Kava is a magical root. Not only does it have the ability to pull communities together for religious and celebratory occasions, but it has wonderous medical properties as well.
Grown in the Pacific Islands, kava comes from the root of the pepper plant, Piper Methysticum. The root is harvested, dried and ground into a powder that is traditionally drunk as a tea-like beverage in a coconut bowl. It is a very strong part of Pacific island culture not only for its cultural significance but also for its medicinal qualities.
What is it used for?
Kava is best known for acting on the central nervous system, known as the CNS (which includes the brain and spinal cord). These promote feelings of calm and relaxation that decrease anxiety and depression symptoms. Research shows that it significantly decreases feelings of anxiety and may even work better than anxiety medications.
Traditionally, however, kava has been used for many other things. For example:
Reproductive and women’s health
Respiratory ailments like asthma, coughs, and tuberculosis
As an analgesic for skin issues and topical wounds
Due to the anecdotal nature of these findings, there is limited research on these conditions currently. However, the knowledge of these benefits is spreading and research always follows.
One condition that is drawing particular attention is pain. Chronic pain is a huge issue in the United States. In 2021, 20.9% of adults reported experiencing chronic pain. That’s 51.6 million people! While some research is showing kava could have positive impacts on pain related to inflammation (which is a form of chronic pain), here, we are interested in talking about topical pain.
How it works
For those of you who have used kava, you probably remember your mouth and tongue going numb when you first drank it. This is due to the analgesic, or pain relieving properties in some of the active ingredients called kavalactones.
While there are many different types of kavalactones, each with their own effects, many of them have sedating quality. It’s said that because we have so many nerve receptors in our mouths and lips, when we take a sip of kava those receptors are affected by the kavalactones, giving us a numb feeling.
Back in 2004, there was a study presented at an annual conference for the International Association for Dental, Oral and Craniofacial Research (IADR). The study took fresh kava root, did two rounds of kavalactones extraction (that is using alcohol to get the active components separated from the plant), then combined the 6% concentrated kava extract with a water based gel. Observations of the kava gel were that it was a potent topical pain reliever. This suggests a promising treatment avenue for treating canker sores and other wounds on the skin.
What kava lovers are saying
While there isn’t much research out there to support the claim that kava helps with canker sores, it’s hard to challenge personal experience. There are kava forums that report making kava into a paste and placing them on canker sores for a few minutes before washing it off.
There are also reports of using kava tea as a mouthwash to help heal the sores and toothache, though there isn’t evidence behind this. It’s not a huge leap to make when considering the pain relieving evidence and canker sores. And while you won’t find kava listed as a treatment on any of the medical websites, it sure seems to help a benefit for some who get canker sores more regularly.
While more research is needed to better understand how kava could work as a topical pain reliever, there is certainly anecdotal evidence that it could be helpful.
Just remember to cool your kava down if making it with hot water before swirling it around your mouth. And be mindful of how many times you are squishing as you don’t want to over do it.