Kava Kava is a traditional herb of the Pacific Islands that has a fascinating and somewhat mysterious history going back over 3000 years. There are many folk tales about the origin of kava kava, but most rely on a central theme that involves the first plant growing on the grave of someone who had been sacrificed. Drinking the traditional kava drink is thought to symbolically turn the drinker into a sacrificial victim. Kava Kava has traditionally been used and continues to flourish as a ceremonial beverage. We recall stories of Polynesian islanders sitting around in “Kava Rooms” literally becoming drunk and intoxicated with so much Kava that they fell into a stupor. Due to the lack of written records in the Pacific Islands, historians have postulated that this ceremony may have originated somewhere on the Asian sub-continent, perhaps even with the Chinese tea ceremony. New research points to Melanesia as the point of origin, maybe New Guinea or the Solomon Islands. It was first encountered by Europeans in the 18th century during the voyage of Captain Cook, who first recorded the process and ceremony in detail. According to Cooks account, the root was chewed and then pounded into mulch, which was then mixed with water to produce a brownish bitter beverage that was consumed for its psychoactive properties. Kava Kava is still used quite frequently today in the Pacific Islands during social gatherings, as well as recreationally.
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Kava Kava promotes relaxation and stress reduction.*
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Kava falls into a class uniquely its own. I know of no other herb like it (nothing I’ve ever come across could even remotely qualify as a “substitute” for kava), and consider it one of the nature’s most exquisite gifts. Though it’s gained (and lost) immense popularity over the last several years (both lauded as “nature’s miracle cure for stress and anxiety” and defamed as hepatotoxic), I’ve always found myself disdainful of the marketing used to sell it to the public. While kava kava doubtless holds immense power for relieving stress and tension, its ongoing daily use as a “supplement” has never sat well with me. I’ve always felt kava is best enjoyed intentionally, and not as just a part of a daily supplement routine.
Kava is, in my opinion, primarily suited to treating acute stress that settles into the musculature of the body. It is most effective when your mind is overwhelmed and your body is tightly strung from a crazy hectic day and that’s what’s making you unable to relax.
The best way I can describe the effects of kava kava is to compare it to lying on a sunny beach with nothing pressing to do or think about and being so laid back it feels as if you’ve sunk halfway into the sand. Kava puts you there. What is so distinct about kava kava is that it’s so promptly and significantly relaxant; mental stress subsides as a result of relaxation, not sedation. In fact, while the body lets go, mental acuity remains…you can definitely take kava and still be cognitively functional. This is, however, dose dependent… small doses of kava relax the body and notably clear the mind, medium doses calm the mind and have a much more pronounced relaxant action on the muscles, and large doses still the mind and make the limbs a bit wobbly. Think of kava after a crazy day at work, traffic all the way home with honking horns, people cutting you off, and an inability to physically let go when you do finally get home (with every bit of your body screaming Yikes!”). It is a perfect replacement for (and a much better option to) the archetypal “after work drink”. Kava kava puts the body at peace.
Kava is native to the islands of the South Pacific; Fiji, Hawaii, Vanuatu are all know for their excellent kava kava. Studying island traditions surrounding the plant reinforce the notion of kava’s ability to induce a peaceful spirit. Kava is regarded as sacred throughout its range, but, for the most part, its use is not solely relegated to ceremony; it has a strong tradition as a recreational beverage consumed freely at social gatherings, where those under the enchantment of kava converse and share their thoughts and stories. Traditionally, kava is given to feuding parties before they talk, in order to diffuse pre-existing hostility. This use was not solely reserved for the cessation of wars between different island cultures, but was also invoked when spousal or community conflicts had everyone involved all angst ridden to the point where it became difficult to resolve anything. Kava helps to diffuse the underlying “Err!” so that feuding parties can come together without being primed for conflict. Think of it in situations where your approach to settle a dispute involves making it clear that they’re wrong and you’re right. It is said that “hate cannot exist in the presence of kava”. While this may be an ideological overstatement, kava is clearly a plant of friendship and camaraderie.
So, although it is currently touted as an anti-anxiety herb (which it is), I don’t think of kava as an herb to be taken in rote daily doses for chronic anxiety. Maybe short term, but it’s best, I believe, when taken purposefully because you like and want some (or need some… kava can be helpful in quitting tobacco or other vices), rather than as a “daily supplement” because you are tense all the time. The problem with using kava on a regular basis is that it is strong, and can become escapist, or used as a crutch. Rather than make changes to address underlying issues that are creating stress and tension, you let the kava melt it away. One example of this could perhaps be using kava to relax tension and spasms due to magnesium deficiency; it’s strong enough to work, but it won’t resolve the underlying deficiency. So, use kava, but also look into underlying issues and be sure to address those in addition to using kava for more immediate relief.
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