Herbs for Health: Kava

Kava (Piper methysticum) is a large, bushy herb that originated in the South Pacific. It has been used by the native Polynesians for centuries, usually brewed into a ceremonial beverage. The root is known to be a mild, natural sedative and is commonly used to promote sleep. It has a very long history of safe use and is accompanied by a large body of folklore.

It is believed that kava was first introduced to the “civilized” world through Captain James Cook, who explored the Pacific Ocean around 1770. Cook observed native islanders using kava in rituals and social situations. Further study revealed the intimate connection between Oceanic cultures and this sacred plant. The use of kava among the people of the Pacific Islands has been compared to that of peyote among certain Native American tribes.

The traditional preparation of fresh kava root involves chewing or pounding it to release the active ingredients. It is then boiled in water to produce a strong tea. In ritual form, kava is used in celebrations, religious initiations, and libations. As a medicine it is used as a relaxant and can produce psychotropic effects if used in the correct potency and amount.

Kava is now enjoying increased popularity as an anti-depressant and sedative. Unlike prescription drugs used for those purposes, kava is non-addictive and does not produce withdrawal symptoms when stopped after extended use. Some pain-relieving effects, reduction in asthma, and anti-fungal properties have also been reported.

Users claim that kava produces a feeling a peace and well-being without the mental “fuzziness” of other relaxing herbs. Some people even promote it as a safe alternative to alcohol and tobacco. It is said to have aphrodisiac effects, increase psychic powers, and produce visions. Some use the root as a talisman to protect travelers.

At moderate doses, the likelihood of side effects from kava is low. However, liver failure has been reported by frequent users of higher doses. Yellowing or scaling of the skin and allergic reactions are other signs that a person should discontinue use of the herb.

Chemical constituents called “kavalactones” are what produces the beneficial effects of this plant. When purchasing a kava supplement, a daily dosage of 70-240 kavalactones is considered within acceptable safety limits. It is strongly recommended that new users begin at the low end of this range as there can be wide variation in individual tolerances. While the fresh root is preferred, it is more widely available as a dried powder or liquid tonic.

If you choose to use kava, be sure to consult with a physician beforehand. Those with liver diseases and women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not consume this herb. People taking any other drug that acts on the nervous system should also avoid kava.

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