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Stress Busters: Relaxing Naturally

Kava Safety
Taken in these typical doses, kava has only mild side effects – occasional skin rashes in sensitive individuals, headache, or mild stomach upset. Chronic high-dose use on the islands (500-2,500 mg of kavalactones every day for years at a time) will sometimes cause a scaly yellow skin rash called "kava dermopathy." It disappears after intake of the herb is stopped.

Despite its excellent past safety record, kava has recently come under the scrutiny of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is acting on reports from Europe that kava may damage the liver. Based on these reports, the U.K. has withdrawn sales of kava products pending further investigation. Closer examination of the German and U.S. reports reveals that the vast majority of cases involved the concomitant use of hepatotoxic (liver) drugs and/or alcohol. Furthermore, a clinical study from Duke University showed no adverse effects from kava on the liver. The fact is, you are far likelier to suffer from liver damage by taking the prescription antianxiety drug Valium, yet it is taken by millions daily with little question – and with no major adverse publicity. The over-the-counter pain medication acetaminophen (Tylenol) also has a high incidence of liver toxicity, responsible for 141 deaths in the United States in 1999 and the leading cause of liver failure in Western countries.

Based on the limited information made available to date, we recommend that consumers of kava should consider the following cautions:

  • Kava should not be used by anyone who has liver problems, is taking any drug product with known adverse effects on the liver, or is a regular consumer of alcohol.
  • Since the reports so far are associated with chronic use, kava should not be taken on a daily basis for more than the German Commission E's recommendation of three months.
  • Discontinue use if symptoms of jaundice (e.g., dark urine, yellowing of the eyes) occur.
  • Do not exceed the recommended maximums of 125 mg kavalactones per tablet or capsule, 3 g of dried rhizome per tea bag, and 250 mg kavalactones total per day for all forms.
  • Kava should not be taken with alcohol or other sedatives because they potentiate each other (that is, they increase each other's potency). You should never drive after using kava in higher doses. There have already been a few arrests for erratic driving under the influence.
  • Because high doses can cause intoxication, there is concern that kava could become an herb of abuse. There have been media reports of young people trying to get high by taking products that they thought contained kava. Exploiting its exotic appeal, people distributed bottles of a product called "fX" and promoted it as kava at a 1996 Los Angeles New Year's Eve celebration. There were hundreds of adverse reactions, widely reported in the press as "due to kava." Unfortunately, less attention was paid a few weeks later when the police report revealed that fX contained a highly toxic industrial chemical called 1,4-butanediol – and absolutely no kava.
In conclusion, be aware that herbs are potent medicines and should be treated with appropriate respect regarding interactions with potential toxicity, including toxicity to the liver. However, kava's margin of safety still far surpasses that of its pharmaceutical equivalents.

How it works: Calms the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain; relaxes muscles, likely through an indirect action on GABA receptors; appears to enhance GABA activity, the relaxing neurotransmitter that also modulates dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. (There is still much that is unknown about its effects on the brain.)

Positive effects: Relaxes the mind, emotions, and muscles, making it useful for headaches, backaches, and other tension; promotes good sleep; reduces excessive mental chatter; increases mental focus; heightens sensory perception; expands overall awareness; promotes well-being, connection, and empathy. No habituation, tolerance, addiction, or hangover is associated with kava.

Cautions: Do not drive or operate heavy machinery after use. Do not mix with alcohol, as the two substances seem to potentiate each other. Do not take while using benzodiazepine tranquilizers. Do not take if you have impaired liver function.

Dosage: As a relaxant, 60-75 mg of kavalactones two to three times daily. As a bedtime sedative, take 60-250 mg.


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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