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Life Arts

Relax with kava, a tropical drink

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Kava is an herb from the Pacific islands.  The ground roots give up relaxing compounds and has been sold in the United States for a long time with Sears selling it in their catalog as early as 1900.  "Genteel ladies" who bought the extract as an alternative to "demon rum" were given a free tea set.

Until the 1950s Kava was included in the U.S. Pharmacopoea which is the official collection of approved medicines.

In 1765 Captain Cook was probably the first white man to be offered Kava -- and he didn't like the taste.

The kava root is ground by natives and mixed with a little water.  The mixture is then squeezed and strained into a coconut shell and drunk.

The compounds contained in kava relax tense muscles and work on the anxiety centers of the brain so the result is a pleasant feeling of relaxation.

Late afternoon in the islands is "Kava time" and goes back at least 3000 years.  Kava time is a dialy opportunity for the community to get together, relax and share with each other the events of their day and over the years many non-natives have enjoyed kava time.  British royals, politicians and diplomats and even Pope John Paul have enjoyed drinking kava with the natives.

A boom in sales occurred in 1996.  Articles and features in a variety of news outlets sent sales soaring in both the U.S. and Europe.

Later the same year, Chris Kilham, a medicine hunter, wrote a book titled Kava, Medicine Hunting in Paradise.  Following the release of Kilham's book, hundreds of companies starting putting out kava-based products. 

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Supported by several European clinical studies which demonstrated kava's anti-anxiety effects, kava became huge.

Kava sales became huge and for the first time, many South Pacific island cultures flourished economically because of the resulting brisk kava sales.

Two studies by Duke University Medical Center in 2001 showed that kava is safe for the liver and causes no noticeable problems.  It was shown in these studies that kava extract is as effective for the treatment of anxiety as Xanax and Valium without the hazards caused by those drugs.

One week prior to the publication of the Duke studies, a European-based report declared that kava had caused liver toxicity in 21 people and kava sales crashed.

Ignoring the results of the Duke studies, insurance companies panicked, European health regulaters over-reacted and the Pacific islanders were left with plenty of kava on the shipping docks and no sales.

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After several years and reviews by many research teams, the kava liver toxicity report was found to be shoddy and baseless.  But the damage was done.

Despite absolutely no evidence of liver toxicity among kava drinkers and demonstrated liver safety in medical studies, kava still carries the taint of poor research.

Things are beginning to turn around though.  The epicenter of kava culture, Vanuatu is preparing for the next kava boom.

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Jerry Nelson is a nationally recognized photojournalist. His work has appeared in a wide variety of publicaitons and news outlets including USAToday, CNN, Upsurge, CBS, Dream Row, Earthwalkers and others. He photographs and licenses images for all manner of commercial and editorial use as well as (more...)

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