The Root of Tranquillity

Is extract of kava a natural substitute for Valium--or just alternative medicine's newest herb du jour?

Captain James Cook saw a lot of strange things when he was exploring Polynesia in 1769, but the virgins chewing kava brought him up short. After pulling the plant's root out of the ground, island girls worked it over in their mouths, reducing it to a pulp, then spit the whole mess into coconut milk. The mixture was then strained through fibers, collected in a bowl and consumed by the tribe at large. Cook's men found the practice distasteful, but what did they know? Kava, after all, had been a popular tonic in the South Seas for as long as anyone...

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