As a phytomedicine, Kava (or "Kava Kava") is receiving considerable worldwide interest in its use as a treatment for anxiety, tension, agitation, and/or insomnia. This phytomedicine is produced from an extract of the root and rhizome of Piper methysticum. Although the term Kava actually refers to a Polynesian term for the intoxicating beverage produced from this tropical shrub, this word is now typically used in Western cultures as the common name for the plant as well.

Extensive clinical studies conducted primarily in Europe have shown an efficacy of the Kava phytomedicine that is comparable to benzodiazepines (e.g., valium) in the treatment of anxiety symptoms (Schulz et al. 1998, Volz and Kieser 1997, Lehmann et al. 1996). However, unlike benzodiazepines or other synthetic tranquilizers, no evidence has been found for the development of either a physical or psychological dependency on Kava arising from its use (Schulz et al. 1998 and references therein). Moreover, the use of Kava does not impair mental alertness and capability, and the frequency of problematic side effects also appears to be very low (< 1.5%) (Schulz et al. 1998, Lehmann et al. 1996). In the United States, Kava is sold as an herbal "dietary supplement" in accordance with the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) and its use has increased dramatically over recent years (Brevoort 1998). Indeed, in 1998, Kava sales within the United States increased 470% over the previous year and all indications are that this medicinal plant may well be on its way to equal or even surpass St. John's wort in terms of popularity and use (Brevoort 1998).

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