Kava, the tranquil plant

Kava, a South Pacific root which yields a relaxing beverage enjoyed widely by native people for over 3,000 years. Today kava is becoming widely-recognized in a new role as the primary medicinal plant for the relief of anxiety and tension and for the promotion of tranquility. Kava has the distinction of being the only plant drug which demonstrates significant enough efficacy to offer a real alternative to major pharmaceutical drugs used for these purposes. You can think of kava as the effective anti-dote to stress, one of the most pervasive health-destroyers of our modern world.

American society is stressed out and high strung, with no apparent end in sight. According to the National Foundation for Brain Research, approximately 50 million American adults battle with anxiety. According to the National Institutes of Health, panic disorder affects approximately three million Americans. It's no wonder that the sale of anti-anxiety drugs is a multi-billion dollar business.

Factors that contribute to widespread anxiety and tension are easy to identify. Hectic schedules, financial pressures, family demands, job hassles, traffic jams, high-pressure social obligations, health disorders, life passages, traumatic events and other perils and pitfalls of living cause people to be stressed and anxious. The negative health effects of stress and anxiety can include weakened immunity, nervousness, indigestion, difficulty concentrating, sleeplessness, chronic fatigue and an overall haggard feeling. When anxiety blossoms into full-blown panic, symptoms escalate too, and can include tachycardia, palpitations, dizziness, syncope, trembling, dyspnea, choking or smothering sensations, paresthesias, and extreme fears of dying, losing control of the mind or performing irrational acts.

To combat these symptoms many people turn to the use of tranquilizers, especially the benzodiazepine class of drugs which includes Valium Registered trademark, Halcion Registered trademark, Seraph Registered trademark and Xanax Registered trademark. But the use of these drugs can lead to addiction and complications including seizure disorders, vision problems, headaches, anorexia, neuromuscular difficulties and psychosis. While the use of these and other psychoactive drugs such as Protrac Registered trademark is virtually ubiquitous at this point in time, these drugs can be hazardous to health and many people experience unwanted side effects as a result of using them.

The task of brain researchers has been, and continues to be, to plumb the depths and breadth of this mysterious organ and to determine, among other things, what happens where. Today we know quite a lot. One area of the brain known as the limbic system, which is highly-developed in mammals and therefore dubbed the "mammalian brain," is a collection of structures including the fornix, hippocampus, hypothalamus, pituitary gland and amygdala. The limbic system is key to feelings of fear, anger, sadness and the myriad of complex psychophysical responses we call emotions.

In addition, homeostatic mechanisms in the limbic system regulate blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, blood sugar, sexual impulses, eating, drinking, sleeping and waking. While various parts of the limbic system play unique roles (the pituitary, for example, plays a key role in hormonal regulation), the components of the limbic system seem to work in concert through a network of interconnecting fibers and pathways. Given these interconnections, it is easy to appreciate how anxiety and sleeplessness, or loss of appetite and heart palpitations, could go together. These, and many other functions, are all regulated by the limbic system.

In the limbic system, a small organ the size of a chick pea, the amygdala (of which there are two, one left, one right), regulates feelings of fear and anxiety, and processes memories en route to the cerebral cortex. This little organ, whose name means "almond" due to its shape, is a significant site of activity for both the benzodiazepine class of drugs and for the active constituents in kava. A 1989 National Advisory Mental Health Council report noted that "Benzodiazepine receptors are located in many different regions of the limbic system, as well as other parts of the brain. However, researchers found recently that benzodiazepine receptors are highly-concentrated in a particular region of the brain called the amygdala that is critical to emotional processing, suggesting that this structure may be an important site of their action." The same, as It turns out, is true for kava. In studies reported in 1991, the preferential site of action for the kavalactones, which are the pharmacologically-active constituents in kava, was the amygdala.

