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20/20 Airdate: June 22, 1998

HUGH DOWNS A new craze is sweeping the country. People are flocking to health food stores to snap up an herbal elixir called kava. Now, it's not surprising that sales are going through the roof. Who wouldn't like a natural, nonaddictive way to relieve the stress and anxiety of everyday life? But critics warn we don't know yet enough about this ancient remedy that promises peace of mind. Perri Peltz takes a look at the kava phenomenon.

PERRI PELTZ, ABC NEWS (VO) Concord, Massachusetts-it's Friday night at a local health food store. So what's going on here? This is a kava party. For most, this is a first-time experience.

CHRIS KILHAM, HERBAL RESEARCHER/CONSULTANT What we've got here is liquid kava extract. You'll love the feeling, not the flavor.

1ST WOMAN AT KAVA PARTY Not that bad, really isn't.

2ND WOMAN AT KAVA PARTY Smells terrible.

CHRIS KILHAM The purpose of which is to induce a feeling of relaxation and tranquillity.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) Dozens of people, all ages, professions. They've come to sample kava, an herbal elixir extracted from the roots of a South Seas pepper plant.

1ST MAN AT KAVA PARTY It's just starting to hit me now. It just feels-it feels like I'm just getting a bit of a buzz from it.

3RD WOMAN AT KAVA PARTY Not woozy, but a little cushiony or something.

PERRI PELTZ (on camera) Do you feel any different?

1ST WOMAN AT KAVA PARTY No.

4TH WOMAN AT KAVA PARTY It almost was an immediate effect. It took the edge off.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) Chris Kilham has been promoting the use of kava ever since he first tried it nearly 20 years ago.

CHRIS KILHAM Nothing like it.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) Traveling to the island nation of Vanuatu in the western Pacific, where kava grows and the indigenous people have used it for centuries.

CHRIS KILHAM Makes me feel good. So that instead of maybe being a little ragged, a little bit edgy, I just feel nice and relaxed and a little bit looser and more calm and centered. And I like that feeling.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) It is a daily ritual in the western Pacific-harvesting the roots of the plant and distilling a milky colored tonic. The effect is calming, soothing and immediate. Kilham has worked for years now to help organize and promote the sale of kava as a botanical or plant medicine to markets in the United States. We met near his home in Lincoln, Massachusetts. (on camera) How big do you think kava is going to be?

CHRIS KILHAM I think it will turn out to be one of the biggest botanicals, if not the biggest botanical, of all times because it answers something that everybody has a need for-it's the answer to stress.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) Millions and millions of us suffer annually with bouts of stress that lead to temporary periods of sleeplessness and anxiety. Our choice has been to simply suffer it or seek tranquilizing medications. (on camera) And many of those have debilitating side effects and are highly addictive. But the word is out now that kava just may be a natural, nonaddictive remedy for these anxious times, an herbal superstar whose time has come.

DR HAROLD BLOOMFIELD, "HEALING ANXIETY WITH HERBS" I think kava is going to revolutionize the treatment of 65 million Americans who annually suffer from the symptoms of anxiety.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) And that's the subject of Dr Bloomfield's latest book, "Healing Anxiety With Herbs," in which he reports on the successful use of kava as an alternative medicine to reduce stress and anxiety.

DR HAROLD BLOOMFIELD One out of two Americans already are using herbal medicines. My concern is, however, that people be informed. There are all kinds of people who do need psychiatric medications. And it would be a shame if they simply stopped taking these medications and ran to their health food store.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) But which kava would you buy? Products are pouring onto the market now as mood enhancers, dietary supplements, teas, drinks and even chips. Even the more serious products have different strengths. Whether taking kava as a pill or drinking a liquid extract, experts say it's not the form that's important, it's the dosage. Seventy milligrams of kavalactones, the active chemical, is considered an effective dosage between one and three times a day.

DR HAROLD BLOOMFIELD There are more people addicted to these valium-like tranquilizers than all the people who are addicted to heroin and cocaine. And American medicine has not had an alternative that has some medical proof behind it. There's been some excellent research that really supports the use of kava for the treatment of mild anxiety, chronic stress and insomnia.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) In the brain, the amygdala controls mood and anxiety. And research has shown that kava acts directly on this alarm center, stimulating the brain's own natural tranquilizing chemistry, according to advocates, all without side effects. It was just last year that Terry Akin, a school teacher, came home to the news that her husband, a decorated Marine pilot, had died in a crash.

TERRY AKIN, KAVA USER/TEACHER After the shock wore off, then the grief came in. Then just the incredible hurt came, and I just missed him so much. And then, all the details of life became overwhelming. I knew I wanted to take something to help me get through these first months of grieving, but I didn't want to go on drugs. I was really in the dark night of my soul.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) A psychiatrist recommended kava in pill form. She takes 60 milligrams of kavalactones three times a day. (on camera) And you think kava has really made that much of a difference?

TERRI AKIN Yes, I do. I started getting a feeling inside my body that I could cope, I could hold together. I could be strong. I could be courageous. I could endure the pain.

PERRI PELTZ So, Dr Bloomfield, is kava a replacement for valium and Zanax?

DR HAROLD BLOOMFIELD To answer your question specifically, yes. I think that kava is going to be a replacement for many, not all, of the people who have been using valium-like drugs to deal with mild to moderate anxiety. Already in Europe, this is common medical practice.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) Berlin, Germany - here kava is a registered medicine. Dr Barbara Grube (ph) prescribes it to patients six to 10 times a day. Patients take their prescriptions to their local pharmacy. Here, as in most of Europe, this is front-line medicine, supported by millions of successful case histories and study after study-all clinical trials that have shown kava over and over to be an effective treatment for moderate anxiety disorders, just as effective as tranquilizers when tested head to head.

