If you’ve ever been to Fiji you’re sure to have tried kava. It’s the national drink and it’s sold and consumed everywhere. It’s used in Fijian ceremonies and drank daily by locals. On the island, it’s known as yaqona, or by its colonial nickname “grog," but no matter what you call it, locals and visitors alike love how this earthy tea calms that mind and soothes the soul. That’s probably why kava has made its way to the West in a big way. Here’s what you need to know about it.
Piper methysticum, kava kava, or ‘awa are all the same name for a tiny shrub native to the islands of the South Pacific. The root is made into a beverage by submerging a porous sack full of the root into water, grinding it and turning it into a paste, then steeping it like you would tea. It has an earthy flavor and muddy appearance and drinking it is known to promote relaxation while sharpening the attention.
What are the Benefits of Kava?
"Kava is an herb that can help with anxiety. There have been some studies that show it works as well as drugs like Xanax to alleviate symptoms after a few doses. It isn’t sedating or habit forming as well so it makes a great alternative," says Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, an integrative medicine practitioner and herbalist. "It also helps with other brain issues like depression and sleep function."
Studies have found that this age-old ceremonial beverage may have a lot of health benefits including:
- Reducing anxiety
- Aiding sleep
- Protecting neurons from damage
- Reducing pain sensations
- Reducing your risks of cancer
- Evening out mood swings
- Supporting those with addiction issues
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A number of studies have been done using kava. A study published in the October 2013 issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology found that kava was an effective treatment for a short-term reduction in anxiety. Another study published in the January 2014 edition of Cancer Prevention Research found that kava inhibited the growth of lung cancer tumors in mice. And another study published in the June 2015 edition of Neural Regeneration Research found that kava is effective at reducing nervous system pain.
The Traditional Uses of Kava
In Fiji and other South Pacific islands, kava is used ceremoniously. The cloudy drink is served in coconut shells and passed around large groups. The ceremony has taken place for thousands of years though, traditionally, it was only the chief that actually sipped the kava. In the past 40 years, since Fiji gained its independence from Great Britain, the ceremony has been opened up to larger gatherings.
The Risks of Kava
In 2010, the FDA warned that kava may cause liver damage. According to the FDA, “[r]eports from health authorities in Germany, Switzerland, France, Canada, and the United Kingdom have linked kava use to at least 25 cases of liver toxicity, including hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver failure, prompting some of these countries to remove kava from the market. Although liver damage appears to be rare, the FDA believes consumers should be informed of this potential risk.”
While instances of liver damage were rare, it can be concerning for consumers. If you have liver disease or liver problems or are on other medications, you should talk to your doctor before taking kava.
"Don’t use kava if you have liver issues or drink regularly. Also, don’t take it if you are on Tylenol or statins for cholesterol as well. Only take kava short term. Stop kava if you get liver toxify symptoms such as yellow eyes, dark urine and jaundice," says Dr. Trattner.
Forms of Kava
Kava tea is a popular form of kava and most closely linked to its traditional form. But kava is also available in capsules and extracts. It’s best to talk to your doctor to identify a safe dosage.
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