Jungle Beat: Kava Safety

Everyone knows that drinking alcoholic beverages before driving a vehicle is a dangerous combination. It leads to many accidents and deaths that could easily be avoided if the driver chose an alternate ride home.

But what about driving after enjoying a cup or two of our popular Polynesian beverage, 'awa? Also called kava or kava kava (Piper methysticum), the early Polynesians introduced this plant to Hawaii in their large voyaging canoes. 'Awa is a proven, effective herbal remedy for anxiety - numerous laboratory studies have verified its effectiveness for this often debilitating mental health condition. It promotes relaxation and restful sleep as well as relaxing tense muscles and reducing nervousness and chronic pain.

In a February, 2013 report, the American Botanical Council (ABC) summarized the findings of a laboratory study that was conducted in Australia in late 2010. Twenty-two men and women, aged 16 to 65 years of age, participated in the study. All had been previously diagnosed with mild to moderate anxiety and only those who were not currently taking "antidepressants, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, opioids, analgesics, or cannabis," were included, according to the ABC report.

Possibility of Impairment Studied

Called the Kava Anxiety-Lowering Medication (KALM) Project, participants in this study were first tested on a driving simulator for 10 minutes. After their initial "sober" trial, they were given either 180 milligrams of Fijian kava in tablet form, 30 mg of oxazepam (a pharmaceutical used to treat anxiety), or a placebo. After consuming their medication, subjects rested for 90 minutes in order for their drug-blood serum levels to reach an appropriate level. They were then put back on the driving simulator for 15 minutes. The test was repeated three times, once a week for three weeks.

Results Are Interesting

The pharmaceutical oxazepam caused subjects to experience a slower reaction time for applying the brakes than both the kava and placebo subjects. In addition, the kava subjects experienced fewer lapses in concentration than those who were given oxazepam. Both groups had the same number of "crashes." Afterward, all subjects, regardless of which medication they took, reported feeling tired.

The study's authors concluded, "at medicinal doses, kava does not alter driving in the same way as benzodiazepines," such as oxazepam.

Drawbacks of the Study

The ABC critiqued this study on several levels:

• Because participants had only mild to moderate anxiety, the study's results may not apply to those suffering from more severe forms of anxiety.
• When used for recreational purposes, people sometimes consume larger quantities of kava, which might decrease their ability to safely drive.
• The driving simulator is not the same as actual driving.
• The participants were not evaluated for existing medical conditions that could affect their ability to drive.
• Because blood levels of oxazepam do not peak until two to three hours after taking it, the researchers should have waited longer than 90 minutes before putting this group of subjects in the driving simulator. ABC believes, "oxazepam may have produced a more profound effect if evaluated later."
• ABC recommended that a study of this nature be conducted using a larger dose of kava.