, while most pain killers become less effective as our bodies build tolerance, research with animals has shown kava doesn’t lose any of its effectiveness over time.

The simple truth

This herb does appear to affect people differently: some report feeling relaxed and calm; others report a more intense desire to sleep. Nonetheless, in today’s world of increasingly frazzled nerves and stressed out minds and bodies, herbs like kava may give us tools to fight our way back to a calmer, more focused state. Whether used to “mellow out” and increase well-being or to hopefully get a good night’s sleep, kava is certainly worth considering for anyone who feels mentally or physically tense.

NOTES ON USAGE

Amount

Some experts suggest 200 to 400 mg of the total root herb per day. A tincture is also available with use suggested at 1 to 3 ml daily.

More specifically, for kava’s anti-anxiety effects, standardized extracts that provide 45 to 70 mg of kavalactones may be taken up to 3 times daily.

To improve sleep, standardized extracts that provide 180 to 210 mg of kavalactones can be taken one hour before going to bed.

Timing

Kava can be taken with or without food but should be divided into three daily doses. It is not recommended for use over three months without the advice of a health-care professional.

Synergists of Kava

Some people have found the stress-relieving effects even greater when kava is supplemented with St. John’s wort.

Safety of Kava

Kava may cause mild stomach upset and drowsiness.

High amounts may turn hair, skin, and nails yellow.

Long-term use of high amounts may lead to liver damage.

If you are pregnant or lactating, kava is not recommended.

If you are using or considering using prescription drugs, please consult with your health practitioner about possible contraindications with this herb.

Drugs that interact with Kava

Kava may interact with substances that affect the central nervous system, including alcohol, barbiturates, antidepressants, and anti-psychotic drugs.

Toxicity of Kava

Extremely high amounts, much higher than recommended amounts, of kava taken daily over a long period of time may cause “kava dermopathy,” which causes the skin to develop scaly eruptions.

Bans and restrictions

None reported.

RELATED RESEARCH

  • “Piper Methysticum (Kava Kava),” Altern Med Rev 3.6 (1998) : 458-60.
  • Bone, K., “Kava: A Safe Herbal Treatment for Anxiety,” Br J Phytother 3.4 (1994) : 147-53.
  • Heiligenstein, E., and Guenther, G., “Over-The-Counter Psychotropics: A Review of Melatonin, St John’s Wort, Valerian, and Kava-Kava,” J Am Coll Health 46.6 (1998) : 271-6.
  • Kinzler, E., et al., “Effect of a Special Kava Extract in Patients with Anxiety-, Tension-, and Excitation States of Non-Psychotic Genesis. Double Blind Study with Placebos Over 4 Weeks,” Arzneimittelforschung 41.6 (1991) : 584-8.
  • Norton, S.A., and Ruze, P., “Kava Dermopathy,” J Am Acad Dermatol 31.1 (1994) : 89-97.
  • Singh, Y.N., “Kava: An Overview,” J Ethnopharmacol 37.1 (1992) : 13-45.
  • Wong, A.H., et al., “Herbal Remedies in Psychiatric Practice,” Arch Gen Psychiatry 55.11 (1998) : 1033-44.