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Learn about Kava

Botanical name: Piper methysticum

Other names: Intoxicating Pepper

Kava is a traditional medicine and ceremonial drink from the Pacific Islands, where it has been used for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. The botanical name translates to ‘intoxicating pepper’, and the word Kava means ‘bitter’ in Tongan.

To prepare Kava traditionally, the fresh roots are pulverized and then mixed with water, strained and drunk. The dried roots can also be crushed into a powder, then mixed with water and drunk.

Kava contains kavapyrones, which act much like alcohol on the brain, making you feel calm, relaxed and happy. In fact, in a traditional ceremonies, Kava is used to bring about a relaxed and euphoric state, similar to how we use alcohol in Western cultures.

Kavapyrones (which include methysticin, dihydromethysticin, yangonin, dihydrokavain, and kavain) are responsible for producing muscular relaxation and a calming effect. Some of these kavapyrones increase GABA in the brain, some act as MAOIs (inhibiting the enzyme monoamine oxidase B from removing neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine from the brain), and some increase noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine (low levels of these neurotransmitters are associated with depression, anxiety, ADHD and more). 

Kava is most often used today as a remedy for anxiety, stress, insomnia and PMS. Research supports these uses, although there is still some contention about whether the benefits outweigh the risks (see below).

WARNINGS & CONTRAINDICATIONS:

In 2002, the US FDA issued a warning about the risk of liver damage associated with Kava use. Case reports have linked kava with liver toxicity, including hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver failure, and even death. Many of these cases were linked to pre-existing liver disease, excessive kava doses, and heavy alcohol use. It is still unclear whether the liver toxicity was the result of kavalactones, contaminants found in low-quality extracts, or the organic solvents (such as acetone or ethanol) used to make kava extracts and supplements.

Even though the WHO suggests that water-based kava beverages are “safer,” the agency concedes that moderate to heavy consumption can significantly raise liver enzymes. The WHO also warned that toxicity appears linked to the quality of the raw kava root, contamination of the root during storage, and the use of other herbal drugs with kava.

It is not recommended to consume Kava if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, have depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, bleeding disorders, liver disease, pulmonary hypertension, low blood pressure, kidney disease, alcholism, or less than two weeks prior to surgery.  Do not operate heavy machinery. Avoid prolonged use. Avoid if taking the following medications: sedatives, antidepressants, MAOIs, Benzodiazepines, diuretics, blood thinners, Levodopa, Proton pump inhibitors, antipsychotics.

References:

Pittler MH, Ernst E. Kava extract for treating anxiety. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002;(2):CD003383. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD003383

Lehrl S. Clinical Efficacy of Kava Extract WS 1490 in Sleep Disturbances Associated With Anxiety Disorders. Results of a Multicenter, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Double-Blind Clinical Trial. J Affect Disord. 2004;78(2):101-110. doi:10.1016/s0165-0327(02)00238-0

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22887993/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24947278/

Kava Common Uses

Kava Actions

Kava Recipes

Kava Precautions

It is not recommended to consume Kava if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, have depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, bleeding disorders, liver disease, pulmonary hypertension, low blood pressure, kidney disease, alcholism, or less than two weeks prior to surgery.  Do not operate heavy machinery. Avoid prolonged use. Avoid if taking the following medications: sedatives, antidepressants, MAOIs, Benzodiazepines, diuretics, blood thinners, Levodopa, Proton pump inhibitors, antipsychotics.

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