Have a Cup of Kava Kava and Call Me in the Morning!
by Marilyn DeMartini for Men’s Fitness Magazine,March 1999

It has been called the “herbal qualude,” an ancient herbal remedy that is becoming a panacea for the over-stressed 90’s. Kava kava, an extract from the root of a type of pepper plant, Piper methysticum, is known mainly as a relaxant, that can also relieve stress, depression and insomnia. Dr. James Hutton, a Naturopathic Medical Doctor in Sedona, Arizona, prescribes kava to patients for maladies from sciatica to chronic pain, while Oz Garcia, nutrition guru and consultant for Equinox Gyms in New York, recommends it for clients who are giving up caffeine and other dietary toxins. Even the traditional medical field is recognizing the clinical studies that show kava’s benefit for patients with anxiety or sleep disorders. Kava’s unique appeal, is that while it calms, it increases attentiveness, unlike antidepressant drugs that have dangerous side effects and leave the mind sluggish and sedated.

Revived knowledge about this ancient herb has spawned kava, instead of coffee breaks, and kava parties, with toga donning guests re-creating the South Seas atmosphere where kava literally has its roots. The herb has been an integral part of religious, social and political tradition for thousands of years in the island communities of the Pacific Ocean. Ceremony surrounds the process of scraping and grinding the kava root, mixing the pulp into water and straining it into a cup to be offered to dignitaries, tribal chiefs, or even friends, as a ritualistic welcome.

Customs and names differ somewhat from island to island, some call it ëava or ëawa, but the traditions are similar. The kava root was prepared by young boys and occasionally girls, who cleaned and chewed it, breaking it into a pulp that was mixed for ceremonial drinking. Though chewing was thought to create the most potent mixture, hygiene concerns caused chewing to fall out of favor, replaced by grinding with a mortar and pestle. The presentation protocol was also important, as a cup was given to guests or dignitaries in order of importance, after spilling a bit as a libation to the gods. England’s Queen Elizabeth, First Lady Hillary Rodam Clinton and even Pope John Paul II, have imbibed in the ritualistic brew on visits to Hawaii, Fiji and other South Pacific islands.

In more casual or community gatherings, coconut shells were used to share drinks in a social “mixer” atmosphere, but respect for the preparation and presentation ritual was still maintained. In business, kava was used before negotiations so that all parties would be empathetic to the good of the whole.

Kava was brought to the Western World by Captain James Cook, when he sailed the South Pacific in the Endeavor, late in the 1700’s. Imagine the sailors’ surprise when they came ashore and found no alcohol on the islands, but discovered instead an intoxicating root potion! Reports from the “endeavor” vary from groggy crew members who couldn’t move their limbs, to others who imbibed, slept and rose several hours later, ready for another dose.

“Ceremony is important as part of the psychological factor,” says Dr. Yadhu N. Singh, PhD., a researcher and faculty member at the College of Pharmacy at South Dakota State University. Singh, of East Indian decent, grew up in Fiji and regularly prepared kava for his father. Though he prefers drinking the freshly prepared beverage with pieces of the ground root left in a loosely strained brew, modern day convenience provides bottles of capsules, liquid extract or tincture at the health, vitamin or drug store. Though the ceremony may be lost, we can still create an enjoyable ritual. Beverly Hills herbalist Carl Rothenberg suggested making a tea of one of the capsules or a dropper of the extract, mixed with a scoop of vegetable lecithin, which activates the chemical composites of kava. “It’ll make your mouth numb like Novocain, and you’ll feel very nice,” he explains—And there is a benefit to a non-alcoholic Happy Hour—no calories, no hangover, and no embarrassing behavior to live down the next day!

Insomnia is commonly treated with kava and Michael Tierra states in the book The Way of Herbs, that kava can help produce “deep, restful sleep with clear, epic-length dreams.” Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, reports that when hectic schedules cuts into his sleep time, he takes 1-2 droppers of a liquid tincture before retiring and wakes in 4-5 hours, feeling more rested than he does without kava. Dr. Hutton recommended kava tincture to a chronic pain accident victim who hadn’t slept for more than two hours at a time for over 3 years. After only several doses, in conjunction with manipulation therapy, she slept through the night and within a week reported feeling relaxed and without pain.

