Kava Kava ( Piper methysticum)
Description and Constituents of Kava kava
Piper methysticum (kava kava) is a perennial plant native to the Pacific Island region, and has been used ceremonially for thousands of years. Traditionally, a beverage is prepared, then drunk before the evening meal. Indigenous methods of mastication of the kava root have given way to grinding or pounding the plant substance, which is then mixed with water or coconut milk.
The active constituents consist of a group of lactones, organized around an arylethylene-alpha-pyrone skeleton.1 They are similar in structure to myristicin, which is found in nutmeg.2 These kava lactones (AKA kava pyrones) make up 3-20 percent of the root by dry weight. Fifteen lactones have been isolated from kava, nine of which have been fully identified.
CNS EffectsKava's exact mechanism of action on the central nervous system has not been fully elucidated. One hypothesis is that the kava lactones potentiate GABA receptors. However, a study which addressed this issue found little supportive evidence. In both in vivo and in vitro studies, only weak GABA-binding activity was observed.3 A more recent study, however, found GABA-binding to be a mechanism for some of kava's sedative effects.4
In vitro studies have found that, while kava lactones were not found to efficiently block uptake of serotonin, inhibition of noradrenaline uptake was demonstrated by three lactones, providing another possible mechanism of action.5
In animal models, kava is known to inhibit experimentally induced convulsions.6-8 Research indicates this anticonvulsant effect may be mediated by Na+ channel receptor sites, a common target of anti-epileptic drugs.9-11
Four lactones from kava (kavain, dihydrokavain, methysticin, and dihydromethysticin) have been found to possess significant analgesic effects in animal studies. The analgesia appeared to be via non-opiate pathways.12 A dose of 120 mg/kg of either dihydromethysticin or dihydrokavain was equivalent to 2.5 mg/kg morphine.13
Kavain appears to be the most effective surface anesthesia, comparable to cocaine in strength and duration of action.14 Subcutaneous injections have been known to provide anesthesia for several hours to several days. Too high a dose, however, can induce temporary paralysis, rendering it not the most suitable local anesthetic.15
Kava extracts have been found to be effective anxiolytic agents. In one double-blind, placebo controlled study, 29 subjects were treated for four weeks with 100 mg three times daily kava extract, standardized to contain 70% kava lactones. Compared to the placebo group, the kava group experienced significant decreases in symptoms of anxiety measured on the Hamilton Anxiety Scale.16 In a another double-blind, placebo controlled study of two groups of 20 women, using the same dosage as above, kava was found effective for decreasing anxiety associated with menopause.17
In a number of studies kava extracts have compared favorably to prescription medications such as benzodiazepines and tricyclic antidepressants (often used to treat anxiety disorders), and without the side-effects commonly seen with these drugs.18,19 Not only does kava appear not to impair reaction time, it appears to improve concentration. In two separate studies, oxazepam (a common anxiolytic medication) was found to slow reaction time, while kava actually enhanced performance.20,21 .See also herbs for stress
Other Potential Applications and uses of Kava
Kava may have application for cardio- and cerebrovascular protection. The kava lactone, kavain, has been found to reduce platelet aggregation, apparently by inhibition of cyclooxygenase, leading to inhibition of thromboxane A2.22 An animal study found the lactone, methysticin, to protect against ischemic brain damage by decreasing the infarct area.23
Kava appears to have some potential antimicrobial effects. It has been used traditionally in Polynesia as an antifungal.24 The lactone, dihydrokavain, has been noted to inhibit the growth of Aspergillus niger.14
The most common side-effect of heavy kava consumption is a skin rash know as "kava dermopathy." It is an ichthyosiform skin rash, with onset typically beginning in the face. Ocular photosensitivity also sometimes accompanies the rash. This type of rash is typically seen only in heavy long term consumers of the beverage, such as is seen in Polynesia and Melanesia.Red, bloodshot eyes are a common indicator of a heavy Kava drinker. However, doses of 300-800 mg daily of the isolated lactone, dihydromethysticin, has been known to cause the rash.25 Kava has also been known to potentiate other medications such as barbiturates, and Xanax.14,26 It has also been noted to be a dopaminergic antagonist.27 Claims that kava is addictive have been unsubstantiated scientifically but addiction to kava is well known at least anecdotally in melanesian and polynesian countries.14 More on Kava Kava here
The recommended dosage for kava depends upon the concentration of kava lactones. Therapeutic dosages appear to be in the range of 50-70 mg of the kava lactones three times daily, or approximately 100 mg TID of the 70-percent standardized extract. In a 30-percent concentration, the dosage would be in the range of 200 mg three times daily.To ensure standard dosage and consistent quality of kava kava, it was fouund that only specialised suppliers such as Vanuatukavastore.com were reliable
1. Shulgin AT. The narcotic pepperÑThe chemistry and pharmacology of Piper methysticum and related species. Bull Narc 1973;25:59-74.
