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Roots to the rescue: Can kava be the solution to stress?

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Kava tea

After surviving five (has it really only been five?) months in quarantine, while simultaneously riding the tsunami of American politics and struggling to find a way forward into an increasingly uncertain future, it probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I am straight-up not having a good time. 

As it turns out, I am not alone. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults in the United States have reported significantly elevated incidence of mental health conditions and suicidal ideation during the coronavirus pandemic. The rise is most marked in communities of color, young adults, and essential workers. 

Struggling with mental illness is difficult even in precedented times, and now, as every email we receive tells us, it seems we are stranded in unprecedented times. As someone with an anxiety disorder, the last five months have been challenging. Looking ahead to an unrecognizable school year, I’ve been searching for new ways to manage my anxiety. 

I am an avid tea drinker, and I love to wind down with a cup at night. Reading the label of one of my favorite soothing teas, one ingredient stood out from the others. In the midst of familiar favorites like lavender and chamomile, I noticed an herb called kava.

Kava is a plant native to the Pacific islands and is mainly cultivated in Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, and Vanuatu. The root and stump of the plant are ground and used to brew a drink that has naturally calming effects. 

Internationally, kava products are banned in the United Kingdom and Canada on the grounds that they may be toxic to the liver. In 2001, the use of kava was linked to 24 instances of liver damage, and one death in Germany. However, some researchers doubt that kava itself was truly to blame, instead citing bad cultivars of kava, or perhaps kava extracted using acetone.

Kava is a depressant, which is the same class of drugs as alcohol and Xanax. The active agents that give kava its soothing power are called kavalactones. Kavalactones interact with the body to relax muscles and also act similarly to a topical anesthetic, creating a numbing sensation around the mouth of the drinker.

According to Kalm with Kava, a kava farm and supplier, studies show that kavalactones bind to receptors in the limbic system, the region of the brain associated with emotional responses. The binding of kavalactones then helps to regulate feelings of anxiety, leading to a calming effect. While kava reduces fear and worry, it does so without impairing the user’s mental clarity, and it is non-addictive.

Kava has many cultural uses in the Pacific islands where it is grown, including as a substitute for alcohol in social situations, as a way to manage anxiety, and to help combat insomnia.

I already take Zoloft for anxiety and trazodone for insomnia. Despite this, I still struggle to sleep, especially when I’m stressed out. Since my anxiety tends to be manageable throughout the day, I decided to test kava as a sleep aid. 

As with any herbal remedy, kava can interact with prescription medications, especially other depressants and sleeping medications like Klonopin and Ambien, and it is important to consult a psychiatrist before mixing antidepressants with any herbal supplements. 

After getting the go-ahead from my doctor, I decided to try kava instead of my usual sleeping medication to see if it was any more effective. 

I ordered my kava online, from a Hawaiian herbal supplier, in the form of root powder, which can be chewed like gum or brewed into tea. 

As a tea fiend, I decided to brew my kava rather than chewing it. Kava is most effective on an empty stomach, and it is recommended to drink it a half a cup at a time and wait 15–20 minutes between servings. 

Following the traditional method of brewing kava, I used a piece of muslin cloth and tied a half a cup of kava into a small bag. I steeped the bag in lukewarm water for 10 minutes while kneading it with my knuckles to extract the kavalactones. 

What I was left with was a bowl of muddy water that smelled almost overpoweringly earthy and a little sweet. I poured out my first half cup serving and sipped it. 

Let me promise you — it tastes terrible. The most prominent flavor is “earthy,” but the aftertaste is bitter and oily. I drank it fast, and chased it with a glass of water. 

Immediately after drinking my first cup, my lips and mouth went numb. The sensation is similar to the pins-and-needles feeling when your leg falls asleep. Due to this effect, kava can also be used as a treatment for toothaches or canker sores. Within minutes, my whole body felt loose and relaxed, as if I had just stepped out of a long, warm bath. 

Fifteen minutes later, I chugged my second cup. The second serving left me feeling slightly fuzzy all over, and even more calm. 

After finishing the last cup, I went to bed. Physically, I have never been more relaxed. Muscles I didn't even know I was tensing were loose for the first time in months. However, my mental clarity was preserved, and I was unable to calm my mind enough to fall asleep. After about an hour of trying, the kava had mostly worn off, and I returned to my tried-and-true sleeping medication. 

For me, kava only provided physical relaxation, and I need mental relaxation in order to fall asleep. However, I think that if kava were combined with meditation, or another similarly soothing activity, it would be more effective as a sleep aid. 

Despite failing as a sleep aid, kava certainly helped me relax. While I was not sleepy, I felt all the warm, loosening effects of alcohol, without the drunkenness or the hangover. As a way to unwind after a long day of Zoom calls and homework, kava is a good solution.  

Reach writer Zoe Luderman Miller at pacificwave@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @zozozaira

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