Though clinical studies have mostly been on its use as an anti-depressant, kava has also been substituted for commonly used analgesics like aspirin and ibuprofen and can be especially beneficial for muscular tension. Since it is non-addictive and has no known side effects, it is increasingly regarded as an advantageous alternative to addictive synthetic drugs like Valium, Halcion or Xanax. Kava has been used medicinally in the South Seas for everything from bronchitis, urinary tract infections, and sore throat, to insomnia, tooth aches and gonorrhea. In England it is considered an approved herbal medicine, while in Germany it is an over-the-counter drug used for anxiety, stress and restlessness.

In the U.S., kava is considered a dietary supplement, not a drug. Since it is not regulated by the FDA, manufacturers and practitioners cannot make medical claims about its benefits. However, after over 3,000 years of beneficial use, numerous European studies and clinical studies in the U.S., the general global consensus seems favorable. Because of the lack of standardization, however, it can be a bit tricky to decipher labels. Kavalactones, the active ingredients of kava are measured for strength in percentages and milligrams. The strength is relative to the percentage of kavalactones and the volume of extract included in the product. According to Dr. Singh, who has done extensive research and writing on kava, “The milligrams of standardized extract or kavalactones are important—150-250 milligrams is recommended, but if the label doesn’t provide milligrams or percentage strength, you may not know what you’re taking.”

The quality of the plant is also important, says Dr. Qun Yi Zheng, executive vice president of Pure World Botanicals a New Jersey supplier that takes pride in its relationship with the growers on the island of Vanuata, one of the largest producers of commercial kava. Roots should be aged and cut properly to provide the proper kavalactone strength ratio, and a consistent, standardized product. Pure World Botanicals has done extensive research on the herb and is currently undertaking a clinical study with Duke University Medical Center, to determine effective dosage for treating anxiety disorders.

There are, however, precautions. Kava should not be mixed with alcohol or any benzodiazepine drugs, prescribed for nervous system disorders and should not be taken by those with Parkinson’s disease, or pregnant or lactating women. While it is non-sedative, for safety reasons, driving or operating heavy machinery, is also discouraged.

As with most healing substances, more is not necessarily better, and a person’s size, weight and diet can also affect recommended dosages. Kava should not be taken consistently for over three months, except under a doctor’s care. High doses, more than 1,500-3,000 mg of the root per day (approximately 6 standard capsules) could result in red eyes, imbalance and a skin discoloration. Such overuse symptoms disappear when dosage stops.

The real test is how different forms of the product—liquids, capsules, tea or tinctures, make you feel. It also has something to do with taste, as kava means “bitter” in Polynesian languages. “It tastes like turpentine smells to me,” says Hutton, so you may opt to pass on the Kava cocktail, or doctor it up with some honey. Innovative Natural Products, a supplier specializing in more easily assimilated liquid supplements, creates an elixir that combines 30% root kavalactones (250 mg) with Valerian root, Siberian Ginseng and Chamomile, along with a dose of Vitamin C and B complex. The liquid Kava Kava is palatable, and a vivid imagination can conjure up a shot of tequila or Jagermeister—without the after-affects!

Personal experience can vary, depending on the type and strength of kava taken. The tea brewed with lecithin can provide an energetic buzz, while a dropper of the plain tincture can induce power napping . Capsules may not leave a marked impression, though as a mood enhancer, a medium dose can create a definite feeling of relaxed well-being. Normal activities can be taken on with a sense of calm, yet alert inner peace—akin to the state achieved in yoga, meditation or with deep breathing exercises. Some herbal specialists reported kava’s calming effects for hyperactive children, but Dr. Singh and most manufacturers recommend use for adults only, since there is insufficient data on the herb’s effect on children.

Kava might not be the cure-all for everyone’s ailments, but it is a legal, safe and enjoyable respite from stress. So if you’d like to kick back, relax and enjoy a little ancient tradition, try hoisting a brew—of Kava Kava.