Botanically known as Piper methysticum, kava is a plant native to the South Pacific. Belonging to the pepper family Piperaceae, the plant has been an integral part of religious, political, and cultural life throughout the Pacific region. The plant is often related to black pepper and possesses heart shaped leaves and flowers. Its brown colored roots, called Waka, possess high medicinal value and are used to prepare a popular narcotic drink called kava kava.
The drink is prepared by drying the roots under the sun, grounding them into powder, and then mixing the powder with water. Kava kava is a popular social drink in South Pacific and so, apart from its medicinal uses, the drink also plays a significant role in different rituals and ceremonies.
- Studies show that the drink is known to cause various allergic reactions like skin itchiness, hives, and scaly skin rash called kava dermopathy. Besides these, its long term heavy dosage can also lead to swelling in the mouth or throat, difficulty breathing, wheezing, etc.
- Research shows that excessive intake of kava kava can result in liver damage, including symptoms like jaundice (yellow eyes or skin), upper right abdominal pain, or elevated liver enzymes, loss of appetite, etc.
- Apart from these, its high dosage and long term use can also cause hypertension, reduced protein levels, blood cell abnormalities, muscle weakness or spasms, visual impairment, mild dizziness, headaches, nausea, and fatigue.
- Another side effect is that it reacts adversely with alcohol and certain types of medications. Some reports show that it causes dizziness and other unpleasant side effects when taken along with phenothiazines (medications used to treat schizophrenia). Moreover, it has also been reported to subdue the effectiveness of levodopa, a drug used in the treatment of Parkinson's disease and can lead to severe tremors, which is a common Parkinson's disease symptom.
Kava kava has been well-known for its mild tranquilizing and pain killing properties and so is commonly used as a folk medicine for numerous health problems. It is used to cure anxiety symptoms, stress, and restlessness, and even sleep disorders (insomnia). The drink also helps to treat mental illnesses like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), epilepsy, psychosis, depression, migraines and other headaches, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), and other respiratory diseases like common cold flu, influenza, etc.
Moreover, some studies show that the kava drink reduces the possibility of muscle pain, tuberculosis, cancer, etc. Also, some people use it to cure the pain and swelling due to urinary tract infections, venereal disease, menstrual discomfort, and even to stimulate libido. It is applied on the skin to cure skin disorders like eczema, leprosy, and also promotes faster healing of wounds.
Although there are several benefits of this plant and consumption in right amounts may not cause any harm, children, pregnant or nursing women, and patients being treated for depression or other health disorders should strictly avoid kava kava in any form. People having allergy to any plant of the pepper family, such as black pepper or Piper nigrum, should consult their health care provider before using any kava products to prevent any ill effects.