Piper methysticum is a member of the pepper family. A hardy, slow-growing, attractive perennial native of the South Pacific Islands, kava kava root has been used for centuries as a general relaxant. Research into the active ingredients of the herb has been going on for well over one hundred years. It is now widely known that the herb’s principal active compounds are a group of 15 lactones unique to the plant, making up about 15 percent of it, and known as kavalactones or kava alphapyrones. These unique lactones and the kava kava root extract in general, appear to act in ways that are simply too complex for the test models used to evaluate them. It is of importance to note that the bioavailability of kavalactones is from three to five times higher from the root extract than when taken as isolated compounds.
- Antispasmodic. Part of kava kava’s relaxant properties is an antispasmodic effect, which makes the herb useful in cases of general muscle cramps, irritable bowel syndrome, restless legs, etc.
- Menopausal moderator. In a double blind study involving menopausal women over an eight-week period, the group receiving the herb extract showed significant improvement from the end of the very first week of treatment. Symptoms such as stress, anxiety, mood, well-being, and other relevant symptoms including hot flashes continued to improve over the 8-week period, without notable side effects.
- Nerve relaxant. The herb appears to act on the limbic system, an ancient part of the brain that affects all other brain activities, and is chiefly responsible for emotional states. A series of studies have outlined an important but not habit-forming anti-anxiety effect. Significantly, unlike the usually prescribed chemical drugs, kava kava does not affect coordination and mental acuity. It differs from other commercial sedatives in that it does not bind to specific receptors in the brain, but rather by somehow modifying the receptor domains in ways not quite understood yet.
- Pain reliever. Kava kava is also known as an analgesic, but the mechanism of pain relief is unlike that of any other analgesic, including aspirin, morphine, or other drugs. A study has demonstrated that kavalactones do not bind to opioid receptors, and are quite effective where nonopiate analgesics like aspirin and other nonsteroid anti-inflammatory drugs are ineffective. Further, it was found that the sedative or muscle-relaxing effects were not responsible for the pain-relieving effects. What this means is that kava kava reduces pain in a manner unlike aspirin, morphine, or any other pain reliever, but again in ways not yet understood.
- Stroke mender. Another beneficial activity of the herb is its ability to protect against brain damage caused by ischemia, or a deficiency of blood supply to the brain. The effectiveness of kovalactones seems to be based on their ability to limit the area of infarction and to a mild anticonvulsant effect.
Caution. Kava kava has no toxicity at the usually recommended levels, but it should not be combined with alcohol.