Kava (Piper methysticum)
by Mel Kasting
Kava is at once acrid and pungent. A warming peppery spiciness followed by a numbing sensation; starting on the tongue and spreading, as an increase in saliva diffuses the herb throughout my mouth. I feel the numbing all the way to my pharynx.
My face warms and a comforting heat softens thoughts and relaxes muscles from my neck down to my toes. I am sore from an active day yesterday and welcome Kava’s muscle relaxing effects. After 5 minutes, my body feels exactly like I just got out of a long, hot bath. Warm, physically and emotionally calm without being sleepy (Kava will make you sleepy in large doses). It makes me want to have a long in-person conversation with my most talkative friend, Kelly. Kava is a lot like her, both stimulating AND calming. Both the herb and the friend leave me feeling happy, confident, and supported.
Genus and Species: Piper methysticum
Common names: Kava, Kava Kava, Intoxicating Long Pepper
Description: Kava is a dioecious, perennial shrub native to the Pacific Islands. It can grow up to 15 feet high and it’s erect stem has pronounced nodes similar to bamboo. The cordate leaves are vibrant green and between 5-10 inches long. It shoots up pale yellow-green spikes with inconspicuous flowers. Plants are propagated by root division, as flowers are sterile.
Properties: Sedative, Anxiolytic, Analgesic, antispasmodic, antipyretic, anesthetic
Taste: Acrid, pungent, numbing
Parts Used: Root
Tissue States: Tension
Key Uses: Anxiety, stage fright, pain (especially muscular and pain associated with the mucus membranes) insomnia, stress, and as a local anesthetic
History and Ethnobotany: Kava has a long history of use in the Pacific Islands as a ceremonial and social beverage. Traditionally it is picked,(some cultures dry and some use fresh) and either chewed, ground, or pounded before being infused in fresh water or coconut milk. It is made for immediate consumption and was never stored long term. Some cultures had young women, often bare breasted, chew and prepare Kava for the tribal elders.
Most cultures in the Pacific chewed Kava until they had contact with Europeans, who though this process unhygienic and urged them to switch to pounding and grinding.
It was imbibed at sunset, usually before dinner to enjoy the full effects. Men and women drank Kava separately in most cultures. It was used socially, in religious and political ceremonies to foster camaraderie and fellowship.
Additionally, it is part of many cultures communion with their gods and spirits. Kava was used as a sacrifice, and in larger amounts to allow tribal priests to connect with the spirit world.
Kava modifies GABA receptors and blocks the uptake of norepinephrine, causing a noticeable reduction in anxiety and stress. It works especially well for social anxiety and circular thoughts. I have given it to people (and taken it personally) for all kinds of public speaking, crowd claustrophobia, feeling shy or out of sync at social gatherings, and for people who made commitments but when the time comes for the event they “just don’t feel social.” It also works when someone is or the verge of a panic attack, although I have not found it as useful during an attack. After a panic attack it seems to cause a spacy disconnection that is unpleasant to most people.
It is a powerful connecting agent if all members of a group partake, whether it’s of a social (like stories around a campfire), business (board meeting or negotiation) or used in personal relationships to enhance communication. I like to combine it with Damiana for social or personal communication.
It works for occasional stress or anxiety induced insomnia, especially when the individual is overly focused on one or a few thoughts. I tell clients to take a ml of strong Kava tincture, write a list of all of everything running through their heads, take one more ml, and get into bed.
Note: This is not a tonic or building herb and is best used for the occasional need or short term while also giving tonics and working on the root cause of the stress, anxiety, or insomnia.
David Winston uses Kava as a mucus membrane analgesic for the upper GI, urinary tract, and reproductive tract. Especially for urinary tract infections, prostatitis, interstitial cystitis, andinflammation of the vas deferens. It is also a wonderful internal and external remedy for muscular pain, tension, and spasm. Jim McDonald suggests a Kava/Goldenrod oil for muscle aches that works fantastically well, especially after a long, hot shower.
Constituents: Kavalactones, including kawain, dihydrokavain, methysticin, dihydromethysticin. Kavalactones show a centrally acting relaxation of skeletal muscles and reflex irritability. Some of them also show an analgesic and antipyretic action. In addition, kawaic acid is one of the numbing properties. It also has flavonoids, minerals, and quite a bit of starch.
Dosage and Method of Delivery:
Tincture: ½ to 2 ml, 1-4 times a day
Capsules: 1-4 a day
Standard Infusion: 2 tsp soaked in 8 ounces of water for 10-20 minutes. 1-3 cups a day
Traditional Preparation with a twist: Fill a small muslin bag with 1-2 ounces of powdered Kava. Close bag, place in a bowl filled with 8 cups of water, and knead in the water with your hands. This is best done is a group so everyone can have a turn. Kava is ready when everyone has taken a turn or after 15-20 minutes. Add your choice of milk and sweetener. My favorite is coconut milk and maple syrup. One dose is ½-2 cups.
Cautions and Contraindications: Not for use in pregnancy, breastfeeding, compromised liver, or liver disease. Do not take Kava with alcohol. No more than 9 grams a day should be taken to avoid liver damage (T.E.) Do not drive while taking kava. Can cause liver damage in high and frequent doses.
Winston, David. 2014. Herbal Therapeutics. Tenth Edition. Broadway, NJ. Herbal Therapeutics Library.
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Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom. Kava, the Pacific Elixir. 1992. Healing Arts Press, Rochester, VT.
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