DR STEVEN HYMAN, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF MENTAL HEALTH If you actually look at the work that they've done, if you actually look at the data and you are skeptical andcareful, you should not be convinced by it.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) One problem, according to Dr Hyman, is the trials were too short to prove long-term effectiveness or to eliminate questions about side effects. That proof could come from clinical trials in this country, and Dr Hyman is the man who decides whether to spend the federal research dollars to prove kava's worth as an effective medicine.

DR STEVEN HYMAN My job is to be a professional skeptic and to make sure that if we say that something works, that the American people know that something works and that something is safe.

PERRI PELTZ (on camera) Don't we know, though, that at least kava shows great promise?

DR STEVEN HYMAN I think there is some interesting evidence about kava, and I think we owe to it the American people to take it seriously.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) Meet AJ Lamb, 17-year-old student living and going to school just outside Boston. With the approval of his psychologist, he is now taking a 120-milligram dose of kavalactones three times a day.

AJ LAMB, KAVA USER/STUDENT Right now is a really stressful time in my life, as it is for a lot of people my age. But also, I have anxiety. You know, you'll be sitting in class, and you can't think. Everything is rushing through your mind. You can't concentrate. You can't focus.

PERRI PELTZ (on camera) Does kava take away the knot in your stomach?

AJ LAMB It takes the edge off. It puts you kind of back in control, and you can really step back and say, "You know what, that's not really a problem."

PERRI PELTZ Are you feeling as stressed out?

AJ LAMB No, I don't feel as stressed out. In fact, people have even said to me, "ou know, AJ you're much smoother now." And so, other people have noticed the difference.

DR HAROLD BLOOMFIELD Within the last four or five years, I've prescribed kava for hundreds of my patients who, in the past, I would have perhaps considered Atavan (ph) or Xanax. And remarkably, people like it because it takes the edge off of their anxiety, particularly if it's not of a severe variety.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) While kava remains untested in the United States, people are buying and health stores, pharmacies, even Wal-Marts are increasing their orders to keep the shelves stocked. Fifty million dollars will be spent on kava this year alone.

NATALIE KOETHER, PRESIDENT, PURE WORLD We're on the front line of a trend, and there certainly is a significant push. We are under a tremendous pressure, I would say, to deliver.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) Natalie Koether runs Pure World, a company that processes kava root by the ton into a high-quality extract or powder.

NATALIE KOETHER I really expect exponential growth from kava. By June, I'm hoping to bring in between 100 tons and 125 tons.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) More and more companies like Pure World have invested heavily in both kava and chemistry. Their intent, they say, is to analyze every kava product to ensure it has a standardized strength and quality.

NATALIE KOETHER We've done as much as we can on lifting the level of chemistry here. And now it's time for the clinical people to take over. And I think that, realistically, the American doctor is not going to accept a product until it receives support from the American medical establishment.

DR TRACY GAUDET, MEDICAL DIRECTOR, PROGRAM IN INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE Most physicians, whether they're physicians in training or in practice, this isn't something they've probably heard about. If they have heard about it, I guarantee you it's been from their patients who have come into their office saying, "Well, what about this herb or this botanical called kava?"

PERRI PELTZ (VO) Dr Tracy Gaudet runs the integrated medicine program at the University of Arizona Medical School, teaching physicians how to use alternative approaches to medical care.

DR TRACY GAUDET My concern is that what's currently happening is that patients feel like their physicians won't know about it, which they very likely won't. But more importantly, will turn their back on it. So therefore, they're not even discussing it with their physician. That's dangerous.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) And worth an added caution here. Self-medication without your doctor's approval is never advised, and kava should never be taken with other medications without consulting a physician first.

DR STEVEN HYMAN I am a doctor. I am a practical man. If we can find that kava is a safe and effective drug for certain conditions, maybe for certain kinds of anxiety disorders, I would be delighted to have an alternative treatment. Until we have the knowledge that it's safe and effective, my advice would be to use something else.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) Advice not really heard on Melrose Place in Los Angeles. This is the Elixir Bar, where kava drinks are served up on daily basis. (on camera) So this works well for you?

1ST MAN AT ELIXIR BAR It works perfect, yes.

2ND MAN AT ELIXIR BAR It makes you feel good. It calms the nerves. It gives a peaceful feeling, but a happy feeling.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) Local patrons sold on kava as a cure for their stress, anxiety and insomnia. (on camera) Have you ever taken valium or Xanex or any other prescription drugs like that?

2ND MAN AT ELIXIR BAR I have. I've taken valium and Xanax. And kava-kava, to me, works better.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) And it is experience like this that is putting pressure on medical authorities to test kava as medicine.

DR STEVEN HYMAN I can tell you right now that we are actively considering whether to study kava as a potential treatment for anxiety disorders.

PERRI PELTZ (on camera) Are you close?

DR. STEVEN HYMAN I think we are close to making a decision.

CHRIS KILHAM Some kava?

5TH WOMAN AT KAVA PARTY Oh, yeah.

CHRIS KILHAM Oh, good.

PERRI PELTZ (VO) So while the medical validation of kava may take some time, consumers, in increasing numbers, are already sold. HUGH DOWNS Some companies aren't waiting for the government to get around to studying kava. They've gone ahead on their own and funded clinical trials at top medical research centers.

Copyright 1998 ABC NEWS.

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