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Kava kava

(Piper methysticum)

kava kava 

Kava is used for a variety of purposes, medicinal, religious, political, cultural and social throughout the Pacific islands. Kava is used primarily in social gatherings to increase amiability and to relax after a day's work, and has great religious significance, being used to obtain inspiration. Kava preparations have been used medicinally in the West for the treatment of nervous anxiety and restlessness. Studies have reported that they compare favourably to prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines in controlling symptoms of anxiety and minor depression, while increasing vigilance, sociability, memory, and reaction time.

Other studies have reported positive effects of kava when anxiety is present, including in PMS and menopausal complaints, and drug addiction and withdrawal. Kavalactones appear to act on the limbic system, in particular the amygdala, the primitive part of the brain that is the centre of the emotional being and basic survival functions. It is thought that kava may promote relaxation, sleep, and rest by altering the way in which the limbic system modulates emotional processes. Kava preparations have also been reported to produce skeletal muscle relaxation (comparable to mephenesin), a benefit in fibromyalgia. Tolerance does not seem to develop with kava use.

Alcoholic kava extracts have been shown to kill leukaemia and ovarian cancer cells in the test tube. The kava compounds were shown to work selectively, passing healthy cells by and targeting only cancerous cells.

Despite these benefits, the sale or purchase of kava-containing products in the UK has been banned by the FSA  ostensibly due to the suspicion that kava contains compounds which can give rise to liver toxicity. France, The Netherlands and Switzerland have followed suit, and other countries have partial bans or restrictions on the amount of extract in preparations.

Research has in fact identified a liver toxin called pipermethystine in preparations made from the above-ground parts of the plant, together with another potential liver toxin, flavokavain B. However, traditionally these parts of the plant are discarded and only the root (rhizome) is used. This does not appear to contain any harmful compounds, which explains the long history of apparently safe usage. This information has not of course resulted in a lifting of the ban.

Interestingly a New Zealand committee who considered the issue commented in their summary: "A comparison with paracetamol-associated hepatotoxicity, results in the conclusion that these potential risks for kava are dramatically less than that of a popular non prescription drug widely sold through grocery outlets."

In view of the clear benefits of kava kava when correctly prepared, it might have been hoped that common sense would prevail and that kava root-derived products will again be allowed for sale at some time. However, current ‘big-pharma’ sponsored anti-vitamin and anti-supplement movements within the EU now make this very unlikely.




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