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Calm Yourself with Kava 

Over 200 years ago , Captain James Cook and his boat of the British explorers slid onto the lush islands of the South Pacific and discovered tropical bliss. Amid waterfalls  and plants , Cook observed and later reported back to the Western World that the islanders used an entrancing liquid in their rituals. They sipped the bitter drink from a coconut shell to celebrate marriages, births, and deaths, and to remove curses. 

This magical nectar was made with an herb called kava, or Piper methysticium, Latin for "intoxicating pepper." Under it's mystical influence, the locals appeared relaxed, sociable, and euphoric. 

Two centuries later, science and technology have taken us far from this Polynesian paradise, but the wondrous effects of kava that so bewitched explorers 200 years ago may help many of us lessen the effect of stress and anxiety.  

Turn Down the Static 

The mind can be a noisy place, each niggling thought vying for attention, causing us to snap at others and lose sleep. Kava cuts out the noise by escorting the unimportant thoughts to the back of the line and keeping the important thoughts front and center.  

"Everyone tends to think too much, " notes David Molony, L.Ac.,professional member of the American Herbalist Guild an executive director of the American Association of Oriental Medicine in Capasaqua, Pennsylvania. " You think about thinking and pretty soon it's a vicious cycle that is hard to break out of. That's the kind of static kava helps alleviate, " he says. 

Research still has not fully discovered how this natural relaxant works. But one thing is clear: Kava's likely active ingredients, called kavalactones (sometimes called kavapyrones), interact with the body and mind differently than other drugs your doctor might prescribe to relax your muscles or sedate you. Unlike heavy barbiturates such as morphine (or even milder drugs like aspirin), kavalactones act on the on the emotional part of the brain, producing a sense of tranquility and softening feelings of anger and fear. The herb also affects the muscles, relaxing them. And it is hard to be anxious when your body is relaxed, adds Hyla Cass, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine.  

The Science Behind It 

In one study of kava's effects on anxiety, more than three quarters of the participants taking kava extract showed significant improvement in mood, tension, and sleep quality after 24 weeks, while only half of those taking a placebo enjoyed the same results. ( The subjects took kava for about twice as long as most experts recommend, but they were closely monitored.) 

Surprisingly, kavalactones may even sharpen your intelligence. In a German study involving 101 patients suffering from anxiety and tension disorders, researchers were amazed to discover that kava actually increased awareness and concentration. "Since kava shuts off a lot of the extraneous noises of worry and anxiety that cloud our minds, we can  focus more effectively and efficiently, " explains Dr. Cass.  

It Works and It's Safe 

Not only is kava effective, it's also safe. According to experts, one of the most remarkable of kava's attributes is it's superior clinical safety" when compared to benzodiazepines - the medications doctors often prescribe for anxiety (valium, tranzene, ativan, xanax...). In one study, besides an upset stomach there were no adverse reactions to kava extract. And researchers found no evidence of morning-after drowsiness or dependency - just two of the many dangerous side effects of the drugs Xanax and Valium.  

One of the few side effects experts observe outside the lab is a rare skin condition called kavadermopathy. A yellow, scaly rash, it's generally found among ritual drinkers who continuously drink very potent teas, say Dr. Cass. Fortunately, you do not need high doses to relive mild anxiety, she says. As long as you stay within safe dosage levels, skin conditions should not be a problem.  

Okay for the Short Term 

Is kava's somewhat untarnished safety record just cause to use it? 

Well, that depends on the level of stress in your life and your ability to contend with it. " The world around us subjects us to stressful experiences every day, " say Joseph E. Pizzorno Jr. N.D., cofounder and president of Basyr University in Bothell, Washington, and author of Encyclopaedia of Natural Medicine. "Stress itself isn't bad; it's our response to it that that can cause problems." If you feel the effects of stress on occasion or think you could use some help to get you through a stressful situation, kava may be the natural alternative for you.  

If the ravages of anxiety are persistent and intense, using kava over the long haul could be like putting a Band-Aid on a snakebite: You'll probably need more serious treatment. Although research has shown that kava can be effective for mild to moderate anxiety by reducing symptoms like insomnia, if your anxiety is chronic, you may be dealing with a serious psychological concern. 
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