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Stress Busters: Relaxing Naturally

Why Kava Is Better Than Alcohol
Like alcohol, kava can help you relax and ease social interactions. But, of the two, only kava allows you to maintain a clear mind, with no hangover.

As novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux says in The Happy Isles of Oceania:

No one ever went haywire and beat up his wife after binging on yanggona [kava]. No one ever staggered home from a night around the kava bowl and thrashed his children, or insulted his boss, or got tattooed, or committed rape. The usual effect after a giggly interval was the staggers and then complete paralysis.

After the first two hours of use, alcohol can make you nervous and shaky. Kava, in contrast, is calming. One four-week study of patients with anxiety found that participants experienced dramatic improvements in their symptoms after just one week of kava use, with improvement continuing through week four. In the largest (101 participants) and longest (twenty-five weeks) study to date, German researcher H. P. Volz and colleagues demonstrated that kava provided significant relief of anxiety versus the placebo, or "dummy" pill, and with minimal side effects.

How Kava Works
Kava actually promotes relaxation in two different ways – by acting on the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain, and directly on muscles. The muscle-relaxing effects make it particularly useful in treating headaches, backaches, and other tension-related pain.

The active ingredients are the kavalactones, taken from the powdered lateral roots of the plant. Since they are fat- or lipid-soluble, they don't dissolve in water but form an emulsion of oil and water in the traditional drink.

Kava is selectively cultivated for specific effects: certain combinations of these cultivars are more relaxing, others more stimulating, and still others more intoxicating. These cultivars are prized for their ability to alter consciousness in various ways. They are generally kept for island use while the rest are exported, much as vintners will hold on to their prized vintages.

Kava's specific effect on neurotransmitters is not entirely clear. It appears, though, that in keeping with its relaxant effects, it enhances the receptivity of the brain's GABA receptors. Unlike alcohol, it neither disturbs blood-sugar balance nor reduces endorphin levels.

How Much Should You Take?
Kava is available in various forms – tablets, capsules, and tinctures, and even in sprays. The taste is quite strong, so most people prefer tablets or capsules. The recommended daily adult dose is 60-75 mg of kavalactones, taken two to three times daily. This is equivalent to 200-250 mg of standardized extract containing 30 percent kavalactones, 100-150 mg of 55 percent extract, or 100 mg of a 75 percent extract. As a sedative to aid sleep, the dose is two to three times that amount. For getting high and chilling out, the dose is quite individual – somewhere between the relaxing and sedating doses, generally twice the dose used to help you sleep.

All these numbers may be confusing, but remember, herbs are extracted from natural plants, not manufactured, and the markers (kavalactones, in this case) are given as a percentage of the whole extract. Conveniently, most capsules or tablets are in the range of 60-75 mg of kavalactones each. Then, your dose is an individual matter, depending on your own chemistry. Don't be too concerned with the exact numbers. Rather, start with one capsule and observe your response. Then you can adjust accordingly. Another warning: The first time or two after taking kava, some people feel a little groggy, so just in case, start on a weekend or evening when you don't have to be fully alert. After a few doses, your body gets used to the sensation, and you will probably feel wonderfully relaxed but alert. Of course, if you are using it to zone out, just let it happen.

The tinctures are rather bitter, an acquired taste. They will also numb the inside of your mouth for the first few minutes. An advantage to tinctures is the rapid onset. Taken straight, the liquid is quickly absorbed in the mouth and into the bloodstream before you even swallow. If you prefer, you can take the tincture in fruit juice to cover the taste.


From NATURAL HIGHS: Supplements, Nutrition, and Mind/Body Techniques to Help You Feel Good by Hyla Cass and Patrick Holford. Copyright © Hyla Cass, M.D., and Patrick Holford. Used by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit www.penguin.com. Get a 15% discount with the coupon code FENPARENT.


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