Back when I was in student clinic in the final year of study, we were able to taste and sample herbal tinctures in the dispensary, so we could understand the medicines better.
One evening we tried Kava Kava. I took a few drops of the tincture and promptly realised I would not be able to drive home. At the time, I was in a very sympathetic dominant state – wanting to do well, retain every snippet of information of my studies, riding the cortisol train…. All it took was a small amount of this calming herb to knock me off my feet.
Kava is the most important psychoactive agent in Oceania. The fresh leaves and stems are used traditionally, as well as the peeled root, which is the most potent part of the plant, containing higher levels of kavalactones, which impart a sense of calmness and relieve anxiety. Kava consumers report that the drink quenches thirst better than beer, has an invigorating effect that revitalises the body after strenuous exertion, clears the head and stimulates the appetite. In this way, it is helpful for reducing alcohol consumption or substance abuse. It is also employed where a person is weaning off other psychoactive drugs or medications.
It has been used for many types of pain and inflammation of the nervous, muscular, reproductive and skeletal systems, while the psychological effect has been described as a short lasting euphoric state, tranquillity and an increased feeling of friendliness.
In western phytotherapy, kava is used to treat states of nervous anxiety, tension and restlessness. In 2003, a review of kava found that compared with placebo, kava extract is an effective symptomatic treatment for anxiety….and clinical evidence suggests it as a safe and effective treatment for anxiety linked with depression, for insomnia and pain relief.
Topically, the herb can be used in an analgesic mouthwash for toothache and mouth ulcers.
As with any agent capable of therapeutic benefits, Kava can be taken in excess, where reported effects include overt sedation, narcotic effects, with impaired cognition, slowed motor responses and various degrees of limb paralysis. The chances of this occurring increase if the plant is mixed with other actives, such as chilli, alcohol, datura or other peppers or with benzodiazapines. In clinic, we only use an aqueous extract made with strict quality controls in Australia.
Importantly, withdrawal effects have never been observed and clinical data does not point toward a requirement for tapering off intake.
This year, I have rediscovered Kava and use in conjunction with other calming herbs. I find it helpful to deepen breathing by relaxing the muscles in the chest and airways. To help with the quality of sleep, it is nice to take just before bed.