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What About Awa (kava kava)?

Kava Kava (in Hawaiian: "Awa")Growing Kava kava (Piper methysticum), known in Hawai'i as awa, has blossomed into an economically significant industry on the Big Island. The world demand for awa root is greater than the available supply and prices are good. I've been told that a mature 2-acre field of awa can bring in over $60,000 a year. A very good return for a legal, mood-altering herb that grows easily with little or no care and spectacularly when nursed and coddled. There are also at least three awa bars on the Big Island where a person can relax with a cup of awa tea --The Landing in Hawi, Kanaka Kava in Kailua-Kona, and a stand at the Sunday Pahoa Farmer's Market.

Awa tea is made from the root of Piper methysticum, a member of the pepper family. It is cultivated throughout the South Pacific and it thrives in tropical to sub-tropical climates. Anthropological evidence suggests that awa has been cultivated and consumed by humans for more than 3000 years. Awa was first written about during Captain Cook’s voyage to the Pacific in 1768-1771 when Europeans first encountered the plant and its consumption in sacred ceremonies. According to Cook’s account, natives chewed or pounded the root and mixed it with water to produce a brownish, often bitter brew that they then consumed for its psychoactive properties. It is still used today for a wide range of spiritual, medicinal, and recreational purposes. The feelings of brotherhood and friendship that awa drinking evokes has made it a symbol for peace and friendship in a number of island nations of the Pacific.

Over the years, many researchers have consumed awa in an attempt to describe its effects in more scientific terms. One of the first such descriptions of awa was offered by a pharmacologist named Louis Lewin in 1927:

"When the mixture is not too strong, the subject attains a state of happy unconcern, well-being and contentment, free of physical or psychological excitement. At the beginning conversation comes in a gentle, easy flow and hearing and sight are honed, becoming able to perceive subtle shades of sound and vision. Kava soothes temperaments. The drinker never becomes angry, unpleasant, quarrelsome or noisy, as happens with alcohol. Both natives and whites consider kava as a means of easing moral discomfort. The drinker remains master of his conscious and his reason. When consumption is excessive, however, the limbs become tired, the muscles seem no longer to respond to the orders of control of the mind, walking becomes slow and unsteady and the drinker looks partially inebriated. He feels the need to lie down. He is overcome by somnolence and finally drifts off to sleep."

Because humans are biologically individuated, awa affects each of us differently. For many people, it relaxes the body without compromising mental clarity -- a state of ease without feeling drugged. Other people report less muscle tension, making it useful in conditions like fibromyalgia. Peacefulness, contentment, mild euphoria and sociability are other ways the effects of awa are described. Some users just get sleepy. Awa has also been used to treat insomnia, phobias, edginess when quitting smoking, PMS, and menopausal symptoms.

The effects of awa last one to two hours and may lead to a restful sleep with no hangover. The calming effect can last well into the next day.

Numerous studies conducted over the past 40 years have indicated that the pleasurable effects of awa are due to its muscle relaxing, analgesic, and anesthetic properties. The most recent research shows awa to have anti-convulsive, diuretic, decongestant, antibacterial, antiseptic, and antifungal actions.

However, most of the research into awa has been focused on its ability to relieve anxiety and depression. This is especially good news for people who rely on addictive, performance-impairing drugs called benzodiazepines to relieve these conditions. In contrast, according to results of studies in humans and animals, awa does not impair mental function. A number of studies indicate that awa actually enhances it.

So armed with a rich traditional history of safe use and many years of research, imagine the dismay of the rapidly growing Hawai'i awa industry when negative press started coming out about the herb.

Recent news articles from Europe quote a number of anecdotal reports of individuals contracting liver damage while consuming awa on a regular basis for prolonged periods of time. In fact, Germany is considering forbidding the sale of products containing more than tiny amounts of awa after 24 cases of liver damage linked to the herb have been reported there.

A few reports of liver damage occurring in awa users in the United States have also been covered in the press. This is a bit eyebrow-raising in light of the numerous studies that indicate awa is non-toxic and generally benign. In addition, many generations of Pacific Islanders have consumed awa on a daily basis without reports of serious, long-term, negative effects. My suspicion is that the liver damage in these reports was due to something other than awa and it was merely coincidental that the people involved were awa users. They could just have easily been milk drinkers who happened to contract liver disease. If any readers of this column are regular awa drinkers and are concerned about these reports, they can ask their M.D. or naturopathic physician to order a liver enzyme blood test.

The only known side effects of prolonged, high dosage awa use are minor. Chronic use can cause reddened eyes and a yellow skin discoloration (as plant pigments accumulate) with dryness and flakiness. Some people report that taking too much awa can reduce sexual performance.

Awa should not be combined with alcohol or other central nervous system depressants or mood-altering agents like anti-anxiety or anti-depression drugs. Avoid awa also if you are prone to strokes, are being treated for high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes. Remember the medical golden rule concerning all medicinals: when in doubt, consult with your physician.

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