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Essential Oils

Kava Kava Essential Oil - The Intoxicating Pepper

Distilled from plants native to Polynesia, Micronesia, and other islands throughout the South Pacific, Kava Kava has been used for hundreds of years as an herbal medicine, as well as a ceremonial substance. Some people even believe that frequent consumption of Kava Kava is actually why residents of the South Pacific Islands are some of the happiest and healthiest people in the world.

Studies suggest that the compounds in Kava Kava make it particularly good for alleviating anxiety, protecting neurons from damage, and relieving pain.

The History of Kava Kava

Kava Kava and its essential oil have been cultivated from a tropical evergreen shrub and used by people throughout the South Pacific for of years, primarily for use as a sedative or anesthetic. Essentially all individuals in these societies used Kava Kava in one way or another, from warriors consuming it for relaxation after returning from battle to pregnant women in the middle of the delivery process.

Kava Kava earned its scientific name not from these South Pacific populations, however, but from legendary explorer Captain Cook. After experiencing everything the effects of Kava Kava firsthand, he named it, Piper methysticum, or “intoxicating pepper.” Though the plant had been used for hundreds of years in the South Pacific, it was Captain Cook who brought it to Europe. 1

Kava Kava is still used today throughout the South Pacific as a social drink, not unlike how alcohol is used in the Western world, as well as in tribal ceremonies, rituals, and rites of passage. 2 To prepare the Kava Kava for ceremonies or social gatherings, the roots of the plant are ground into a paste, then the paste is mixed with water, strained, and consumed. In the past, this process was done by an individual chewing the roots and spitting them out but is now performed by hand.

The full Kava Kava ceremony is typically reserved for guests, during which the guest is led to a platform, young men dressed in ceremonial attire place a bowl of Kava Kava between themselves and the guests, the specially selected cupbearer then transfers the Kava Kava from the bowl into a cup and presents it to the guest. The guest is then told to hold the cup with both hands and drink it, and if they are able to finish the cup all at once, everybody says a maca, meaning empty and clap three times with cupped hands. This process is then repeated going in order of rank or importance of the individuals.

The Kava Kava drink itself is not considered alcoholic nor psychedelic, but rather has sedative properties that leave the individual consuming it feeling slightly more drowsy and relaxed. In recent years, there have been questions about the dangers associated with long-term use of large amounts of Kava Kava and its potential role in causing weakening of the muscles or liver damage. This resulted to it being banned in some European countries, though some of these bans were later lifted due to insufficient evidence. However, Pacific Islanders have been drinking Kava Kava for hundreds of years without these negative effects and studies have found no evidence of adverse effects in individuals who use Kava Kava short-term, about 1–24 weeks. 3

Terpene Properties

The terpene compounds responsible for the benefits of Kava Kava are called kavalactones. Eighteen different kavalactones have been identified in Kava Kava already, with 15 of them considered active ingredients. Of those 15 different biochemicals, however, six of them responsible for the bulk of the properties present in Kava Kava: 4

    • Kavain

    • Dihydrokavain

    • Methysticin

    • Dihydromethysticin

    • Yangonin

    • Desmethoxyyangonin

Other terpene constituents include:

    • Chalcones

    • Flavokawain A

    • Flavokawain B

    • Flavokawain C

All of these biochemicals have properties that help them work with different organ systems in the human body, particularly in the brain, central nervous system, and the liver and kidneys. 5

Uses for Kava Kava Essential Oil

Kava Kava provides a range of health benefits including reducing stress and anxiety, relieving insomnia, alleviating the symptoms of menopause, and providing relief for headaches, migraines, muscle pain, and cramps.

Kava Kava can be used topically to provide relief for sore muscles, used in aromatherapy for its anxiety-alleviating properties, or ingested in the form of Kava tea, liquid, or capsules to reap many of its other benefits.

