One of the folk medicines commonly used by South Pacific Islanders is a root called Kava or kava kava. In this article, we will discuss some of the important information about this emerging plant-based substance, its effects to human health, and the buzz surrounding it.
What is Kava?
Kava is also known as piper methysticum. Its roots and stems are made into non-alcoholic beverages commonly enjoyed socially and in ceremonies for many centuries in Fiji, Hawaii and Tonga.
Due to its calming effect, its action is very much similar to anti-anxiety drug like diazepam. It also has the ability to prevent convulsions and aid in muscle relaxation. Kava is prepared as a tea, and is also available in powder or tincture forms.
Kava is also known in the following names:
Kava comes in different forms such as:
- Brownish-colored drinks
- Brown powder
Uses of Kava
The calming effect from taking kava may relieve the following conditions:
- Stress-related symptoms such as muscle tension and spasm
- Urinary tract infection
- Leprosy (skin application)
- Muscle pain
- Venereal disease
What is good about kava is that when it is used to treat anxiety or stress, it does not interfere with mental sharpness. Kava contains compounds that are responsible for the psychoactive qualities in the brain that offers a non-narcotic action against anxiety. This means that it is safe to use compared to the usual prescribed antidepressants.
Duke University Medical Center discovered in a study that apart from it being effective is that it doesn’t produce dependence or adverse effects in blood pressure, heart rate or sexual function. It is a good candidate for future research as treatment in improving attention disorders in children.
Another study showed that kava may be helpful for women who are going through menopause. One of the significant symptoms of menopausal women is having mood swings. Using kava may somehow help them to have a more pleasant mood without affecting the therapeutic actions of estrogen. It was also found out that it has helped increased libido among menopausal women.
The government spends a huge budget in treating addiction. Some studies have shown that using kava as a treatment for addiction may be an effective and inexpensive solution. Kava can help in reducing drug cravings with the help of a compound called kavapyrones.
When it is taken as a sleep aid, it generally promotes deep sleep without affecting restful REM sleep.
The only thing that should be strictly avoided is taking kava with alcohol, which may produce unfavorable effects like impaired reflexes, increased drowsiness and risk of liver damage. Meanwhile, taking kava with antidepressant induces sedation.
How is Kava prepared?
Kava is prepared by placing both roots and stem into a sack, submerging them in water, and squeezing out its juice into a bowl. The liquid extract may be placed in individual cups for drinking.
Its effect is experienced shortly after taking one to two cups. It has an earthy flavor which may take time to get used to.
How safe is Kava?
Experts in studying kava recommend using it not more than three months; otherwise, it may lead to liver failure. Prior to taking kava, you should be aware of the following facts:
- It is strictly not allowed to take kava along with alcohol or any kind of psychotropic medications because they can exaggerate the sedative effects of the plant-based substance.
- The effect of kava may differ in every individual. Therefore, it may be unsafe to drive or operate heavy machinery when kava has been taken.
- The effect of kava may decrease with prolonged use.
- Although kava may provide some relief on certain conditions, one of its common side effects is the yellowing of the hair, skin and nails.
- It may also cause some allergic skin reactions.
Long-term use of kava may lead to:
- Liver problems
- Scaly rash (but can be treated using topical ointments)
- Shortness of breath
- Facial swelling
- Alteration of blood cells
- Reduced immunity to infection
- Visual changes
- Kidney damage
- Loss of appetite
- May worsen symptoms of pre-existing mental disorder
- Loss of drive and motivation
The Food and Drug Authority (FDA) warns individuals who may already have liver problems to consult with their doctors prior to taking kava supplements. Liver disease may cause dark-colored urine and at the same time may have yellowing of both skin and the sclera of the eyes.
Being a depressant, kava is not advised to be taken by the following:
- Pregnant women
- Breastfeeding mother
- People with pre-existing heart, liver or lung problems
- People who are driving or operating heavy machineries
The effect of kava depends on the following factors:
- The age, weight and overall health
- If taken with other medications
- The amount of kava taken
- The strength of kava
Benefits of Kava
Kava is seen to be a great alternative to traditional medication to treat the following:
- Reduction of tumor size found in the prostate due to certain elements found in kava that inhibits the growth of some deficient cell lines.
- Improvement of the immune system because of the presence of flavokawains extract with anti-inflammatory properties.
- Kava has been reported to have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties by enhancing antitumor immunity.
- It is a non-hypnotic anxiolytic that can treat anxiety.
- It aids in enjoying better sleep.
Disadvantages of Kava
Kava may provide relief on certain conditions however if it is inadvertently used, such negative effects ensue.
- There is a possibility for kava to be abused, with reports saying that some people are using kava for recreational purposes.
- Using herbal medicine along with retroviral drugs may cause viral resistance.
- There have been reports of liver problems in individuals taking kava even for a short period of time. It is recommended to undergo frequent liver tests to ensure that the liver is healthy.
- It may be unsafe to drive or operate heavy machinery when you have taken kava with alcohol as it aggravates the effect of sedation, which may cause vehicular accidents.
Kava is a relatively new substance that is gaining traction as alternative medication. While the substance is legal in the U.S., users should be aware of the pros and cons of using kava for their health concerns.
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[Image from Forest & Kim Starr]