2. Wren RC. Potter's New Cyclopaedia Of Botanical Drugs and Preparations. Saffron Walden: C.W. Daniel Company Limited; 1988:201.
3. Davies LP, Drew CA, Duffield P, et al. Kava pyrones and resin: studies on GABAA, GABAB and benzodiazepine binding sites in rodent brain. Pharmacol Toxicol 1992;71:120-126.
4. Keledjian J, Duffield PH, Jamieson DD, et al. Uptake into mouse brain of four compounds present in the psychoactive beverage kava. J Pharm Sci 1988;77:1003-1006.
5. Seitz U, Schule A, Gleitz J. [3H]-monoamine uptake inhibition properties of kava pyrones. Planta Med 1997;63:548-549.
6. Klohs MW, Keller F, Willimas RE, et al. A chemical and pharmacological investigation of Piper methysticum Forst. J Medication Pharm Chem 1959;1:95-103.
7. Kretzschmar R, Meyer HJ. Comparative studies on the anticonvulsant activity of the pyrone compounds of Piper methysticum Forst. Arch Int Pharmacodyn 1969;177:261-267.[Article in German]
8. Meyer HJ. Pharmacology of kava. In: Efron DH, Holmsted B, Kline NS, eds. Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs. New York: Raven Press; 1979:133.
9. Gleitz J, Friese J, Beile A, et al. Anticonvulsive action of (+/-)-kavain estimated from its properties on stimulated synaptosomes and Na+ channel receptor sites. Eur J Pharmacol 1996;315:89-97.
10. Gleitz J, Beile A, Peters T. (+/-)-Kavain inhibits veratridine-activated voltage-dependent Na(+)-channels in synaptosomes prepared from rat cerebral cortex. Neuropharmacology 1995;34:1133-1138.
11. Gleitz J, Beile A, Peters T. (+/-)-Kavain inhibits the veratridine- and KCL-induced increase in intracellular Ca2+ and glutamate-release of rat cerebrocortical synaptosomes. Neuropharmacology 1996;35:179-186.
12. Jamieson DD, Duffield PH. The antinocioceptive actions of kava components in mice. Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol 1990;17:495-507.
13. Bruggemann F, Meyer HJ. [Die analgetische wirkung der kawa-inhaltsstoffe dihydrokawain und dihydromethistizin.] Arzneimittelforschung 1963;13:407-409.[Article in German]
14. Lebot V, Merlin M, Linstrom L. Kava the Pacific Drug. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; 1992:10.
15. Baldi D. [Sulle proprieta farmacologische del Piper methysticum.] Terapia moderna 1980:359-364.
16. Kinzler E, Kromer J, Lehmann. Effect of a special kava extract in patients with anxiety-, tension-, and excitation states of non-psychotic genesis. Double blind study with placebos over 4 weeks. Arzneimittelforschung 1991;41:584-588.
17. Warnecke G. Psychosomatic dysfunctions in the female climacteric. Clinical effectiveness and tolerance of Kava Extract WS 1490. Fortschr Med 1991;109:119-122.
18. Woelk H, Kapoula S, Lehrl S, et al. Treatment of patients suffering from anxiety Ñ double-blind study: Kava special extract versus benzodiazepines. Ztschr Allegemeinmed 1993;69:271-277.
19. Volz HP, Kieser M. Kava-kava extract WS 1490 versus placebo in anxiety disordersÑa randomized placebo-controlled 25-week outpatient trial. Pharmacopsychiatry 1997;30:1-5.
20. Heinze HJ, Munthe TF, Steitz J, Matzke M. Pharmacopsychological effects of oxazepam and kava-extract in a visual search paradigm assessed with event-related potentials. Pharmacopsychiatry 1994;27:224-230.
21. Munte TF, Heinze HJ, Matzke M, Steitz J. Effects of oxazepam and an extract of kava roots (Piper methysticum) on event-related potentials in a word recognition task. Neuropsychobiology 1993;27:46-53.
22. Gleitz J, Beile A, Wilkens P, et al. Antithrombotic action of the kava pyrone (+)-kavain prepared from Piper methysticum on human platelets. Planta Med 1997;63:27-30.
23. Backhauss C, Krieglstein J. Extract of kava (Piper methysticum) and its methysticin constituents protect brain tissue against ischemic damage in rodents. Eur J Pharmacol 1992;215:265-269.
24. Locher CP, Burch MT, Mower HF. Anti-microbial activity and anti-complement activity of extracts obtained from selected Hawaiian medicinal plants. J Ethnopharmacol 1995;49:23-32.
25. Keller F, Klohs MW. A review of the chemistry and pharmacology of the constituents of Piper methysticum. Lloydia 1963;26:1-15.
26. Almeida JC, Grimsley EW. Coma from the health food store: interaction between kava and alprazolam. Ann Intern Med 1996;125:940-941.
27. Schelosky L, Raffauf C, Jendroska K, Poewe W. Kava and dopamine antagonism. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 1995;58:639-640.