Kava (Piper methysticum)

Kava (Piper methysticum)

Other common names: Kava-kava, yongona, wurzelstock, kawa, long pepper, ava pepper, ava root, gi, gea, rauschpfeffer, sakau, tonga, waka, yaqona, yaquon, awa, maluk, malohu, intoxicating pepper.

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Family: Piperaceae 

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons/Malcolm Manners

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons/Malcolm Manners

Actions:

Sedative, anodyne, nervine, analgesic, anesthetic, antispasmodic, anticonvulsant, rubefacient, stimulant (initially – after which it becomes sedating), diuretic, aphrodisiac, genitourinary tonic, antimicrobial.

Harvest: 

Kava root is harvested when the plant is at least three years old. Kavalactones become more potent as the plant ages, however, so some cultures let their kava grow to be ten years old or more.

Part used: 

Root (peeled and dried – do not harvest this yourself unless you are educated on exactly what part of the root to use, as some parts can be toxic to the liver).

Constituents:

Kavalactones (aka kavapyrones) – including kawain, desmethoxyyangonin, dihydrokawain, yangonin, and methysticum. 

Indications:

Insomnia, anxiety, mild to moderate depression, lack of libido, migraine, chronic

Diagram courtesy of Erowid.org

Diagram courtesy of Erowid.org

fatigue, chronic and acute pain, muscle tension, gout, fluid/urinary retention and muscle spasm. Kava is special in that it calms the body and elevates mood without overstimulating or depressing the nervous system (however, it can worsen depression in those with certain mental health conditions – talk to your doctor). In low to moderate dosage, the patient is left clear-headed and calm, making it especially useful for social anxiety. In higher doses, however, it does become more intoxicating (and this increases the chance of adverse effects) and of course this is not an advisable use for most medicinal purposes. It has a history of being used for genitourinary conditions and even certain sexually transmitted diseases – however, this has fallen out of practice and no longer advised. Some cultures use it to treat/prevent convulsions, but I do not recommend this use without the guidance and approval of a physician.

Medicinal preparations:

Internal

Kava can be used internally in capsule, fluid extract or tincture form. It has also been used in beverages brewed from the ground-up root, both for medicinal and recreational/ceremonial use.

External

In the past, kava resin was used as a local anesthetic. This is no longer a recommended use, as it can be a skin irritant.

Contraindications:

Do not give to children under 18 years of age. Do not use if pregnant or nursing, or if you have an underlying liver or kidney condition. Kava should never be used in the two weeks prior to a surgery, as it can prolong the effects of anesthesia. Kava may make you drowsy, and can cause intoxication – avoid driving or operating heavy machinery if you are intoxicated after use. Consult with your doctor before using if you suffer from a psychiatric illness of any kind. Kava can interact with several pharmaceuticals, especially sedatives, anticonvulsants and pain killers. Do not take it with alcohol or other recreational drugs. Kava products have been investigated in the past and even taken off the shelves for causing liver damage. It was later found out that this was due to manufacturers harvesting the wrong part of the plant in an effort to meet commercial demand. While more stringent regulations have been put in place since then, I would still advise users to research quality manufacturers when choosing a kava supplement. Be cautious not to exceed the recommended dosage of kava – an overdose can be quite dangerous. Do not use daily in high doses, or for extended periods of time without taking a break. Long-term, high-dosage use has been linked to elevated liver enzymes, skin rash and other side effects.

I suggest consulting a pharmacist or physician before starting any herbal supplement if you are taking a prescription medication or have serious underlying health concerns.

Energetic/traditional use:

Kava has a lengthy history and a rather colourful one at that! It has long been used as a ritual herb and recreational drug in Hawaii, Polynesia and other Pacific Island nations. It was used in Shamanic rites, and even social gatherings, where it

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons/Dave Lonsdale

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons/Dave Lonsdale

was served to honoured guests in elaborate ceremonies. It is presented as a gesture of welcome, and a peace offering, which isn’t surprising given its calming effects. As a religious element, it was considered to be a tool for reaching other realms, for communicating with spirits and honouring the gods. It was even used to predict the sex of an unborn baby (Hawaiian elders would count the number of bubbles on the surface of a kava decoction to determine this, and healers used the same method to determine the source of a patient’s illness). There are many other traditions centered around this plant – it is most renowned for its use in promoting communities, and rites of passage. Kava has a hot constitution.

Disclaimer: The information on this website is intended as general education on herbs and is not intended to take the place of medical care. Please consult a health care professional before embarking on any health regime.

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