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Herbal Monograph

Herb:  KAVA KAVA  (Piper methysticum; Peperaceae)

Other Names: ava, ava pepper, intoxicating pepper, kawa  (2; Ava, ava pepper, kava   (57))

Character/Energetics:   pungent, bitter, warm  (6)

Meridians/Organs/Body Parts affected:  liver, kidneys    (6)    nerves    (14)

Part(s) used:    root    (6)    root    (14)

Identification & Harvesting:    A 2-3m high, erect bush with very large leaves measuring 9″ by 12″.  Plant has a massive, 2-10 kg in weight, branched, very juicy rhizome with many secondary roots.  Numerous small flowers in spike-like inflorescences 1″-4″ long.  Odor reminiscent of lilac.  Indigenous to South Sea islands and is mainly cultivated there.  Taste is pungent and numbing.    (2)

A large root, and usually cut into segments 2 inch or more in diameter, externally blackish grey, internally whitish, fracture mealy and somewhat splintery, central portion porous, with irregularly twisted thin wood bundles separated by broad medullary rays, so that under the thick bark the wood bundles form distinct meshes.  Rootlets, when not removed, often 12 inch long or more, and more or less fibrous.  Tastes somewhat pungent and numbing.  Odor is agreeable, like lilacs.    (57)

A highly-variable sprawling shrub in the pepper family, found throughout South Pacific islands from Hawaii to New Guinea.  Cultivated so long, its origins are unclear.    (61)

Active Constituents:    Kava lactones (kava pyrones 5-12%) chiefly (+)-kavain, 7,8-dihydro-(+)-kavain (marindinine), (+)-methysticin, 7,8-dihydro-(+)-methysticin, yangonine, desmethoxyyangonin;  chalcones.    (2)

resin including lactones, kawahin, yangonin, methysticin, glycosides, starch    (6)

Root contains about 10 % resin, which, dissolved in sandalwood oil, is used for gonorrhea.    (57)

Actions:    Anti-anxiety effects;  a potentiator of other sedatives;  anticonvulsant;  antispasmodic;  central muscular relaxant.    (2)

analgesic, antispasmodic, antiseptic, sedative, diuretic, tonic    (6)   

Primarily anodyne, antiseptic, antispasmodic, diuretic;  also sedative, tonic.    (14)

Tonic, stimulant, diuretic.    (57)

Kavalactones have pain-relieving activity comparable to aspirin.  One particular kavalactone produces a numbing effect in the mouth.  Shown to relax muscles by affecting muscular contractility rather than by blocking neurotransmitter signals in nerves.    (61)

Conditions & Uses:    Used for nervous anxiety, stress, restlessness, insomnia.    (2)

Kava kava relieves pain in rheumatic complaints, and alleviates insomnia and nervousness. It is used as an intoxicating beverage in certain South Sea islands. It can induce lethargy, drowsiness and dreams. Kava kava one of the best pain‑relieving herbs.     (6)

Internal — insomnia, kidney infections, urinary antiseptic:  tincture, fluid extract, infusion.  Nervous conditions:  tincture, fluid extract, infusion, powder.  Neuralgia, pain:  tincture, fluid extract.

External — analgesic:  fomentation.

An excellent herb for insomnia and nervousness.  Used internally for pains associated with nerve or skin disease and will relieve stress after an injury.  An antiseptic good as a douche and valuable for urninary tract infections.  May be flavored with peppermint of some other aromatic.    (14)

Has been employed in bronchitis, rheumatism, and gout, and is recommended in gonorrhea and gleet, augmenting the discharges before a cure, which is effected in the short time of 10-12 days.  Also a remedy for nocturnal incontinence of urine, due to muscular weakness.    (57)

A decoction has been used to treat gonorrhea, chronic cystitis and other urinary infections, menstrual problems migraine headache, insomnia and other conditions.  Approved in Germany for nervous anxiety, stress and unrest;  in Europe, for irritable bladder syndrome.  Confirmed usefulness for anxiety, tension and overexcitement.    (61)

