Kava Kava (Piper methysticum)
Therapeutic Actions: anesthetic, antifungal, antispasmodic, anti-anxiolytic, nervine, sedative
Kava Kava is one of those herbs that has a bit of a mystique to it – owing largely to its cultural uses in Hawaii. This herb was often used for traditional purposes in its native lands; sometimes large quantities consumed to produce a slightly psychoactive effect conducive to a spiritual ceremony. It was also an herb used by common people for relaxation and as an offering to the gods. But, as we often do in western culture, it has been, ahem, adopted for more recreational purposes by a good many without any cultural or medicinal intentions. Sadly, kava kava is an herb that is badly abused and deserves to be reintroduced as the strong medicinal ally that it is.
Kava Kava Medicinal Benefits
Kava kava is powerful herb for conditions of stress, anxiety, and agitation. It is the herb for those that practically radiates tension. Kava Kava is perfect for that electric vibration that emits from an individual so intensely that there is almost an audible buzz about them. This is to say that kava kava is like an herbal pressure relief valve. Kava kava is an herb like no other for turning the proverbial volume knob of busy life down to a tolerable ambient level while not inducing drowsiness or stupor. This herb is ideally suited for acute situations such as impending panic/anxiety attacks, extreme agitation, and insufferable tension. I find that it wonderful herb for those with irrational fears (flying, crowds, etc).
Similarly, kava kava has an equally profound relaxing effect on the musculoskeletal system. It effectively relaxes tense muscle tissue, and its warming nature helps to speed peripheral blood flow and relieve stagnation resulting from long periods of tension. Kava is a powerful antispasmodic making it highly appropriate for all manners of muscle spasm, uterine/pelvic tension, and a racing heart.
Kava kava’s use stretch beyond its stress and tension relief. It is a topical anesthetic. A couple drops of tincture on a throbbing tooth can produce lasting relief. It is also antifungal – making it something to consider in cases of thrush and yeast infection (do note its extreme warming nature before use on or around sensitive tissues).
Kava Kava Safety & Dosage
There is no other way to say it. Kava Kava has gotten a bum rap. Let’s not dance around the subject of hepatotoxicity. PROLONGED AND EXCESSIVE USE OF KAVA KAVA MAY CAUSE LIVER DAMAGE.
Now, with that noted in large and unmistakable letters, let’s look at the subject of hepatotoxicity a little more critically. Most anecdotes of liver damage (with at least one account resulting is death) are associated with continuous and/or excessive use. Beyond improper use, microbial contamination of the herb is also a possible factor. As the herb is native to humid, damp climates, improper drying and storage may lead to microbial growth and be a factor in allegations of liver damage. Always buy your kava kava from reputable sources with high safety standards and follow modest suggested use guidelines.
Another concern, however comparatively minor, is the possibility of a skin rash that a small percentage of the population may present with after use. Although incredibly irritating, this dry, red, scaly rashes should disappear with discontinuation of kava kava use, with no lasting ill effects.
Kava Kava should be used of acute symptoms, and for a duration of no longer than two weeks at a time. German Commission E suggests 60-120mg of standardized extracts taken three times daily is safe. Do not take this herb if you are pregnant or nursing, have a chronic illness or are taking prescription medications (especially those that act on the nervous system or have liver toxicity potential themselves) without first consulting with a physician. I also would discourage anybody from consuming alcohol and using kava kava concurrently.
Kava Kava Identification
Kava Kava is an understory plant, growing in the moist shady forests of the tropical Pacific Islands. The green, heart-shaped leaves alternate down and long stems, and the male flowers produce a light green spike approximately six inches in length. Only the rhizome is used medicinally; leaves and stem have greater amounts of liver toxic compounds. If growing or wildcrafting kava kava, one should seek out only “noble” varieties, as other cultivars and chemotypes produce unwanted side effects known as the “kava hangover”.
It is very important to note that kava is listed as a “watch” herb with the United Plant Savers. This essentially means that the demand for the herb is outpacing the supply. Please use kava respectfully — for acute and short term use. Unless it is your cultural tradition and you are properly prepared to do so, please do not use this herb “recreationally”. Recreational use requires excessive consumption that is both hard on your liver and a depletion of valuable resources.
Kava Kava Massage Oil for Tense and Spasmed Muscles
If you have never experienced kava kava, let me just tell you that it tastes like hot spicy dirt. Not exactly pleasant, and it simply mocks you with its pungency if you try to gussy it up with other fancy flavors. I take kava kava tincture with a gulp and a shudder – and this from the gal that enjoys a finger or two of Scotch every once in a while. Kava kava is strong stuff. Potent, acrid, bitter, shudder inducing stuff. But it is so effective that I take my medicinal dutifully when my complaints warrant it.
But there is an easier way. A decidedly less shudder inducing way. Kava kava infused massage oil is an amazing alternative to oral dosing when the complaint is of muscle tension and associated pain. This is the best medicine for deep muscle tissue spasm causing pain and discomfort. It is a wonderful massage oil for those that carry constant tension in their neck and shoulders but is equally powerful for those experiencing pain and spasm in the lumbar/sacral areas. I like to add rose and lavender to the infusion, both lending penetrating antispasmodic relief and anti-anxiety benefits. Additions of essential oils such as lavender and clary sage increase the pleasurable and medicinal aspects of this massage oil but are not altogether necessary to achieve total tension relief.
Kava Kava, Lavender & Rose Infused Massage Oil
Kava kava is an extraordinary herb for relieving deep tension and anxiety. A simple infused massage oil with kava, lavender, and rose promotes relaxation. Use infused oil as needed for muscle relief. Do not use for more than two weeks at a time.
- 1.5-2 cups sweet almond oil or other preferred base oil such as grapeseed
- .5 ounce ground kava kava
- .25 ounce dried lavender
- .25 ounce dried rose petals
- 35 drops lavender essential oil optional
- 35 drops clary sage essential oil optional
Place base oil and dried herbs in a pint jar with a tight fitting lid. Infuse in a warm spot for at least six weeks. If you would like your infused oil to be ready sooner, place the tightly lidded jar in a small crock pot with water up to the fill height of the jar. Infuse on warm for approximately 48 hours.
When infusion is complete, strain herbs from oil using several layers of cheesecloth or butter muslin, discarding spent herbs. When the infused oil is clear and perfectly strain, add essential oils if desired. Pour into a bottle for use and storage. Store in a cool spot out of direct sunlight.
Kava Kava, Jim McDonald, Herbcraft
Kava Monograph, Mel Kastings, HerbRally
Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medical herbalism: the science and practice of herbal medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Wood, Matthew. (2016). The earthwise herbal repertory: the definitive practitioner’s guide. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.