What is Kava kava?
Kava is the name given by Pacific islanders to both Piper methysticum, a shrub belonging to the pepper family Piperaceae, and the psychoactive beverage made from it. Kava also has a peppery taste. The rootstock or stump contains the psychoactive substances, they are prepared by pounding, chewing or grinding them and soaking them in cold water. Since time immemorial kava has been a part of religious, political, and cultural life throughout the Pacific, where it originates.
Kava is the most relaxing botanical herb with exception of the opium poppy. Pharmacological studies show kava kava's active ingredients, kavalactones, produce physical and mental relaxation and a feeling of well being.
The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances on the history and use of kava kava:
Current research suggests that it may have first been domesticated less than 3,000 years ago in Vanuatu (which used to be called the New Hebrides), a group of islands in eastern Melanesia. The use of kava seems then to have diffused both westward to New Guinea and part of Micronesia and eastward into Fiji and then Polynesia. The archaeology of the region has not, as yet, revealed much about the origins and early history of kava use. Part of a fossilised stem, which can only tentatively be suggested as belonging to the kava plant, was discovered at the Talepakemalai site on Eloaua Island north of the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea.
It was found in association with a highly decorated style of pottery known as Lapita. The Lapita peoples are thought to be the ancestors of the modern Polynesians and their pottery vessels to be early examples of bowls used in drinking kava. However, things do not fit that neatly together as Lapita artefacts have been found in areas outside the kava-drinking zone.
Another theory (developed by the early anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers), which has largely been abandoned, is that kava-using people were displaced by incoming populations of betel-users who replaced the indigenous drug with their own in some regions of Melanesia. This is now seen as too simplistic and it fails to explain why some cultures in the region use both substances.
Often the effects of colonisation and Western influence all but eradicated the use of traditional psychoactive substances. Whilst there were persistent attempts to stamp out kava use in many areas of the Pacific, its use continues unabated. In Vanuatu, independent since 1980, kava use has actually increased and is supported by the authorities as a desirable alternative to alcohol.
This is at least in part an economic strategy as it has resulted in both a drastic decrease in the importation of alcoholic drinks and a development of kava as a highly significant cash crop. Kava bars have sprung up in the Pacific island providing a modern way to consume it in an informal and sociable setting. In the West kava is gaining popularity for its relaxing effect for some decades now.
Kava was also of great religious significance and was seen to connect the user with the ancestors and the gods. It was not merely an offering or sacrifice to the spirits but a way of gaining access to the spirit world. It is used in healing ceremonies and to obtain hidden or esoteric knowledge. Its use as a means of divination was widespread and in Hawaii 'kahunas' (native 'priests') would, in a fashion akin to that of tea-leaf reading, read the bubbles on the surface of a kava brew to predict the sex of an unborn child or the cause of illnesses.
In the mythology and symbolism of the Pacific peoples kava has a distinctly sexual aura. The preparation of kava using the native equivalent of a pestle and mortar in Vanuatu and some Micronesian islands is seen as a symbolic form of sexual intercourse. Often the myths relating the origin of kava attribute its genesis or discovery to women, although drinking it is a male prerogative. For women to drink it is perceived by be 'unnatural' and a symbolic form of lesbianism. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, kava is widely recognised as an aphrodisiac, i.e. reducing the desire for sex.
Piper methysticum is a hardy perennial which often grows up to three metres or more, with large ovate to heart-shaped leaves. The flower spikes are opposite the leaves; male and female flowers occur on separate plants.
Several rhizome components and lactones have been isolated in the kava root. Of the fifteen lactones isolated from kava, there are six major lactones (kavalactones) known to provide psychoactive activity: kawain, methysticin, demethoxy-yangonin, dihydrokawain, dihydomethysicin, and yongonin. All kavalactones are physiologically active, though it is the fat-soluble kavalactones derived from kava resin that have the greatest effect on the central nervous system. Kava also has a direct effect on muscle tension similar to tranquilizers. The activity of the kava rhizome is related to several arylethylene pyrones similar in structure to myristicin, which is found in nutmeg.
The effects of drinking kava, in order of sensation, are slight tongue and lip numbing; mildly talkative and euphoric behavior; calming, sense of well-being, clear thinking; and relaxed muscles. The user remains in control; outbursts such as those precipitated by alcohol are alien to the kava experience.