Combinations:    May potentiate the effectiveness of central nervous system agents, such as alcohol, barbiturates.    (2)

Often combined with pumpkin seed for its diuretic effect.    (61)

Precautions:    Contraindicated in patients with endogenous depression because it increases the danger of suicide.  Also contraindicated during pregnancy and in nursing mothers.  Occasional allergic reactions and slight yellowing of the skin;  gastrointestinal complaints, pupil dilation, disorders of oculomotor equilibrium have been reported.  Slight morning tiredness can appear with initial administration.  May cause reduced visual acuity and slowing of reactions while driving.  Should not be taken longer than three months with physician supervision.  Overdosage can result in motor dysfunctions.    (2)

Regular use of large doses will cause an accumulation of toxic substances in the liver.    (14)

Kava Kava may be an effective substitute for members of the benzodiazepine

class of anti-anxiety drugs, which includes Valium…use caution before using kava kava along with benzodiazepine drugs…such as alprazolam (Xanax) (Almeida and Grimsley)   (30)

Ditto the above from source (30).  Other benzodiazepines include Librium, Halcion, and Dalmane.    (1b)

Conventional drugs used to treat anxiety, such as tranquilizers, neuroleptics and anti-depressants, may be addictive or have side effects, but kava is proven effective with few side effects.  In some popular western literature, described as a “hypnotic”, but it is neither hallucinogenic nor stupefying, nor addictive.  German authorities warn against use during pregnancy, lactation or depression.  Because of its apparent sedative effect, should not be taken with alcohol or when operating machinery.  In high doses, side effects of long-term use include temporary yellow discoloration of skin, hair and nails;  rare allergic skin reactions;  and vision disturbances; also itching and sores.    (61)

Tincturing Process:

Applications:    Infusion (ground or powdered root):  steep 5-15 min; 2 oz., 2 x daily; up to 1 cup daily.  Decoction:  simmer 5-15 min; 2 oz., 2 x daily;  up to 1 cup daily.  Tincture:  15-30 drops as needed.  Fluid extract:  1/4-1/2 tsp as needed.  Powder:  3-7 #0 capsules (15-45 grains) as needed.    (14)


Dosage:  4 tbsp. simmered 10 minutes in 1 pint of water; standard dosage in formulas, 3‑9 gms.    (6)              

Powder dose 5-15 grains.    (57)

Up to 3 g. capsules daily.  Tincture 15-30 drops in water up to 3 x daily.    (61)

General Notes:    Recent scare concerning coma-inducing effect of kava was a gross (irresponsible) misrepresentation:  the one patient involved was also taking three other prescription meds at the same time:  alprazolam, a potent tranquilizer also known as Xanax;  terazosin, a blood pressure medicine with common side effects of weakness, lassitude and fatigue;  and cimetidine, an antacid notorious for its potentiation of other drugs including alprazolam.  Further, the patient was not comatose;  he was “lethargic and disoriented” and was described as “semi-comatose”, and he recovered in a few hours.    (1)

The root fermented yields an intoxicating drink.    (57)

At the moment, demand far outstrips the limited supply from the South Pacific.  Polynesians have used a thick brew of the fresh or dried root as their main beverage for centuries.  Its role in Pacific societies is as important as wine to southern Europe.    (61)



(1) Cayuga Botanicals Research Data, “Don’t be misled by scare tactics” by Robert Rountree, MD, Herbs for Health, Jan/Feb 2000, p. 32

(1b) ibid Research Data, “Herb/Drug Interactions” by Varro Tyler, PhD, ScD, Prevention, Sept. ’98, p. 97

(2)  PDR for Herbal Medicines (Medical Economics Co., 1998), pgs. 1043-44

(6) Planetary Herbology by Michael Tierra, C.A., N.D., pg. 235

(14) Natural Healing With Herbs by Humbart Santillo BS, MH, p. 137

(30) Medical Herbalism, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer 1997, pg.1

(57) Potter’s Cyclopaedia by R.C. Wren, F.L.S., p. 195

(61) 101 Medicinal Herbs by Steven Foster, pgs. 124-25


PHOTO: Wikipedia