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Kava Now...What's Next?

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Until a few months ago, Dianne McLendon would welcome visitors to her home in St. Johnâ??s, Nfld., with an offer of tea, juice or, her specialty, a "kava cocktail"--kava root, imported from Fiji, mixed with juice. The fence around her garden bore the slogan "Hava Kava." No longer.

Until a few months ago, Dianne McLendon would welcome visitors to her home in St. John’s, Nfld., with an offer of tea, juice or, her specialty, a "kava cocktail"–kava root, imported from Fiji, mixed with juice. The fence around her garden bore the slogan "Hava Kava."

No longer. McLendon, owner of Herbs and Garden Things, a small natural products store, stopped bringing in kava last January, when she received the first warning from Health Canada. The government agency was about to conduct a safety assessment of the herb–one of her best sellers–based on worldwide reports of liver toxicity associated with its use.

She was disappointed, but not surprised, when Health Canada banned the herb outright last August. "I knew they’d pull something stupid like this," she sighs. "And there’s no point me bringing it in if I can’t sell it."

According to Health Canada, there have been four reported cases of liver toxicity associated with kava in Canada. It states other authorities (in Germany, Switzerland, the UK and US) have received similar reports, including three fatalities. "The use of kava-containing products is considered to pose an unacceptable potential risk to health," it states in a release.

McLendon disagrees. "This herb has been used for thousands of years, in many cultures. What does Health Canada know that these people do not?"

She says that over the years she’s sold kava to hundreds of people for insomnia, anxiety, nervousness, pain and muscle tension. She always took the time to explain the proper use of the herb, and only once did she hear a complaint: The client abused the herb by taking too much, too often, and lost weight. For everyone else, "this was a herb they could take, once in while, to help with stress...There’s no problem with kava."

Jeff Blackwood agrees. He heads a St. John’s-based organization called C-CAM (Cancer Coalition for Alternative Medicine) and publishes HOPE, a wholistic magazine for cancer patients and their caregivers.

"Cancer affects you in so many ways. Many of the people who come to our meetings are occasional kava users. You can imagine the trauma these people are going through, on so many levels. The relaxation of kava helps them through, takes the edge off."

Now Blackwood’s busy calming the fears of those who are afraid their lives are in danger thanks to kava use. "Ridiculous," he sums up.

Siegfried Gursche, master herbalist and publisher of alive, picks "hypocrisy" to describe Health Canada’s actions. "Look at what they’re selling! Thousands of people have died from acetaminophen in the US last year. How many died from kava and other herbs? And they’re still selling cigarettes. They’ve got it all wrong."

Gursche fears what could be next on Health Canada’s hit list. If the heavy arm of government can take kava off the shelves so quickly, aren’t all products at risk?

The Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) has countered Health Canada’s press release with its own, stating the liver toxicity may have been a result of using kava in combination with prescription drugs, or using it well above recommended levels.

Donna Herringer, president and CEO of the CHFA considers the kava ban a perfect example of the need for a unique regulatory body for natural products, with appropriate regulations. "Cautions for responsible use can be put on the label, but a full-out ban without additional research or confirmed incident is irresponsible on the part of the government."

She says, with proper labelling and production standards in place, kava–along with other products not currently available for sale in Canada–may make a return.

For those continuing to take kava, the CHFA offers these guidelines:

  • Do not exceed recommended dosage levels.
  • Do not use kava if you have Parkinson’s disease.
  • Do not take kava in combination with alcohol.
  • Do not take kava in combination with benzodiazepines such as Valium and Halcyon unless under medical supervision.
  • Do not take kava for more than three months without medical supervision.

As of press time, the stop-sale order on all kava products was still in effect, though Health Canada says it will to continue to assess kava’s safety and review new information as it becomes available.

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