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The Kava mystery

25 July 2011

A quick glance around most cultures of the globe will show that at some point in their history an enterprising individual let something ferment, anything from a potato to some grapes, and found that this could be the basis for a drink that if consumed could make worries over the inadequacies of fur underwear disappear for a few hours. Yes, alcoholic beverages are historically global, except that is for Oceania, the island communities of the Pacific including Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. Alcohol did not reach these islands until Europeans bought it in the eighteenth century but they did have something in its place, a magical drink used in sacred ceremonies and celebrations. It was both calming and promoted sociability and its name was, and is, kava.

Kava has been used in ceremonies by the Oceanic people for thousands of years. Traditionally kava was by chewing the roots of the kava (Piper methysticum) plant and spitting the chewed portions into a bowl. The chewed root was then soaked in coconut milk, strained and then drunk. The Europeans who saw this were somewhat disconcerted, describing it variously as “disgustful” and “nauseous stuff”. So the chewing was thrown over on some occasions for grinding or grating.

The effect of kava has always been reported as inducing a sense of tranquillity and sociability. In recent decades this has led to the adoption of kava by western herbal medicine as a remedy for anxiety. However, that practice hit a snag about a decade ago.

In 2001 there emerged reports of liver damage in some Westerners who took kava supplements. Many western countries including Australia introduced regulations to control the use of kava as a result. The anomaly was however, that Oceanic people has safely used kava for millennia, so what was the problem?

To see if they could unearth what is behind the mystery of kava, some researchers undertook a review of 85 scientific studies on kava toxicity. They found that there is “no consensus” on kava toxicity for the liver despite several theories being put forward.

It is a shame that understanding eludes us for in clinical trials kava has been shown to be as effective as benzodiazepines in relieving anxiety with fewer side-effects. It has also been shown to be effective in relieving insomnia. The toxicity of kava is not universal and effort should be made to discover the nature of it so that the benefits of this ancient herb can be enjoyed where applicable.