The botanical name for kava is piper methysticum, or “intoxicating pepper.” It originates in the islands of the South Pacific, where its use in religious ceremonies and social gatherings predates the area’s written histories.
Historically, kava, which is a root, was mashed, either by chewing or grinding, and then added to coconut milk or water. The liquid was then strained and served. The drink, which predated alcohol use in the South Pacific, was said to produce a soothing or calming effect. Natives also used it to treat a variety of minor physical ailments.
These days kava extract can be bought in capsule form at almost any supplement or health store. You can also buy teas laced with kava root. In Europe, physicians prescribe kava for their patients who are experiencing mild anxiety. Kava has not been subject to extensive rigorous double blind research, but some studies do show that it is more effective than placebos at reducing stress and anxiety.
The recommended dose of kava for minor anxiety is 100 mg of an extract of 70% Kava lactones taken two or three times daily. Unfortunately, because kava is regulated as a supplement in the US, rather than as a drug, the FDA has no regulatory authority over it. This means that manufacturers are subject to no penalty if they misstate the amount of kava contained in their products. Previous studies of the supplement St. John’s Wort showed that the amount of the herb actually contained in a product often varied wildly from the manufacturer’s claim on the label.
While kava manufacturers claim that kava is non-addictive, no serious research into kava’s potential addictive qualities has even been undertaken by a neutral third party, and most drugs that produce similar anxiety-reducing effects are highly additive.
While kava seems to be relatively harmless in moderate doses, many experts recommend that you not try to operate heavy machinery or drive a car while under the influence of kava. Kava intoxication has also been reported among Aborigines in Australia, who reported dizziness and muscle weakness with high doses.
Unless you live in a tropical climate, you will need a high humidity green house if you want to grow your own kava. Begin by purchasing a young kava plant. Dig a hole in high quality soil that is at least two times the size of the kava’s roots. Put one to two shovels of compost or chicken manure into the hole, and then add lose soil until the hole is halfway filled again. Plant the kava plant and then fill the remainder of the hole with soil. Lightly pack the soil around the plant’s base and then generously water the plant. If you are using a green house, remember to keep your plant well watered. If you are in a tropical climate, the natural rains should suffice, but water your plant if there is an extended period of little rainfall.
Your kava plant will grow to be eight to 12 feet tall and will have heart-shaped leaves about eight inches long.
While kava is generally considered to be safe and relatively effective at reducing mild anxiety, it is always responsible to check with your physician before adding any herbal supplement to your diet.