Kava Kava (Piper Methysticum), also known as kava pepper, is an exciting botanical that has gained recent popularity in United States due to its availability. Though Kava is relatively new to the U.S., it is certainly not a new herb. Kava has been used in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia in the South Pacific for over 3,000 years. Kava is a relaxant and sleep aid, able to induce a feeling of relaxation, peace and contentment, along with a sharpening of the senses. Kava was the beverage of choice during important meetings involving conflicts, inducing a state of relaxation and goodwill among parties trying to reconcil differences.
More recently, in the past few hundred years, Kava has also gained popularity with the natives of Hawaii, Australia and New Guinea where it is used medicinally as well as recreationally.
Kava was first mentioned in the scientific records in 1886, and by 1993 the active ingredients, Kavalactones, were detected by mass spectrometry. Over the past 100 years extensive analytical investigation of the Kava root has revealed that the active ingredients in Kava, the kavalactones, comprise 15% of the 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 convey the main psychoactive activity.
Absorption in the gastrointestinal tract is remarkably rapid, so the effects are felt almost immediately. The kavaclones are pharmacologically effective and differences in their actions are qualitative as well as quantitative. According to Singh (1983), “Kavalactones act less by inhibition of neuromuscular transmission than by a direct effect on muscular contractibility. The postsynaptic depression is similar to that caused by lignocain and other local anesthetics”. Kava’s muscle-relaxant properties are similar to those of potent tranquilizers as they both act on the central nervous system. Double-blind, placebo controlled studies conducted in 1991 show Kava to be a modern means of achieving relaxed states without side effects.
Increased cognitive function has been observed with Kava use according to a 1993 article in Neuropsychobiology. Unlike sedatives, Kava improves mental function instead of dulling the brain. And unlike alcohol or sedatives, it would be extremely difficult to build up a tolerance to Kava (Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology, 1992, 18:571). A dose of 100 to 150 ml of Kava can induce sleep within 30 minutes. No aftereffects are noted at this dose. Kava root is primarily used as a natural sedative and sleep inducer. It is also effective in reducing menstrual cramps. Kava is obviously not recommended for those who intend to drive or conduct any activity which requires fast reaction time.
Pharmaceutical grades of natural Kava root are available from reputable companies in the United States. Synthetic Kava can be produced but does not possess the same soothing qualities of naturally extracted kavalactones from the Kava plant. Correctly extracted Kava will contain all six kavalactones in high concentrations (25-30%).
CAUTION: Driving or operating heavy or dangerous equipment is not recommended while under the influence of Kava Kava, as drowsiness is likely to occur. Kava Kava use is contraindicated during pregnancy or nursing, and in cases of depression. Do not take for more than 3 months, nore more than 1,000 mg. per day without medical advice. Extended continuous intake can cause a temporary yellow discoloration of skin, hair and nails, in which case it must be discontinued. Discontinue use if dilation of pupils or disturbances of coordination between vision and movement occur.
INTERACTION: Use of Kava Kava may increase the effects of alcohol, barbiturates and psychopharmacological agents.