Herbs in alphabetical order
Mention kava, and it is easily identified as a traditional drink. But kava also refers to the rootstock of the plant known by the botanical name Piper mehtysticum Forest. f. It belongs to the Piperaceae family and is a sterile cultivated plant. It is from the rootstock of this plant that the beverage is produced and traditionally both the rootstock and the beverage are known as kava. Piper methysticum Forest has many cultivars or cultivated varieties and its origin can be traced to a wild progenitor Piper wichmannii C.DC. This plant can be found in places ranging from New Guinea to the Solomon Islands and in Vanuatu.
The kava rootstock or stump is commonly designated as a rhizome but among botanists its nomenclature remains a matter of intense debate. Kava is cultivated for its rootstock on many tropical Pacific Islands, but the archipelago of Vanuatu is its main distribution center and has eighty of the 118 known cultivars of kava. Other places where the herb is cultivated are Fiji, Futuna, Hawaii, Pohnpei, Madang, Baluan, Samoa, Wallis, Tonga and Rotuma.
Among Pacific islanders kava is a favorite drink and is normally consumed at dusk just before the evening meal with a lot of fanfare. The people of various cultures of the region have different rituals and ceremonies associated with the drinking of kava. It is something like the French custom of wine drinking, only more elaborate. The preparation of kava is also a very traditional and intricate affair. The roots are first chewed, grinded, grated or pounded to pulp. The pulp is then soaked and macerated in cold water to release the active constituents. The end result is a thick brew, which is quite potent. Heads of State and other visiting dignitaries are often given a taste of the kava on their visits to the Pacific islands.
Kava has a strong, nauseating taste and can cause localized numbing. It has a complex chemistry and the kavapyrones or kavalactones in it dictate its flavor and biological activities. In studies conducted, some important kavapyrones like methysticin (1.2 to 2 percent), dihydomethysticin (0.5 to 0.8 percent), kawain (1 to 2 percent) and dihydrokawain (0.6 to 1 percent) have been isolated and characterized. These four mtheysticin-kawain type pyrones have muscle relaxing and anticonvulsant properties. In all about 15 kavapyrones have been studied including among others demethoxyyangonin and yangonin. An alkaloid called pipermethystine has been found to be a major constituent of kava leaves, but this is not seen in the roots of the plant.
Consumption of kava can bring about a state of well being or mood elevation. It is said to produce a sense of contentment and a feeling of relaxation and it doesnít have a narcotic effect. However, when used in excessive quantities, kava can cause photophobia and diplopia. The result can sometimes be oculomotor paralysis where muscles donít respond to normal movement, ultimately ending up in prostration and unconsciousness. Heavy use of kava over long periods of time, over weeks and months, can result in drying up of the skin epidermis which in turn causes lesions and yellowing of the skin. Loss of appetite, redness of the eyes, urticarial patches with intense itching are some of the other symptoms seen when kava is used excessively. These symptoms are seen to subside when you stop using kava.
It was in the 1860s that herb products made from kava made its appearance in Europe. Germany was in the forefront in using kava extracts and they were available in pharmacies by the end of the 19th century. By the 1920s, pharmaceutical preparations mainly in the form of tinctures were being offered as mild sedatives and as hypotensive agents in Germany. Germany is also in the forefront in therapeutic studies being conducted on the kava rootstock. The possible use of the rootstock and its preparations for relieving tension, nervous anxiety and agitated conditions is presently the subject of a German therapeutic phytomedicine monograph.
According to the German treatise, use of the herb during pregnancy, lactation or in the case of depression is not advisable. In Europe there is this tradition of using kava extracts in combination with pumpkin seed for the treatment of irritable bladder syndrome. As noted earlier, kava has a few side effects including yellow discoloration of the skin, nails and hair; but all these are temporary. Kava can also cause rare allergic skin reactions. It is suggested that the herb is better avoided with the operation of vehicles or machinery because of its apparent sedative effect. For this reason its consumption with alcohol is also ill advised. There have been cases of prosecution in the US for driving under the influence of kava. For all these reasons, the best time to consume the herb is during bedtime.
Many studies on kava extracts have been conducted in various countries of which at least six have been double-blind controlled studies. But there is criticism for insufficient inclusion criteria on these double-blind therapeutic studies. In two studies test substances have involved kava extracts standardized to 15 percent kavapyrones and in four studies the percentage of kavapyrones was 70. Clinical studies were conducted on the use of kava extracts in the treatment of anxiety, agitation of nonpsychotic origin, tension, postoperative mood and climacteric symptoms. Various parameters were measured in these studies and the results were positive. Data from decades of clinical experiments in Germany and from other clinical studies show that kava is a potential herbal alternative to many synthetic medications.
There is huge potential for the herb in the American market as it is a great substitute for synthetic anxiolytics. But kavaís tenure in the market will depend a lot on manufacturers being responsible and offering proper dosages of appropriately formulated products as there is the fear of abuse. Extravagant claims on the herbís powers and psychotropic effects from overzealous advertisers could also act to its disadvantage.
The name kava means bitter, sharp or sour and it is a very good indication of the real taste of the beverage. The rootstock or rhizome of the plant is the main ingredient and the traditional method involves chewing and pounding of the rhizome. It is believed that human saliva makes it more potent and produces stronger effects. In countries like the United States and others where kava and its pharmaceutical use are on the increase, modern methods of production are used. There is no chewing or pounding and the herb is taken in the form of capsules.
In Hawaii, folk healers use the herb for dozens of purposes, however as a medication to induce relaxation it is used in many countries and cultures around the world. Hawaiians have used and continue to use kava to treat a variety of ailments like
asthma, anxiety and to ease
arthritis pains. Kava is given to people with urinary difficulties and can act as a diuretic. It is also used to offset
fatigue and to bring on sleep. Another use for kava is as a
weight loss agent.
People of the South pacific islands have for long cherished and used kava as a calming and stimulating intoxicant. They also consider it as an aphrodisiac because when consumed in large quantities kava kava produces an euphoric state.
HABITAT AND CULTIVATION
Kava kava is distributed throughout the South Pacific Islands and can be found as far east as Hawaii. It is a vine indigenous to the Polynesian region although it can be found in the US and Australia where it is cultivated commercially because of its many uses. Kava kava is usually grown on frames and needs well-drained stony soil and a lot of shade. It is propagated from runners usually in late winter or early spring.
Research shows that kava lactones have a depressant effect on the central nervous system and that they are antispasmodic. The lining of the urinary tubules and the urinary bladder can be given an anesthetic effect by using kava lactones. Research also shows that kawain can act as a sedative.
Kava lactones, also known as kava pyrones, specifically kavain, methysticin, yangonin, dihydromethysticin, dihydrokavain, 5,6 - dehydromethysticin and desmethyoxyyangonin. The kava lactones make up 3% to 20% of the root by dry weight.
HOW MUCH TO TAKE
Kava extracts that can supply 140-210 mg of kava-lactones per day is thought to be the standard dosage. Some people also take 1-3 ml of fresh liquid kava tincture as an alternative.
SIDE EFFECTS AND CAUTIONS
Some people have mild gastronomical disturbances from taking kava in the recommended amounts. This is not seen in others and is the only side effect to be reported. But consumption of kava in very high doses over a long period of time can cause yellow discoloration of the skin. This is only temporary and will stop when kava use is discontinued. There are rare cases where an allergic skin reaction or
rash can develop from use of kava.