For a relaxing, mildly tranquilizing herb, kava has spawned some mighty peculiar folk tales. On the Pacific island Tonga, legend tells of a servant who, in a desperate attempt to prepare a memorable feast in honor of his chief, killed his only daughter and served her as the main course. The chief, however, unmoved by his servant's rather rash homicide, refused the proffered feast. Instead, the horticulturally minded ruler ordered the servant to bury his, daughter and harvest the plant that grew over the grave. This herb, called Kava, would, from that moment on, take its place as the drink of choice at special ceremonies.
While that story might inspire psychological and sociological research into the origins and cultural underpinnings of pacific ceremonies, kava’s unique pharmacological actions on the human brain has fostered intriguing medical studies. For, while kava relieves pain, provides a significant sense of peacefulness and may alleviate anxiety, it apparently accomplishes these actions in a unique fashion unlike other substances that act as tranquilizers.
Cook and Kava
Native to the pacific islands, kava made its entree to the western world when Captain James Cook shared bowls of kava with natives of the Polynesian islands in 1768. In those Polynesians societies, kava was (and is still) revered as a wonderfully calming libation, sending partakers into a contented, peaceful state. The kava drink, according to Cook's notes, was originally processed in a primitive manner: several people chewed pieces of root, spit the pulp into a bowl, mixed in a few cups of coconut milk and drank. Today, kava (Piper methysticum) is available as all extract or a tea used for encouraging a restful sleep, reducing anxiety and easing pain.
Kavalactones' Cavalcade of Benefits
Most of, kava’s pharmacologic effects are believed to be caused by chemicals called kavalactones, found in the root of the plant. Studies at the University of New South Wales show that kavalactones affect the body in a way unlike any other known sedative. For instance, sedative drugs usually cause their relaxing action by binding to what are called “receptors” in the brain. By linking up to these ports, these drugs induce neurological changes that calm and usually cause sleepiness. Not so for kavalactones, however. These apparently bypass receptors and... Well no one knows exactly what they do. Somehow they work on the brain to cause a relaxing feeling but the mechanism of this action remains a mystery. Kava's ability to kill pain has proved to be just as mysterious. Investigators have found that this herb doesn't behave like over the counter painkillers such as aspirin, nor does it link up to the brain receptors that drugs like morphine infiltrate. Instead, it makes an as yet unexplained end run around the usual analgesic mechanisms.
Interest in Kava
Kava's unique effects have made it the subject of studies by botanists, chemists, pharmacologists and medical researchers for years. In a study reported in Phytomedicine, 58 participants suffering from anxiety were given either kava extract or dummy pills three times daily for four weeks. People taking kava enjoyed reduced anxiety without adverse side effects. Another study printed in the journal Pharmacopsychiatry, fed kava to anxiety-laden individuals and concluded that kava, offered an attractive alternative for anxiety treatment instead of antidepressants and other drugs. Kava, they said, had long-term efficacy and none of the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs used to treat the same conditions. According to a report in the British Journal of Phytotherapy, kava also demonstrates anticonvulsant activities as well as pain-killing action. While kava is safe when used as directed, those who overindulge may experience brief side effects. In 1336, a Utah man was arrested for driving. under the influence of kava after imbibing 16 cups of kava tea. Polynesian natives who drink eight or more bowls of the kava every day for years develop dry, scaly skin. But no one taking a standardized kava supplement or an occasional cup of tea has ever suffered skin problems.