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How Does Kava Work?

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what are kavalactones

How Does Kava Work?

The known active ingredients in kava are phytochemicals called kavalactones that give kava it's calming, anxiolytic, and euphoric effects. 

The kavalactones are concentrated in the rootstock and roots rather than in the aerial parts of the plant like the stems and leaves. Each kavalactone produces a somewhat different physiologic effect in the body, and the quality of the kava is determined by the number of different kavalactones present. There are about 18 distinct types of kavalactones, but only six of them are routinely measured, as they represent greater than 90 percent of the total amount of kavalactones within the kava specimen.

Noble kava from Vanuatu is considered the best kava kava and usually include all six major kavalactone types in their chemical makeup. The six major kavalactones are: desmethoxyyangonin, dihydrokavain, yangonin, kavain, dihydromethysticin, and methysticin.

The Physiological Kava Effects

The therapeutic potential that surrounds kava effects on the body has warranted extensive research on the physiological effects of kavalactones.

In the 1960s, German researchers undertook many studies to determine the effect of kavalactones on the brain. One of the main findings was that the kavalactones have a pronounced sedative effect (Meyer 1966), with the unsaturated kavalactones (kavain, methysticin, yangonin) more potent than the others.

However, Kretzschmar and Teschendorf (1974) showed that the kavalactones do not induce sleep like true sedatives and do not inhibit the sensitivity of sensory nerves, nor do they reduce motor activity, but rather act as muscle relaxants and enhancers of deep sleep. Unlike sedatives, the kavalactones appear to work on the limbic system of the brain.

Holm et al. (1991) have shown that kavain increases the sensitivity of an area of the Iimbic system (hippocampus), an area indirectly associated with emotional excitability, due to its inhibition of the emotional centers of the brain cortex. This is probably why many people use kava as an aid in overcoming anxiety.

It is interesting to note that the researchers found a more pronounced effect when a kava extract was used, than kavain alone. This is probably because kava extracts contain other kavalactones, which interact with the limbic system more completely than kavain alone. 

Kava for Cancer Treatment

Can kava cure cancer? More recently Zi and Simoneau (2005) have reported that a chemical in kava, flavokawain A, has tumor suppressing activity in bladder cancer cells. Zi and Simoneau showed that this compound appears to selectively kill these types of cells.

This work follows on from an intriguing epidemiological study by Steiner (2000) of cancer incidence in Pacific island nations, which showed that ages standardized cancer incidence for kava drinking countries is one-fourth to one-third the cancer incidence in non-kava drinking countries and non-kava drinking Polynesians. In addition, three kava drinking countries (Vanuatu, Fiji, and Western Samoa) have a lower incidence of cancer in men than in women. This is intriguing, because in these countries, men are much more likely to drink kava.

Natural Anxiety Medication

If you’re interested in taking kava as an over the counter anxiety medication, you may be wondering if there is a recommended kava dosage you should start with. The truth is that kavalactones can act on the body in different ways at different doses, which is part of what makes kava such a versatile calming herb: one suitable both for evening recreation, a daytime anxiety aid, and a nighttime sleep aid.

Kava Safety

Your kava dosage in a traditionally prepared cold infusion of kava root can vary drastically, from 150 mg in a four-ounce serving to as much as 500 mg. Furthermore, indigenous peoples in the South Pacific Islands and Hawaii are accustomed to drinking multiple bowls of kava per day; it’s not uncommon for people to consume a kavalactones dosage of up to 2500 mg daily for years at a time. Although there have been no recorded ill effects in indigenous groups that frequently consume these high amounts of kava, the Kava Committee’s recommended kavalactones dosage stands at a maximum of 300 mg per day. The Committee has also recommended that people limit habitual non-medically supervised usage of kava to three months. 

Though we believe the historical evidence of kava’s safe use makes these recommended limits somewhat arbitrary, it is important to note that kava may interact harmfully if combined with alcohol and certain prescription drugs that affect the central nervous system, such as anti-depressants and sleep medications.

So, is kava safe? Yes, kava is relatively safe especially in comparison to often times toxic synthetic medications, but you should always consult a physician before using kava, either medicinally or recreationally.

Kava Dosage

A moderate kava dosage can have remarkable effects in alleviating generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and insomnia. Commercial kava extracts and pills sold as over the counter anxiety medication usually have a standardized dosage of kavalactones. A dosage between 70-210 mg of kavalactone has been proven clinically effective in treating anxiety. Because the kavalactones dosage is moderate, it can reduce anxiety while leaving you alert and lucid, making it suitable for daytime use. Similar doses of between 150 and 200 mg of kavalactones, taken a half hour before bed can help those struggling with an overactive mind and hasten the onset of sleep. 

The best way to find your ideal kavalactones dosage is to start with a small amount and increase the dosage over time as you become familiar with the effects it generates for you. People who are naïve to kavalactones may not feel anything their first few times (a phenomenon called reverse tolerance), but for those who have patience in working with this plant, kava can be a marvelously gentle herb to relax with at the end of the day or turn to whenever you need a dose of calm.

How To Prepare Kava

As discussed, the method of preparation has a real effect on the dosage of kavalactones in your average serving. If you’re preparing kava at home, some things to keep in mind are water tempursion, quality of ingredients, and your own personal tolerance to kava.

It’s important to use only the root in your kava preparations, which is liver-safe and the only part of the plant used in indigenous preparations. Kavalactones are also concentrated in the root stock, especially the small lateral roots that grow on the surface of the soil.

When making kava tea, it’s important not to heat your water beyond 140 degrees Fahrenheit because the active ingredients will begin to break down.

Kava tea is usually a suspension of root matter in cold water, but you may want to considering mix in a fatty liquid such as coconut milk as some of kava’s active ingredients are only fat-soluble rather than water-soluble. This will increase the potency of your brew.

Expect a period of trial and error when you're first learning how to make kava teaAdjusting your own personal tolerance and body chemistry will affect the kava dosage you need to take for a pleasurable effect, just as different people have differing tolerances for alcohol. 

Click here to learn more about what is kava.

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