Wednesday, July 18, 2012
KAVA – BENEFICIAL MEDICINE OR THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL?
The benefits of kava are considerable. Scientific research has confirmed its effectiveness in the treatment of anxiety, nervous tension, insomnia, stress, menopausal anxiety and mild depression. An Australian study published in 2009 showed significant benefits, comparable to the results achieved with prescription tranquilisers such as benzodiazepam.
‘Water-based extracts of the roots from the kava plant are used traditionally in many Pacific Island cultures for their mood-altering properties. Contrary to popular belief, kava is not banned, and has just been released on the market in a safe, water-based liquid extract by Queensland manufacturer Mediherb. An advantage of this new liquid preparation is herbalists can formulate herbal mixtures combining kava with other medicinal herbs for effective treatments. This new kava product is available from the Traditional Medicinals dispensary where qualified staff can be consulted. Kava is also available in a safe tablet form if people prefer this.
Despite centuries of use of kava in Pacific Island cultures, when taken out of its traditional milieu, kava has had a checkered and controversial history. It was introduced to Indigenous communities in northern Australia from Fiji in the 1980s as it was believed it could provide a safer option to alcohol consumption. However, without the traditional cultural guidelines for appropriate use, and the fact that kava was frequently used alongside alcohol, many serious health and social problems occurred. Complex regulations occurred, with kava variously classed as a food, a poison, a drug, a scheduled medicine, a dangerous good, and a prohibited botanical, with local Arnhem Land, State, Territory, and national restrictions at different times.
A voluntary withdrawal of all kava products was put in place in Australia in 2002 when German reports of liver toxicity were associated with the use of kava tablets. In the majority of cases, patients had also been taking other medications and some had pre-existing liver disease. Research also indicated that, unlike the traditional water-based extractions of kava, some brands of tablets were manufactured using ethanol and acetone (yes, nailpolish remover!). These methods of extraction yielded active ingredient levels hundreds of times higher than traditional methods, and at these levels the compounds may have become toxic.
Considerable research was conducted, which confirmed the safety of kava using traditional water extraction methods. Ethanol and acetone preparations have been banned while water-based and pure rhizome products are approved. A cap on the quantity of kava lactones (naturally occurring active ingredients) in a preparation is in place to ensure safety. It is not recommended that kava be taken by people with a history of excessive alcohol consumption or liver disease. Modern science has confirmed its effective anti-anxiety and anti-depressant benefits.
People might question whether kava should be used at all as a medicine, if excessive quantities can be toxic to the liver. However, many foods and medicines are beneficial in normal quantities but toxic in large amounts. It is possible to induce liver failure from excessive amounts of carrot juice (or wine). With current manufacturing and usage guidelines, kava is once again a beneficial adjunct to the herbal dispensary. Much of the recent problematic history of kava came about through it being taken out of its cultural traditions and also being commercialised by pharmaceutical companies with insufficient understanding of its phytochemistry. Hopefully lessons have been learnt.’
Trish Clough has been a herbalist for more than 30 years and is the owner of Traditional Medicinals, 133 Keen Street, Lismore. Phone 0452 219 502 for further information.facebook.com/traditionalmedicinalslismore