Kava is a medicinal beverage that has been used ceremonially for thousands of years by Pacific Islanders to induce a state of relaxation and tranquility.
Kava contains compounds called kavalactones, which have been shown to help alleviate anxiety, relieve pain, relax muscles, and prevent convulsions. Unlike many popular prescription drugs, Kava reduces anxiety but does not impair mental function or cause sedation. In a double-blind crossover study conducted in Switzerland, the effects of Kava on short-term memory were compared with those of the anti-anxiety and muscle relaxant drug Oxazepam. While the drug was found to impair short-term memory, Kava actually improved it slightly.
Hawaiian folk healers have also traditionally used kava as a treatment for asthma. In a 1993 article that appeared in the Hawaiian Medical Journal, the authors concluded that Kava does indeed have scientific merit when used for asthma. The authors suggested that more studies be performed to access Kava's potential role, as well as that of other traditional Hawaiian herbs, as an aid for asthma sufferers.
Kava has a long history of traditional use and appears to be very safe. Unlike its pharmaceutical counterparts, its side effects appear to be most beneficial rather than harmful. For example, it has been shown to have a slight anti-fungal activity and it helps protect the nerves from damage due to ischemia.