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Kava Kava

What is kava kava?

Kava is the name given to a tall shrub that grows in the islands of the Pacific (including Hawaii). The shrub produces thick stalks that contain large, green, heart-shaped leaves. Kava roots, which are used for all kava preparations, are small, brown and have hair-like projections.

Kava root contains chemicals called kavalactones, which reduce convulsions and cause muscles to relax. They also cause reactions in the brain similar to those caused by pharmaceuticals that treat depression and anxiety.

Why do we need kava kava? What is it used for?

Studies have shown kava root to be an effective reducer of stress and anxiety caused by menopause. A 1997 study found kava to be superior to placebo in treating non-psychotic patients in reducing anxiety and improving one's mood. Other studies have found it to help reduce skeletal muscles, ease pain and stiffness, and relieve the symptoms of jet lag.

In small doses, kava appears to produce a state of calm and increase a user's disposition for sociability. In larger doses, kava has been found to promote sleep and help patients with insomnia.

How much kava kava should I take?

To relieve anxiety and insomnia, the recommended dose is 2-4 grams of kava as part of a decoction taken three times daily, or a standardized formula for a daily intake of 60-600 milligrams of kavalactone. Treatment length varies; it may take up to four weeks for the product to reach its full potential. However, it is recommended that you not continue taking kava for more than three months consecutively.

If your health practitioner recommends kava, makes sure to purchase products that are standardized to contain a 70% or greater kavalactone content.

What forms of kava kava are available?

In some cultures, kava is prepared by chewing the root, then spitting the mixture into a bowl. A person's saliva mixes with the root, activating its medicinal properties. Fortunately, kava is available in other forms, such as liquid tinctures or extracts. It can also be found in capsule or tablet form, and is available in powdered and crushed varieties.

What can happen if I take too much kava kava? Are there any interactions I should be aware of? What precautions should I take?

The typical side-effects of kava are mild, and may include a numbing of the mouth or tongue, skin rashes, headaches, gastrointestinal discomfort and dizziness. Extreme doses of kava (300-400 grams of dried kava root per week) can result in yellowing of the skin, ataxia, hair loss, and changes in vision and respiration. However, these symptoms will subside if you stop taking kava.

The American Herbal Products Association recommends that pregnant and nursing women should not take kava. The APHA also advises that people should not drive while using kava, and that patients should not take kava for more than three months at a time.

Do not use kava if you are taking barbiturates or while using alcohol. It may increase the effect of these substances.

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• Davies LP, Drew CA, Duffield P. Kava pyrones and resin: studies on GABA A, GABA B, and benzodiazepine binding sites in the rodent brain. Pharmacol Toxicol 1992;71:120—126.
Heiligenstein E, Guenther RN. Over-the-counter psychotropics: a review of melatonin, St. John's wort, valerian, and kava kava. JACH 1998;46:271—276.
Jamieson DD, Duffield PH, Cheng D, et al. Comparison of the central nervous system activity of the aqueous and lipid extract of kava (piper methysticum). Arch Intern Pharmacodynam Ther 1989;301:66—80.
Lehmann E, et al. Efficacy of special kava extract (piper methysticum) in patients with states of anxiety, tension and excitedness of non-mental origin. A double blind placebo controlled study of four weeks treatment. Phytomedicine 1996;3:113—119.
Schelosky L, Raffauf C, Jendroska K, et al. Kava and dopamine antagonism. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 1995;58(5):639—640.


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