Calm Down With Kava - Go Magazine Feb 2013

Calm Down With KavaNarelle Muller looks at an ancient remedy used to help reduce stress and promote sleep. 


Stress is not merely a modern malady. For as long as we’ve been here, humans have looked for ways of coping with the pressures of daily living.

Simply deciding to relax and let go isn’t always that easy and sometimes we need a helping hand. We’ve sought solace in plants and herbs in different ways, with varying degrees of success. Substances which are highly effective in promoting good feelings are sometimes frowned upon or considered unhealthy. But, it’s is not always the product itself that is harmful, more our lack of restraint which leads to our undoing. If a little is good, a lot must be even better, right? Well, no. For example, research has proven an occasional glass of red wine is good for us, but several glasses are not.

As with most things, sensible consumption is the winning way. And so it is with kava, a plant which has caused some controversy in the past, but which has been used for thousands of years in the Pacific islands as a social and ceremonial drink and in some countries as a medicinal herb.


Kava is mainly used to manage anxiety, stress and insomnia. The plant from which kava is produced, piper methysticum, is a shrub belonging to the pepper family, piperaceae.

The root or stump of the shrub contains kavalactones, which are extracted and consumed for their sedative, anaesthetic and muscle-relaxant effects. Kavalactones are absorbed through the stomach into the bloodstream and eventually reach the brain where, like alcohol (although there is no alcohol in kava) they can produce similar behaviour to drunkenness if consumed in large quantities.

While it has traditionally been taken as a drink, these days kava is more conveniently available in tablet form and is added to some medicines as a relaxant. A natural narcotic, it is said to promote feelings of mental clarity, patience and ease. The name itself spells out these properties, as piper is Latin for “pepper” and methysticum the Latin/Greek word for “intoxicating”. Valued medicinally for its sedative and anaesthetic properties, kava became widely known among Pacific island cultures as, “The Drink of Peace”.  Those who have tried the traditional liquid version liken it to diluted mud and it is said to taste quite bitter, which explains why many people prefer to take it in a more processed form. Even those accustomed to drinking kava often are said to sometimes wince at the aftertaste and due to its narcotic properties, it can numb the mouth and throat after consumption. Kava tablets are believed to offer all the benefits without the inconvenience. When buying tablets, look for products which contain only dried root and rhizome, rather than leaf and stem, which may be considered inferior.


In 2003, products containing kava were banned in some European countries, due to concerns about possible toxic effects on the liver. Products containing kava were temporarily withdrawn in Australia, but after a review by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in 2003, it was given the green light for supplements in restricted doses and in teabags.


While centuries of use have proven kava assists in inducing physical and mental relaxation during life’s difficult times, it should be treated with respect. Be sure to follow dosage and recommendations on the packaging. Kava is not meant for long-term use and should not be taken by anyone with existing liver problems. Pregnant and breast-feeding women should seek medical advice before taking kava, as should anyone on medication. It is not recommended for people with Parkinson’s disease.



Narelle Muller is a journalist and health writer with more than 20 years’ experience.


This article originally featured on Go Magazine Feb 2013 produced by Go Vita


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