Some of the more significant benefits of this essential oil are detailed below, and they can without a doubt have a tangible impact on health, well-being, and longevity. 6

Facilitates Rehabilitation After Drug Abuse or Relieves Withdrawal Symptoms

Because Kava Kava essential oil has properties that are known to provide relaxation in the human body, some countries around the world are testing out its effectiveness as a component in drug rehabilitation programs.

Early research demonstrates that increasing dose of specific Kava Kava extracts over one week while decreasing dosage of benzodiazepines, a class of drugs often used to treat anxiety, insomnia, or alcohol dependence can prevent withdrawal symptoms while alleviating anxiety.

Provides Immune Support

Flavokawain and Chalcones, both found in Kava Kava are known for their anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. Looking more closely at these compounds is important in order to find more compounds with immune-boosting functions that will not disrupt homeostasis—the stable equilibrium—in the body. In a study, looking at the effects of these chemical compounds in mice, researchers found that flavokawain A and B could boost immune function without resulting in toxicity, however, research is still being conducted to gather additional data for this correlation. 7

Alleviates Anxiety

Perhaps one of the best known and most researched benefits of Kava Kava and its essential oil is its ability to alleviate anxiety. Most research indicates that taking Kava Kava extracts with at least 70% kavalactones can reduce anxiety. Currently, the most important question being looked at regarding the effectiveness of this remedy is treatment time: some studies suggest that it may take up to five weeks for symptoms to improve and may be more effective in individuals with severe anxiety.

Similarly, early research has found that taking a single dose of Kava in the form of a capsule or liquid can relieve some of the symptoms associated with tasks that would be otherwise stressful.

Improves Sleep Quality

Because of its calming qualities, Kava Kava is often used to improve sleep quality or relieve insomnia. One study found that in a group of 24 people, Kava Kava significantly relieved stress and insomnia when compared to a placebo. It is thought that Kava Kava’s efficacy at relieving insomnia may come from its effects on alleviating anxiety. Many people with anxiety struggle with stress-induced insomnia, so by alleviating anxiety, Kava Kava also improves sleep quality.

Relieves Menopausal Symptoms

Some early research has indicated that a specific Kava Kava extract taken daily for eight weeks may reduce symptoms associated with early menopause such as hot flashes and anxiety.

Kava Kava Infographic

Safety and Precautions

Today, Kava Kava is utilized as an all-natural medicine or recreationally by people around the world because of the benefits it provides and its deeply-rooted cultural significance. However, it is important to be mindful when using Kava Kava to avoid any adverse side effects.

Some of the more common side effects that may result from the use of Kava Kava include drowsiness, emotional mood swings, decreased motivation, or mental “fuzziness.” 8

In the early 2000s, some cases of liver toxicity were reported in the link directly to prolonged consumption of Kava Kava, resulting in the FDA issuing a warning about the potential health risks associated with Kava Kava consumption and some countries banned its distribution. However, as mentioned previously, some of these bans have been lifted due to insufficient evidence, Kava Kava is not known to cause liver toxicity for short-term use, and has not resulted in liver toxicity in the Pacific Islands where it has been used for hundreds of years.

Additionally, many of the worst side effects linked to Kava Kava essential oils are caused when producers start to cut costs and cut corners by using other components of the Kava Kava plant—the leaves or the stems—instead of the root system. The leaves and stems of the Kava Kava plant have always been considered to be toxic to humans, which is why it is important to ensure that high-quality Kava Kava that comes from the roots is being purchased in order to use the product safely.

Women who are pregnant or nursing are discouraged from using Kava Kava essential oil, as with many other essential oils.

It is also advisable to consult with a doctor before beginning using Kava Kava essential oil, especially if taking any other medications to avoid any negative interactions between the two substances.

Final Thoughts About Kava Kava Essential Oil

Kava Kava essential oil has the ability to bring peace of mind and mental clarity in the midst of a hectic, fast-paced world filled with external stress and pressure.

At the end of the day, Kava Kava has been a powerful, potent, and all-natural healer for hundreds of years, and can provide the same benefits to you as part of your daily routine, whether ingested, used topically, or in aromatherapy .

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