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Kava Kava

Piper methysticum

Kava Kava

Parts used
Habitat and cultivation
How much to take
Side effects and cautions

Herbs gallery - kava.jpg

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.
In the treatment of mild states of anxiety from diverse causes, kava could easily replace benzodiazepines and other synthetic anxiolytics. Whereas synthetic anxiolytics and tranquilizers produce physical and psychological dependency, with kava there are no such side effects. However, there are other side effects to kava, especially when used in large quantities, but these are clearly established and well documented.

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.
The herb is seen to be very effective in the treatment of psychosomatic symptoms during menopause and this has been proved by medical tests. Because of the numbing effect produced by the presence of kawain, kava can act as a local anesthetic especially for the lips and mouth. Food appears to have no taste when eaten after consuming kava drink. Animal testing has shown that extracts of the medication cause muscle relaxation in animals to the point that they fall out of revolving cages. Although no single identified compound in kava could by itself cause such an effect. Methysticin and DHM are seen to protect animals from muscle convulsions caused by strychnine.




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.
The people of the South Pacific islands and the aborigines of Australia vouch from experience that when kava kava is taken in excess quantities it produces a narcotic effect and bring about a stupor.
Kava kava is said to be a valuable antiseptic. Because of this kava was used to treat venereal diseases, especially gonorrhea. Nowadays, kava kava is no longer used for this purpose, but it is still used as a urinary antiseptic. It helps to counter urinary infections and to settle irritable bladders.
Kava kava is a good medicine for chronic pain. It relaxes muscles and reduces sensitivity thereby helping relieve pain. It has mildly analgesic properties and is a good tonic and strengthening medication.
Kava kava has diuretic properties and along with its pain killing abilities, it is very good in the treatment of rheumatic and arthritic problems like gout. The herb helps to remove waste products from the affected joints and importantly gives relief from the constant pain that patients afflicted with these diseases have to endure.
The herb is a valuable medication in relieving anxiety. Kava is very safe and does not cause drowsiness like some of the synthetic medications. Kava kava can be taken long term in cases of chronic stress. Even for emotional stress, the herb is very helpful as it has anxiety relieving and muscle relaxing properties. These properties also make it a good remedy to ease muscle tension.
Because of the numbing effect it produces, the herb is good for toothache and canker sores. Kava can be used as an analgesic mouthwash as well.
Other medical uses - The herb is commonly used to relieve tension headache.


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.
There is no specific time for harvesting the root of Kava kava. It can be done throughout the year.


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.
Clinical trials done is Germany reveal that kawain is effective in relieving anxiety and is as good as the synthetic medication benzodiazepine. The results of the clinical trial were published in 1990.


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.


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.


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.
It is not advisable for pregnant or lactating women to use kava. Consumption of kava by mixing it with other substances that also act on the central nervous system is also not recommended. So combining it with alcohol, antidepressants, barbiturates and antipsychotic medications is to be strictly avoided.

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