"Your head is affected most pleasantly. Thoughts come clearly. You feel friendly; not beer sentimental; never cross. The world gains no new color or rose tint; it fits its pieces and is one (easily understandable) whole. You cannot hate with kava in you, and so it is used in making up of quarrels, and in peace-making" (Tom Harrison in his 1937 book "Savage Civilization"). As its effects go on its soporific qualities come to the fore and the user falls asleep. Research reported other actions such as anticonvulsant properties, neuroprotection and analgesia.
An indication of just how important kava cultivation has been in the Pacific is the sheer number of types which the indigenous people recognise. In Vanuatu alone natives are known to classify kava into 247 types! Kava was, and still is in many regions of the Pacific, an important medicine being used in the treatment of rheumatism, menstrual problems, venereal disease, tuberculosis and even leprosy. By putting kava leaves in the vagina, abortions were said to be provoked.
Several European countries (e.g., Germany, United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Austria) have approved kava kava preparations in the treatment of nervous anxiety, insomnia, and restlessness on the basis of detailed pharmacological data and favorable clinical studies. For women in their menopauze kava kava gives improvements in feelings of well-being, mood, and menopausal symptoms including hot flashes. In both uses the positive effects were gained without side effects.
Piper wichmannii is now seen to be a wild variant of P. methysticum rather than a genuinely distinct species. Kava also comes in many forms: natural kava powder, kava kava pills, kava tinctures, kava kava extracts, etc. Usually the herb is sundried and powdered.
Kava is traditionally consumed as a 'tea'; that is, an infusion made from straining a mixture of water and shredded, pounded, dried, or fresh root and/or stump. The plant may also be chewed as part of preparing kava; this will affect the final product due to the enzymes in saliva. The extract is an emulsion, consisting of suspended kavalactone droplets in a starchy suspension. The taste is slightly pungent, while the distinctive aroma varies if prepared from dry or fresh material and by variety.
Perhaps the simplest method of making the tea is to put two or more heaped tablespoons of kava root powder per person into a clean sock or stocking, tie a knot in it, and squeeze it repeatedly in a bowl of cold water.
For sedative effects, a dosage providing 180 to 210 mg of kavalactones can be taken as a single dose one hour before retiring. The dosage recommendation for anxiolytic effects is 45 to 70 mg of kavalactones three times daily. Consider this, because a standard bowl of traditionally prepared kava drink contains approximately 250 mg of kavalactones.
Pharmacologically, kava is not addictive and is considered safe. Still, usage is not without risks and therefore kava is not legal in every country, and sometimes it's only available by prescription.
Long term use of the herb can contribute to hypertension, reduced protein levels, blood cell abnormalities, or liver damage. Alcohol consumption increases the toxicity of the pharmacological constituents. It is not recommended for those who intend on driving or where quick reaction time is required. Do not use if pregnant, nursing, or being treated for depression.
Furthermore there is some controversy on possible damaging effects on the liver. There has to be done more investigation on this.
For now most important is the following advice made by the FDA: persons who have liver disease or liver problems, or persons who are taking drug products that can affect the liver, should consult a physician before using kava-containing supplements. More info is to be found at Erowid.
Occasionally higher doses can lead to muscle weakness, visual impairment, dizziness and drying of the skin.
Kava kava has been successfully combined with Valerian, St. Johns wort, hops, and passionflower in relaxing herbal formulas. More experimental (and experienced) user might want to try combining kava with cannabis or nutmeg.
Kava makes a good house plant. It might be grown outdoors in places like Florida, but elsewhere it requires greenhouse temperatures. It prefers a loose, rich soil with good drainage and frequent watering. It does well on stony ground. The best crops are grown on virgin soil. If two consecutive crops are raised on the same soil the second crop will be poor. The plant rarely produces seeds and is generally propagated by cuttings of the firm wood. These are susceptible to fungus diseases because of the high humidity the plant requires. Plants should be spaced about 6 feet apart either way.
Rootstocks usually reach maximum growth at about 6 years, but the older the plant the more potent it will be. These may be dug and used fresh or dried in the sun. The lower stems are also active. Before drying, the rootstocks and lower stems should be scraped of their outer coating and cut into pieces.
Dried kava can be stored at any temperature below 50°C if it is kept in moisture-proof containers. The moisture content of the kava must be monitored and tested by smell, looking for mould, and noticing if the roots bend rather than break. When stored as powder, less attention needs to be paid.
Links / Further reading
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