League: Kava sessions liquid gold for Warriors

By Michael Brown

Players from some New Zealand sports teams, including the Warriors, use Kava as an alternative to alcohol after games. Some find it a tonic, others say it's foul.

Bullocking Warriors' wing Manu Vatuvei says he is addicted to Kava sessions which he says helps with recovery after games.
Bullocking Warriors' wing Manu Vatuvei says he is addicted to Kava sessions which he says helps with recovery after games.

In the highly regulated world of professional sports, it's natural young athletes will look to find a way to "unwind" away from the playing field.

In the past, this involved alcohol. Often a lot of it.

These days with club drinking bans or alcohol testing, not to mention a rampant social media which feeds on juicy titbits like sportsmen out on the town, it's become riskier and less visible.

More recently, some have mixed prescription drugs and energy drinks which are said to produce a similar sensation to some recreational drugs without contravening anti-doping rules.

The NRL announced recently they will test for prescription drugs which, it's assumed, will see the use of sleeping pills by players decrease. It's a question now of what the next drug of choice will be.

"My preference would be a puritanical lifestyle but that's not living, either," Warriors' coach Matt Elliott says. "Ideally I would like the guys to eat clean, organic food, drink three litres of water every day and go to bed about 9.45 every night but we are dealing with human beings. My memory is long enough to remember being a young guy and the behaviour [of the Warriors' players] is far better than mine was."

Some Warriors players have a natural - not to mention unusual - method of unwinding which, to date, has the club's blessing.

They indulge in kava sessions and attendance is compulsory after away games.

Some see this as harmless, therapeutic, relaxing and good for a player's recovery. Others say it's a dangerous herb which is mind-altering and hallucinogenic and has significant side-effects including liver damage, neurotoxicity, pulmonary hypertension and loss of muscle control. The import, advertising and sale of kava is strictly controlled in Australia and is listed as a controlled substance under the Customs Regulations Act and in 2007 passengers over 18 were limited to 2kg in their possession without a licence. Other countries have similar controls.

The problem is there isn't enough scientific evidence either way because few clinical trials have been done on the effects of kava. There is some research which shows it helps with anxiety disorders but it's very limited.

"It's something I like to take after games," winger Manu Vatuvei says. "It's very relaxing and gives me a good night's sleep. If you have a few aches and pains, they go away. If you have a few, your mouth and lips go numb."

Vatuvei first had kava with his father who regularly drank it with church members. "I went down and had a few kavas with them. I didn't really like it at first. I started drinking it again when Ruben Wiki used it. Now I'm addicted to it."

Wiki is one of the biggest advocates of kava and says it prolonged his career. He played 312 first-grade games and 55 tests for the Kiwis. He was introduced to it by some Fijian teammates when playing at Canberra and still takes it regularly.

"I've been associated with kava a long time and it's done me wonders," he says. "I found I recovered a lot quicker. I did some research and found a lot of benefits, like being good for muscle soreness. You're hydrating, because you're mixing it with water, and there's an ingredient in the plant that's used in anti-inflammatories.

"It's a better choice than alcohol. If you drink alcohol, it's going to take three days to recover and you're dehydrated. It's [kava] very relaxing and you have the best sleep. But you have to drink it in moderation."

Some don't touch it at all, given the taste and sight of it are unappealing - many equate it to muddy water.

"It tastes like shit," Warriors' captain Simon Mannering says. "I would much rather have a beer after a game."

Players from the Warriors and Kiwis aren't the only ones to use kava. Chiefs' fullback Gareth Anscombe this week posted a picture on Twitter of some of his teammates having a kava session after arriving in Pretoria ahead of their Super Rugby match against the Bulls.

Many point to the social aspect of kava sessions, and the Warriors hold them after every away game.

"Attendance is compulsory," Elliott explains, "and we sit around in a chilled environment. I'm totally comfortable with it. It's a controlled and family environment. It's not as if there are ridiculous levels of consumption.

"I'm sure there will be health experts who say kava is not good for you but there are also health experts who say pasta is not good for you, either."

Dr Nicholas Gant, director of the exercise neuromatabolism laboratory at Auckland University's department of sport and exercise science, recom-mends caution because herbal medi-cines aren't free from potential adverse side effects if used inappropriately.

"There is no published scientific research that has specifically examined the influence of kava on sports performance or recovery after exercise," he says. "The majority of herbal remedies typically show no significant benefits on human performance when scrutinised in well-controlled controlled trials.

"There is no scientific research on when it becomes or if it becomes toxic. It has a low addictive index ... and there's no evidence yet that it's mind altering.

"If it's taken in the traditional way and done in a group setting, I would expect that's a reasonably safe way of doing it."

Kiwis' doctor Simon Mayhew agrees.

"It's an individual's choice ... From what I have seen and read, it's fairly benign and harmless stuff. It tastes foul, though."

- NZ Herald

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