How could our society have erred in readily accepting a good-morning jolt from a cup of java without ever discovering the winding-down pleasure at day’s end with a cup of Kava ? The two beautifully balance and complement each other–one to wake up, one to wind down.
I’m a heavy coffee drinker, and while I don’t often have a problem slipping off to sleep, if a touch of insomnia does come on, I wouldn’t hesitate to take some kava. Usually, though, I reach for it when I want to mellow out with friends during a social occasion or, at the opposite extreme, following a stressful event. During a recent journey to the Amazon, for example, I was glad I had some handy. Whatever could go wrong did go wrong: Peruvian gardens reachable only by canoes and hour-long walks in the forest; a veritable mutiny among cranky passengers; people collapsing from severe dehydration; my sudden promotion to ticket dispenser for the entire tourist group; and the near loss of a wallet that contained my credit cards, a passport copy, and the money I set aside to buy a Peruvian guitar. It was a kava week.
Fortunately, kava and I are old friends. If everyone else knew what I know about this ancient shrub, we as a society would feel much more at ease about our lot in the world, and fewer of us would know the dangers of addiction to Valium and other forms of pharmaceutical sedation.
DR. DUKE’S NOTES Among Polynesians, kava is considered better and more socially acceptable than alcohol. That’s why it’s offered to the most honored of guests. Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird enjoyed it on state visits to Pacific Island nations, and so did Pope John Paul II. Hillary Rodham Clinton drank some kava during a campaign tour of Hawaii, and the Queen of Great Britain enjoyed “high kava” (as opposed to “high tea”) when she stopped in Fiji for an official state visit.
What Kava Is and What It Can Do
Science has solidly established kava’s ability to relax muscles and hush harried nerves. No single substance in the plant deserves sole credit. Responsibility rests with a group of chemicals called kavalactones. Found in different concentrations in different parts of the plant, each kavalactone exerts a somewhat different physiological effect. Based on what I know about how phytochemicals interact synergistically, I’d say that the kavalactones are more therapeutic in concert than if soloing separately. In other words, to bring up again a favorite refrain, there’s no single magic bullet. You need the whole herbal shotgun blast.
The Kava Calm
One tremendous hurdle along the path toward establishing the superiority of herbal medicine is the dearth of research directly comparing the performance of a given plant potion to its pharmaceutical rivals. Happily, kava is an exception. Unhappily, few Americans have gotten the word. The bulk of the research has been conducted in Europe, leaving U.S. scientists, convinced that their chemistry can outsmart Mother Nature, to lag way behind. Here’s what they–and you–have missed out on.
To reduce tension, stress, and anxiety, kava extract clearly and cleanly wins out over the prescription drugs with which it has been compared. It’s similarly effective as tranquilizers, anxiolytics (anxiety-reducing agents), and other such medications, yet free of the side effects so typical of these drugs.
In one head-to-head matchup, the herbal extract was compared against two benzodiazepine tranquilizers, bromazepam and oxazepam, on 172 people with anxiety. After six weeks, researchers concluded that the natural medicine and the synthetic drug were therapeutically similar–but that kava was the obvious safer choice. It neither impairs mental reaction nor shows a potential for addiction. In fact, aside from an upset stomach or two, the only “side effect” was that the study participants’ mental functions improved! Though calm of body, they remained keen of mind.
Another study, this one eight weeks long, also concluded that kava extract was comparable to and safer than benzodiazepines. Two earlier experiments reached similar conclusions about taking the shrub for anxiety, tension, and menopause-related psychosomatic complaints. A 1996 German study of 43 women and 15 men suffering from anxiety reached the same judgment.
Kava’s effectiveness and safety persist even after long-term use, according to a six-month study conducted by researchers at Jena University in Germany. The trial’s 101 participants had been diagnosed with anxiety that stemmed from a variety of nonpsychotic causes, including agoraphobia and other specific phobias. Half the group took 90 to 110 milligrams of a standardized kava extract containing 70 milligrams of kavalactones; the other half took placebo pills. No one, not even the researchers, knew who was taking what. In the end, the kava users’ anxiety levels, unlike those who took the fake pills, improved significantly. They felt less agitated, experienced no detrimental side effects, and suffered no withdrawal problems at the end of the experiment.
