Kava – is it right for you?

A client recently asked about Kava, as she had been doing some reading about it and wondered whether it might be appropriate for her. There has been a fair amount of contention about this herb in the last few years, a fair amount of it undeserved.

Kava has been used both medicinally and recreationally in Papua New Guinea for many years. It has anxiety-relieving activities (that have been proven in clinical studies), and scientific research has also shown it to be useful for some cases of low mood (such as in menopause), muscle tension and insomnia. Traditionally, it may also help headaches and mouth or throat pain, as a local anaesthetic, mild analgesic and muscle relaxant.

A few years ago, the TGA decided to withdraw Kava from the market after fears that it contributed to liver damage and a woman’s death. After investigation, they decided to reinstate this herb, but only on prescription and as a water-extract, not extracted with alcohol (as many herbs are). The World Health Organisation has similar views – that Kava is safe when used as a medicinal product on prescription (http://www.crikey.com.au/2007/07/11/who-says-kava-is-safe-australia-bans-it/).

I have used this herb with a number of people who have found it very useful for helping them to relax, feel less anxious and get a good night’s sleep. In some people, it may contribute to very strange dreams – much more vivid than usual. I personally think that it brings a lot of subconscious processing out into the open – for better or worse (some people can get nightmares, whilst others find it handy to gain clarity on what is going on in their lives). Kava is a mild sedative, and so combination with other sedatives may lead to a stronger effect – this may be good or bad depending upon your individual case.

Interestingly, even though it is sedating, this herb can improve cognitive ability in some cases – one study showed that those who took it had quicker reaction times and better word recognition on tests. It also enhanced the speed of access of information from long term memory.

So, over all, those who may benefit include those who:

–          Are anxious, or have depression (certain types).

–          Have sore throats.

–          Have tight muscles or tension headaches.

–          Have reduced cognitive ability (perhaps due to anxiety or depression).

–          Have trouble sleeping.

–          Are stressed and cannot relax.

You should only take Kava if your Naturopath or health professional thinks it is appropriate for you, so if you’re curious, have a chat to them about it. 

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