Kava Kava, Piper methysticum
Within the realm of medicinal plants, there is one plant that roots deep, grounding into past traditions, while simultaneously growing toward a future in the modern world. This plant is none other than kava kava. Whether you have heard of this species or not, it is truly making headway, and for good reason. The use of kava kava (whose scientific name means “intoxicating” in Latin) has grown increasingly in recent years due to its powerful properties of physical relaxation and mental stimulation. In this article we want to dive with you into the inciting past and invigorating present of this plant.
Kava kava root (called “‘Awa” in Hawai’ian, “‘Ava” in Samoan, or simply “Kava” for short) originates in Polynesia, Micronesia and the Philippines. This tropical plant is a member of the Pepper family (Piperaceae) and thus, needs moist and well-draining soils to flourish. Kava is an understory species that can be propagated from stem cuttings and reaches 6-12 feet tall when mature. The roots are the most utilized part of the plant and are traditionally harvested when the kava plant is around 5 years old. This ensures the roots have peak kavalactone content, the active component sought after by humans.
Kava kava translates as “talk talk” or “chat chat” and is used in Pacific Islander culture as a sacred ceremonial offering or as a peaceful social drink for formal meetings and social gatherings. Its analgesic qualities help humans feel good, ease their sorrows, lift their spirits and take away their pain. Kava also mildly sedates the nervous system. Therefore it is often used ceremonially to increase camaraderie, decrease social barriers and get people talking and discussing without restriction. Feuding families are often made to drink kava together so they will talk and negotiate.
In larger doses kava is a tranquilizer with relaxing psychotropic properties that makes drinkers drowsy. However drinking it doesn’t dull consciousness. In fact, it can be mildly mentally stimulating. For this reason kava is traditionally used for divination, to find words, a song, to get advice or to hold congress with the dead.
In the western world kava is one of the more widely examined and researched plants. This is mainly because of kava’s kavalactone content and its effects on the limbic system, the area of the brain that deals with memory and emotions. There are 6 major kavalactones found in kava and all 6 differ in their psychoactive properties, how quickly they take effect, and their duration. These kavalactones bind to various neuroreceptors in the brain, including dopamine and possibly GABA-A receptors, and cause behavioral changes at low doses. Relaxation, euphoria, and talkativeness are common feelings associated with this kavalactone action.
Because of these kavalactones, kava kava causes a drastic reduction in stress and anxiety, and is often used as an antidepressant. It can enhance serenity and well-being in drinkers while leveling their emotions. It can be stimulating in high amounts however, so the dosage must be determined on an individual basis. Despite these strong properties, kava is non-addictive and doesn’t lose effectiveness over time.
Kava also works well as a local anesthetic. It sedates nerves and causes immediate numbness in the mouth when drunk and can relax the jaws. This makes it a great remedy to take prior to dental work. Kava kava is also useful for helping pass kidney stones, and decrease tenseness in other internal muscles, due to it’s antispasmodic and analgesic properties. However, to benefit from kava use, one must choose the right cultivar, or variety, of the plant.
There are hundreds of kava cultivars, despite domestication dates being estimated as only 3000-3500 years ago. Out of all these varieties, only strains deemed as “noble” varieties should be consumed. There are many concerns over adverse effects from non-noble (tudei) varieties, so therefore these should be avoided. Some kava strains have higher cerebral effects than others as well, due to the variation in kavalactones. This cerebral effect is also influenced by how kava is prepared.
Traditionally, kava root is masticated (chewed) in a group for five or ten minutes so the saliva and teeth can begin to soften and separate the fibers (and extract the water insoluble kavalactone resins from the plant starches). It is then spat out onto leaves, pounded, wrapped in cloth and the emulsified juice squeezed out. Then the whole bundle is put into a bowl with cold or coconut water where it is continually squeezed and scooped out for drinking. All the while more coconut water is added for each batch of drink. Adding fats, such as coconut water, to the kava drink extracts its kavalactones, giving you a stronger product.
In kava bars in the states, large mechanical meat-grinders are used to mash up the root. The juice is then strained, and sometimes diluted with water, which can make it look muddy. Other styles use powdered kava, which is added to water and kneaded prior to straining. Ideally kava is consumed in the evening because of its potential deep sedative properties. Half a coconut shell of well-prepared strong kava will put a drinker to sleep within half an hour. Because of these sedative properties it’s best not to attempt to operate heavy machinery or perform other dangerous activities while under the influence of kava!
Other cautions should also be taken when choosing to consume kava on a regular basis. Since kava is filtered through the liver, drinking it for prolonged time periods can impair liver function, similarly to alcohol. Because of this, it is not wise to mix kava with alcohol or prescription medications so as not to burden the liver further. Heavy and continuous use of kava can also result in skin problems since it alters liver function over time. Overall, we keep the “everything in moderation” saying in mind when talking about kava. Kava in moderation can calm and ease you, take away pain, help you sleep, and promote togetherness.
Now that we have scratched the surface of all this intriguing plant has to offer, you may want to try some! We offer a high quality strain of kava kava root powder and our Catch some ZZZ’s tea features kava root in its ingredients.
Also look for other articles on medicinal herbs used in our tea blends on our blog page!
Written by: Greta de la Montagne, registered herbalist; @MontagneGreta; with Gentle Strength Botanicals
Edited by: Boo Curry; Lake Missoula Tea Company, @booccurry
Hawaiian Herbal Medicine by Kahuna La’au Lapa’au
Practical Folk Medicine of Hawai’i by L.R. McBride
Materia Medica class notes, Southwest School of Botanical Medicine
The Essential Guide to Western Botanical Medicine by Christa Sinadinos
Pharmako-Poeia; Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft by Dale Pendell
Kava, the Pacific Drug by Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom