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Kava Kava as an Herb

Kava Kava as an herb

Piper methysticum

Other Names: Ava, Ava Pepper, Intoxicating Pepper, Kawa, Kawa Pepper, Tonga, Kew

Kava-kava is the massive root stock or leaf of a sprawling shrub in the pepper family. It's found throughout the South Pacific islands from Hawaii to New Guinea. The plant has been cultivated for so many centuries that its exact origin is unclear. Like garlic, kava in its present form evolved during 3,000 years of cultivation.

Polynesians have used a thick brew made from the fresh or dried kava kava root as their main beverage for centuries. A similar beverage, prepared from ground roots, is often drunk in social or ceremonial settings. The cultural role of kava in Pacific societies has been compared to that of wine in southern Europe. It is believed to have originated in Melanesia, and been drunk for hundreds of years by native islanders.

The brew is simple; it's made by chewing or grinding the root into a pulp and adding to cold water.

Kava-Kava as an Herb for Medicinal Uses

The medicinal parts are the peeled, dried, cut rhizome, which has normally been freed from the roots, and the fresh rhizome with the roots. The taste is pungent and numbing, and the odor is reminiscent of lilac.

The first herb products made from kava appeared in Europe in the 1860s. By the 1890s, kava extracts were available in German herb shops. The first pharmaceutical preparation, a tincture used as a mild sedative and to lower blood pressure, became available in Germany thirty years later.

A decoction of the rootstock has reportedly been used for the treatment of gonorrhea, chronic cystitis and other urinary infections, menstrual problems, migraine headache, insomnia, and other conditions. As Kava is a strong diuretic it is useful for gout, rheumatism, bronchial and other ailments, resulting from heart trouble.

In Germany the rootstock and its preparations are allowed to be labeled for conditions of nervous anxiety, stress, and unrest. In Europe, kava kava extracts are often combined with pumpkin seed, for a diuretic effect, as well as in the treatment of irritable bladder syndrome.

Compounds called kavalactones give kava root its primary effects. Two of them, in specified dosages, have pain-relieving effects comparable to aspirin. One kavalactone produces a numbing effect in the mouth upon chewing the root or drinking kava preparations. Kavalactones have been shown to relax muscles by affecting muscular contractility rather than by blocking neurotransmitter signals in nerves.

According to one recent study, kava and diazepam (a medication frequently used for anxiety) cause matching changes in brain wave activity, suggesting that they may work very similarly to calm the mind.

Short-term studies suggest that kava is effective for insomnia, particularly in improving sleep quality and decreasing the amount of time needed to fall asleep.

Some have tried to claim kava as a "hypnotic", but it is neither hallucinogenic, nor stupefying, nor does it produce any physical addiction.

In folk medicine, the herb is used as a sleeping agent and sedative; for asthma, rheumatism, dyspeptic symptoms, chronic cystitis, syphilis, gonorrhea and weight reduction.

Homeopathic Uses: Kava Kava is used for states of excitement and exhaustion. It is also used for gastritis and pain in the urethra.

Culinary Uses of Kava-Kava

Not recommended for culinary use.

Folklore

Kava-kava was said to bring good luck and protect against evil. A strong infusion is used to enhance psychic powers and induce visions.

Cautions

No side effects are associated with small amounts of kava preparations.

The German health authorities warn that kava should not be used during pregnancy, lactation, or depression.

Because of its apparent sedative action, it should not be taken with alcohol, or when operating machinery or vehicles.

Excessive use of kava has also caused skin itching and sores.

There are no known scientific reports on the pediatric use of kava. Therefore, it is not currently recommended for children.

Europe and Canada put out a warning - even had kava containing products removed from market - due to some reports that it caused liver damage, but hard evidence of such claims is uncertain. The United States followed with a consumer advisory that stated a "rare" risk of liver failure associated with kava-containing products. Centuries of use in other cultures says otherwise, however. Herbalists, due to extensive studies of kava, are of the mindset that this was perhaps an attempt to pull people away from natural remedies due to the fact that the sudden "warnings" came from governments geared toward socialized health care. A review of 3 clinical studies for anxiety disorders found no liver toxic effects seen in patients.

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