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Kava (Piper methysticum [Latin]), also called kava-kava, kava pepper, and kawa-kawa, is native to the South Pacific, where islanders have used kava tea to help them relax for thousands of years. Kava promotes feelings of relaxation and well-being and improves mental function.

Several studies have conclusively shown that kava may be useful for treatment of a variety of mental health symptoms, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, and diminished sex drive.

Research indicates that the active chemical ingredients in kava, called kavalactones, act in the same way as prescription benzodiazepine tranquilizers (think Valium) without the side effects—rather than causing drowsiness or mental fog, kava has been reported to improve mental alertness.

The combination of kavalactones found in this herb is particularly effective for relief of muscle spasms; kava has been used successfully to treat both restless leg syndrome and menstrual cramps.

Kava is also thought to provide the body with pain-relief and antiseptic and anti-inflammatory protection, particularly in the urinary tract. Herbalists often recommend this herb to treat urinary tract infection, headache, and toothache.

Kava is available in tablet, capsule, and extract form. The usual dose for treatment of anxiety is 300 milligrams daily. Doses as high as 800 milligrams daily of kava extract have been taken for short periods. Taking too much kava can lead to a condition called kava dermopathy, which causes dry, scaly skin. Large doses of kava can also produce the same effects as inebriation, so you should avoid the use of kava with alcohol.

It is important to note that there is growing concern regarding kava’s safety. Large doses of kava (many times the recommended dose to treat anxiety) have been linked to liver damage, including hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver failure. Kava has been removed from the shelves in several countries pending further study, and warning labels have been added to kava products in the United States.

Do not take kava if you have liver disease, are pregnant or nursing, or are severely depressed or taking antidepressants. Kava may interfere with the action of levodopa, an important prescription medication used to treat muscle twitching and spasms in those with Parkinson’s disease.

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