The Peaceful Herb: What Happened to Kava Kava?
Kava Kava has been used recreationally and medically for thousands of years, yet within the last decade it has gotten nothing but bad press. Why did this happen and what are the real dangers?
Among the indigenous people of the South Pacific islands, Kava Kava has been in use for millennia. The dried root is mixed into a non-alcoholic drink that relaxes, elevates the mood and even shows aphrodisiac qualities. The drink is always enjoyed in a group, be it in an after-work gathering or a larger social event. In short, Kava makes for a sociable and enjoyable time.
Up until a few years ago, Kava was among the most popular herbal supplements sold in Europe and the US, with alternative doctors widely prescribing it to ease anxiety, sleep and mood disorders. However, in 2001 all of a sudden concerns were raised about its safety, and reports linked Kava use to liver damage. In Europe, Kava quickly became a controlled substance and sales came to a halt. However, the legitimacy of the ban has often been openly questioned, as no reports of liver damage were ever observed before 2001, and even follow up studies could not establish a connection. But before looking further into the ban, let’s have a look at the herb itself.
The tale of Kava
The history of Kava in the South Pacific is closely linked to sexuality and sensual enjoyment. There are many folk tales about its discovery amongst the various people that inhabit the region, but most of these tales are about some sort of sexual encounter with the plant. The most known tale goes along these lines:
Many aeons ago, two sisters were washing wild yams along the coast of the islands now known as Vanuatu. Unbeknownst to them, a traveller had arrived a few days previously with a special specimen of Kava and had hidden it at that very spot. As the sisters cleaned their yams, the Kava plant sprouted a new shoot and gently tickled the intimate spot of one of the women. She was pleasantly surprised and inquired about the origin of her excitement, and thus Kava was discovered. The two sisters examined the plant and decided to take it home, planting it in their garden and secretly nurturing it for the years to come.
At the time, there were “lesser” wild varieties of Kava in use, ones that would sometimes bring happiness, and other times dull headaches – making the wild Kava a gamble to use. Once the sisters’ Kava had matured, they brought it forth to the other villagers of their community, and hailed it as true Kava: “If you drink from this Kava, you will never drink wild Kava again. This Kava will give you the greatest pleasure", they said.
Obviously, everyone was eager to try it out. A specially selected virgin from the village was selected to prepare the Kava, which was given to the men of the village. The men were overcome with immense pleasure from the Kava, and agreed that this was truly Kava as it should be. From then on, the sisters used cutting from the original to cultivate Kava, which is now the Kava used across the world to this day.
What is all the fuss about then?
Although Kava Kava has been used for thousands of years with no documented negative effects, recent reports have suggested that Kava can cause liver failure, which lead to hepatotoxicity. As a result, Kava is now regulated in a number of countries.
There are two reasons that explain the documented liver damages. Firstly, only the roots of plant are traditionally used to prepare the drink. The upper part of the plant, including the leaves, are known to be toxic and are never used. However, some unscrupulous vendors looking to boost profits sold the leaves as well, disregarding their toxicity. Some Kava suppliers from the Fiji islands reported that European companies bought up large supplies of Kava leaves and stems, which were traditionally never used. As a consequences, there was a „bad batch“ in circulation.
Kava Kava roots
The second point of criticism concerns the German-Swiss study itself. The study analyzed 30 cases of reported Kava induced liver toxicity, and readily blamed the herb as the culprit. However, the study was deeply flawed as individuals who showed heavy alcohol use or prescription medication use were not accounted for. Alcohol and medications are known to affect the liver, and a combination with Kava is never advised. Quite obviously, there is skewed logic at work here. Or, as some suggest, it is not about a lack of good judgement, but rather about a very conscious decision to take a top selling herb off the shelf. After all, Kava has shown to be very efficient - maybe too efficient for some influential pharmaceutical companies.
In summary, the ban of Kava seems to be the result of a number of factors. The study was sponsored by a pharmaceutical company in the first place, then the toxic leaves were used in the preparations, and ultimately subjects with preexisting liver conditions were not accounted for. However obviously flawed the results are, nonetheless this study was used as the primary justification for the ban of Kava across Europe.
So is Kava safe?
The herb has been used safely for thousands of years without any reports of toxicity. Only one single study, obviously a deeply flawed one, has questioned that safety profile. If prepared correctly and no preexisting liver damage is present, there is little evidence to assume that Kava is unsafe. Like anything, Kava can be abused and used irresponsibly. However, when used properly and in moderation, Kava is a safe way to relax and unwind.