Yet again, the natural medicinal compared more than favorably with Valium and its benzodiazepine brethren, especially because of the safety factor. Few studies, the researchers pointed out, have examined the long-term implications of such drugs.
I could go on, but you get the idea. As a stress buster and anxiety antidote, kava deserves a hearty “Brava! Brava!”
FROM MY SCIENCE NOTEBOOK If people have been doing something since time immemorial, odds are that they have a pretty good reason. As far as ingesting kava is concerned, they sure do. We now understand chemically why the plant has acquired such a long-lasting loyal following.
I hate to isolate individual compounds in a plant. They cohabitate for a reason and usually serve us best when working together, not on their own. Among the more important medicinal ingredients in kava, for instance, are substances called kavalactones. Each of them–kawain, dihydrokawain, methysticin, yangonin, desmethoxyyangonin, and dihydromethysticin–possesses slightly different physiological effects, but when they work synergistically, they’re anywhere from 2 to 20 times more active.
With that in mind, I’ll note that dihydrokawain (DHK) and dihydromethysticin (DHM) appear to be the most effective general relaxants and muscle relaxants of the phytochemical bunch. Together, they pack the analgesic punch of a typical 200-milligram aspirin. DHK is the primary sedative, while kawain is more of a tranquilizer. DHM gently depresses the central nervous system, as does kawain, to a lesser extent. For the most part, these phytochemicals affect only the lower central nervous system, which means they leave higher functions intact. In other words, your body mellows out, but your mind remains sharp.
In low doses, the overall kavalactonic impact is much like that of Valium or the other benzodiazepines, although it works in a manner different from this pharmaceutical family. The primary difference, a couple of studies show, is one of safety. Although physiologically similar to the benzodiazepines, kava is clearly safer, one study concluded. The plant displays no addictive potential and threatens no mental impairment. In fact, for study participants taking kava, cognitive function actually improved!
How Kava Can Help
Something that puts the slack back into a day’s worth of high-strung nerves certainly earns a place at home at night–or whenever else you might benefit from relaxed muscles, eased pain, and somewhat numbed nerves. Insomnia is an obvious application, but pay attention: I think you’ll be surprised by some of kava’s other potential uses.
Genitourinary concerns. For some reason, kava takes a notable liking to the urinary tract. Its analgesic, anti-inflammatory, muscle-relaxing qualities bring relief to a range of urinary problems, particularly in women. Kavalactones also are recognized specifically for their ability to relax the uterus, which is why the shrub has been a time-honored treatment for menstrual cramps and dysmenorrhea.
For almost any achy, inflammatory urinary disorder, medical folklore includes kava in the remedy. It’s been used against bladder inflammation, urethral inflammation, vaginitis, gonorrhea, cystitis, pyelitis, and burning or pain upon going to the bathroom. And while the plant is a strong diuretic, which helps encourage urination, it also supposedly helps to treat incontinence.
Headaches. Muscle relaxation might be the key here, but then you don’t need to single out a specific reason when the herb also blunts pain, discourages muscle spasms, settles seething nerves, and cools inflammation. Two specific kavalactones, dihydrokawain and dihydromethysticin, together have the analgesic power of a 200-milligram aspirin tablet.
Insomnia. No need for sleeping pills or nightcaps that whomp you with an 80-proof wallop. When worries and woes keep you wide awake, the plant’s muscle-relaxing, pain-allaying, tranquillity-inducing influence is a botanical blessing.
Some people claim that kava-influenced sleep is dreamless; others say that the deep, restful slumber it facilitates is lush with vivid, epic-length imagery. Your mileage may vary, I suppose. I don’t recall any obvious changes in my dreams. If you need help to fall asleep, you probably won’t care whether you dream or not.
excerpted from www.guidetohealth.com
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