Kava And Kawain

AKA: Ava, awa, kasa, kava kava, Kavaform, Kaviase, kawa, kawa kawa, keu, Laitan, lewena, Piper methysticum, Piper wichmannii, sakau, seka, waka, wati, yagona, yaqona.

A Polynesian herb used by native peoples to make an alcoholic drink. The practice of preparing the root and stem for the drink by having a designated person chew on them is no longer done because of health risks. Kava contains several active compounds called kavalactones, also known as kava alphapyrones or kavapyrones, which include kawain (or kavain), dihydrokawain, methysticin, dihydromethysticin, and yangonin; each kavalactone has a different effect on the body, and the effects of different plants may vary according to the levels of the various kavalactones. It's uncertain whether the leaves and stems produce different effects from the roots, or whether older plants are more potent than younger ones.

Effects: May induce a sense of wellbeing in small doses, and relaxation, lethargy, and drowsiness in larger doses. The effects begin after twenty or thirty minutes and generally last two to three hours. According to Dr. Harold Bloomfield, "Medical studies have shown that kava can often relieve mild to moderate anxiety as effectively as benzodiazepine tranquilizers." It has been found to improve digestion, memory, reaction time, and vigilance, relax muscles, and decrease anxiety, chest pain, dizziness, gastric irritation, headaches, heart palpitations, muscle spasms, and symptoms of menopause and PMS. It also has local anesthetic properties and can be used to treat urinary tract infections and bladder disorders. Unlike other psychoactive plants (e.g., mushrooms and peyote), it does not enhance intellect or produce altered states of consciousness, though anecdotal evidence indicates it may enhance visual and auditory perception as well as produce more vivid dreams. How the kavalactones work is still not known, though it is believed they pass through the blood-brain barrier and affect certain neurotransmitters.

Kawain, a resinous pyrone extracted from the root of the kava plant, has been shown to control lipofuscin deposits. Waka is a Fijian term that refers to the kava taken from the plant's lateral roots, and waka is the most expensive and potent form. Lewena, the rootstock, and kasa, the lower sterns, are cheaper and less potent forms.

Kava works synergistically with chamomile, hops, licorice, and valerian.

Precautions: Kava should not be taken by those with Parkinson's disease (it could worsen muscular weakness and twitching), by those who are severely depressed, or by those allergic to it. The elderly or ill should take smaller doses, and then only under the care of a physician. Kava is not advisable when driving or operating heavy machinery. It can be habit-forming. No clinical studies have been done in the U.S., and some are concerned that it might be abused as it has psychotropic properties similar to opium and cocaine. It probably should not be used for severe anxiety or for long-term treatment. Neither should it be used as a substitute for benzodiazepines, as it is not as effective in inducing sleep; is not as effective for severe agitation, severe anxiety, or convulsions; is slower to take effect; and does not remain effective for as long a period as the prescription drug.

A pungent and numbing aftertaste deters the drinker from consuming too much. Tea made from the dried and powdered root bark may not have the pleasant lilac aroma and flavor of freshly made kava. Stronger effects may be achieved by chewing the root, though this is something even the indigenous population of the South Seas do not engage in, as the taste and thick fibers of the root make this an unappealing alternative.

Extended use of doses equal to 400 mg/day of kavalactones and higher could result in a buildup of toxins in the liver, damage to the heart and lungs, and skin that is pigmented or darkened, dry, and covered with scales, particularly on the palms, soles, forearms, back, and shins (which may clear up when use is discontinued). Other symptoms include numbness of the tongue, dizziness, gastrointestinal distress, grogginess, inflammation of the skin and eyes, insomnia, sudden muscle spasms, nausea, biochemical abnormalities, vision disturbances, and shortness of breath.

There is one documented case of a man who lapsed into a brief coma after combining kava with the drug Xanax. It is recommended that kava not be combined with benzodiapezine tranquilizers, alcohol, antidepressants, or sleeping pills.

Dosage: The most effective method of consumption is by eating the dried root, as saliva activates the kavalactones. An acceptable dosage is 1.5 to 3 mg/day in divided doses. Probably the least effective method of consumption is as a tea, as water does not release the kavalactones the way oil does. An acceptable compromise is liquid extract formulas or standardized extract capsules. Generally, kava root of high quality will contain approximately 5 to 8 percent kavalactones. Though kavalactones are not, for the most part, water soluble, a water-soluble extract can be made; it differs from the usual fat-soluble extract in that it does not induce sleep, but it does have some pain-killing properties. Fatsoluble kava, on which most of the studies have been done, induces sleep and has much greater pain-killing abilities. If taking a tincture with a 1:2 ratio, dosage should be between 3 to 6 ml/day in divided doses. The initial dose should be about 70 mg of kavalactones, which should be gradually increased to about 100 mg. Reports indicate that 150 to 210 mg/day of kavalactones relieves anxiety, while one daily dose of this amount taken a half hour before bedtime induces sleep. It is more effective when taken on an empty stomach. Kava should not be taken on a daily basis for more than four to six months.

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