Hillary Clinton did it. Queen Elizabeth did it. Even Pope John Paul II did it. During visits to the South Pacific, they each sampled a brew made from kava (Piper methysticum), a shrub in the black pepper family. Kava (also called kava-kava) has been used for centuries by South Pacific islanders in formal ceremonies and social gatherings. Traditionally, the dried root was chewed to a pulp, then mixed with coconut milk or water to make an intoxicating, but nonalcoholic drink.
What it Might Do: Kava is said to create alert relaxation, followed by restful sleep. European studies support kava’s use to reduce anxiety, enhance sleep quality, and to improve mood in the years before menopause. And the German government allows kava to be sold over-the-counter for anxiety and stress. Laboratory studies and anecdotal reports suggest kava may also be useful for treating tension headaches, menstrual cramps, fibromyalgia and other chronic aches and pains.
How it Might Work: Substances called kavalactones are believed to be the primary active ingredients. They act in the part of the brain where emotions and moods are processed, and directly on skeletal and smooth muscle to reduce contractions. Kava also eases pain, through an unknown mechanism.
If You Take: Kava is available in lets or capsules, as tinctures or dried.Look for products standardized to contain 70% kavalactones—the amount typically used in European studies. For anxiety, the usual dose is a 100-milligram capsule, three times daily. For pain and muscle relaxation — 200 milligrams three times daily.
Caution: Kava should not be taken with drugs that act on the central nervous system, such as alcohol, barbiturates and benzodiazepines, or when using blood thinners like warfarin (Coumadin). It should not be used by those with depression, schizophrenia or Parkinson’s Disease. Do not take it if you are pregnant or nursing. Taking excessive amounts of kava may impair motor reflexes and judgment, making driving or operating machinery risky. Skin allergies and reversible yellowing of the skin, nails and hair may occur if high doses are taken for a long time.
EN Weighs In: Scientific research and a long history of use strongly suggest kava is safe at therapeutic levels for short periods. Kava may be worth a try as a first line of attack against mild anxiety brought on by specific situations. It may be safer than prescription drugs for mild insomnia and may bring relief from muscular tension. For relief long-term—more than three months—see your doctor.
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