While many people experience benefits from anti-anxiety drugs, getting off of these drugs can be uncomfortable at least, and highly risky in some cases. The documented symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome include anxiety, agitation, tremulousness, insomnia, dizziness, headaches, anorexia, tinnitus, blurred vision, diarrhea, hypotension, hyperthermia, neuromuscular irritability, psychosis and seizures. Kava, on the other hand, has been successfully used in the treatment of anxiety, yet demonstrates no toxicity, side effects or withdrawal symptoms when used at recommended doses.

Several good clinical studies demonstrate the health benefits of kava. In one 1977 double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 84 patients suffering from anxiety, a daily dose of 400 mg of purified kavain improved vigilance, memory and reaction time.

Though kava's promotion of a good nights sleep is thoroughly well documented throughout history and is corroborated by the anecdotal accounts of numerous avid daily kava drinkers, a 1979 study confirmed that administration of kavalactones to humans does indeed induce sedation (a relaxed easy state) and sleepiness.

In a 1990 study of 38 patients suffering from anxiety, kavain and oxazepam, a benzodiazepine marketed under the trade name Serax Trademark, were compared over a period of four weeks. Both reduced symptoms of anxiety equally as measured by both the Self-Rating Anxiety Scale and the Anxiety Status Inventory. However, unlike kavain, oxazepam is addictive and produces side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, headaches and vertigo. This study made it clear that kavalactones possess anti-anxiety activity comparable to the benzodiazopines, but without the hazards.

In a 1991 four-week study of 58 patients suffering from anxiety, 29 were given 100 mg of a 70 percent kavalactone extract three times daily, whereas the control group was given a placebo. Those who took the kava extract experienced significant reduction in anxiety after just one week and were markedly improved at the end of the study. As with other studies, no adverse effects were reported as a result of the kava use.

In an eight-week, 1991 study of 40 women with menopausal symptoms, 20 women were given a daily dose of 100 mg of kava extract standardized to a 70 percent kavalactone value, and 20 were given a placebo. The group given the kava experienced a significant reduction in menopausal symptoms, anxiety and depression, whereas the control group experienced no significant change.

In a 1993 study of ]2 volunteers the effects of a standardized kava extract and oxazepam on mental function were compared. Oxazepam was shown to decrease both the quality and speed of responses to test questions, whereas the kava extract did not adversely affect mental function. In a word recognition test, oxazepam slowed reaction time and reduced the number of correct answers, whereas the kava extract slightly increased reaction time and recognition. This supports the oft-repeated claim of kava users that even when enough kava is consumed to induce a significantly relaxed, easy state, there is no impairment of mental function, including memory or clarity of thought.

In a battery of tests given to 40 subjects in 1993, kava extract administered to volunteers did not impair their performance driving an automobile or operating heavy machinery. Unlike alcohol or the benzodiazepines, kava taken in appropriate doses does not impair coordination, visual perception or judgment

Unlike the benzodiazepines, kava's effectiveness does not diminish over time. Whereas a person taking Valium Trademark, Xanax Trademark or oxazopam Trademark may need to increase their daily dose over time to achieve the same anti-anxiety effect, a dose of kava that works to control anxiety today will work equally well two years from now.

It is clear that kava offers a safe, effective alternative to prescription drugs for anxiety and related symptoms. So the question is, how much kava does one take? The most significant anti-anxiety studies show that an effective daily dose of kava is between 70-210 mg of kavalactones. In the 1991 anxiety study of 58 patients described above, the effective dose of kava was 70 mg of kavalactones taken three times daily. In the 1991 study of menopausal women cited above, the dose was just 70 mg of kavalactones daily. To promote sleep, a dose of approximately 150-200 mg of kavalactones taken 30 to 60 minutes prior to retiring is recommended.

In our stressed, anxious world we need an effective, natural remedy to relieve tension and promote tranquility, without hazardous side effects. To fulfill that role, kava is emerging as a valuable, beneficial aid, just in the nick of time.

22n1.jpg Kava, the tranquil plant

23n1.jpgIn the limbic system, a small organ the size of the cheak pea, the amygdala (of which there are two, one left, one right), regulates feelings of fear and anxiety, the process memories en route to the cerebral cortex.

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by CHRIS KILHAM

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