Kava (Piper methysticum) (Piper Latin for "pepper", methysticum Greek for "intoxicating") is an ancient crop of the western Pacific. Other names for kava include ʻawa (Hawaii), 'ava (Samoa), yaqona (Fiji), and sakau (Pohnpei). The word kava is used to refer both to the plant and the beverage produced from it. In some parts of the Western World, kava extract is marketed as herbal medicine against stress and anxiety.
Preparation and consumption
Kava root drying in Lovoni village, Ovalau, FijiKava is consumed in various ways throughout the Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia, Vanuatu, Melanesia and some parts of Micronesia and Australia. Traditionally it is prepared by either chewing, grinding or pounding. Chewing is followed by depositing into a bowl, mixing with water and straining through the cloth-like fiber of a coconut tree. Grinding is done by hand against a cone-shaped block of dead coral; the hand forms a mortar and the coral a pestle. The ground root is combined with only a little water, as the fresh root releases moisture during grinding. Pounding is done in a large stone with a small log. The product is then added to cold water and consumed as quickly as possible.
The extract is an emulsion kavalactone droplets in starch. The taste is slightly pungent, while the distinctive aroma depends on whether it was prepared from dry or fresh plant, and on the variety. The colour is grey to tan to opaque greenish.
Kava prepared as described above is much more potent than processed kava. Chewing produces the strongest effect because it produces the finest particles. Various sources incorrectly state that it is because saliva enzymes act on the plant. Fresh, undried kava produces a stronger beverage than old, dry kava. The strength also depends on the species and techniques of cultivation.
Fijians commonly share a drink called "grog", made by pounding sun-dried kava root into a fine powder and mixing it with cold water. Traditionally, grog is drunk from the shorn half-shell of a coconut, called a "bilo." Despite tasting very much like dirty water, grog is very popular in Fiji, especially among young men, and often brings people together for storytelling and socializing.
Kava root being prepared for consumption in Asanvari village on Maewo Island, Vanuatu
A moderately potent kava drink causes effects within 20-30 minutes that last for about two and a half hours, but can be felt for up to eight hours.
The sensations, in order of appearance, are slight tongue and lip numbing caused by the contraction of the blood vessels in these areas (the lips and skin surrounding may appear unusually pale); mildly talkative and euphoric behavior; anxiolytic (calming) effects, sense of well-being, clear thinking; and relaxed muscles. Sleep is often restful and there are pronounced periods of sleepiness correlating to the amount and potency of kava consumed.
In Vanuatu, a strong kava drink is normally followed by a hot meal or tea. The meal traditionally follows some time after the drink so that the psychoactives are absorbed into the bloodstream more quickly.
A potent drink results in a faster onset with a lack of stimulation, somnolence, and then deep, dreamless sleep within 30 minutes. Unlike alcohol-induced sleep, after wakening the drinker does not experience any mental or physical after effects.
Heavy consumption can produce effects on the skin, ranging from light, red bumps; to heavy, scaly ulcers. This is an allergic response to antigens that form when lactones in kava bind to skin proteins. The effects disappear if consumption stops or decreases. Excessive drinking can also cause vomiting and nausea that usually subside within a day.
It is reported that many people experience rather vivid dreams after drinking kava.
There are several cultivars of kava, with varying concentrations of primary and secondary psychoactive substances. The largest number are grown in the Republic of Vanuatu, and so it is recognised as the "home" of kava. Kava was historically grown only in the Pacific islands of Hawaii, Federated States of Micronesia, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Samoas and Tonga. Some is grown in the Solomon Islands since World war 2, but most is imported. Kava is a cash crop in Vanuatu and Fiji.
Fresh kava root contains on average 80% water. Dried root contains approximately 43% starch, 20% fibers, 15% kavalactones, 12% water, 3.2% sugars, 3.6% proteins, and 3.2% minerals. Kavalactone content is greatest in the roots and decreases higher up the plant. Relative concentrations of 15%, 10% and 5% have been observed in the root, stump, and basal stems, respectively
Kavas active principal ingredients are the kavalactones, of which at least 15 have been identified and are all considered psychoactive. Only six of them produce noticeable effects, and their concentrations in kava plants vary. Different ratios can produce different effects.
Kava has been considered relatively safe. Yet, some kava herbal supplements have been accused of contributing to rare but severe hepatotoxic reactions (see section on safety). Kava is not considered to be addictive.
In the year 2001 concerns were raised about the safety of commercial kava products. There have been indications of severe liver toxicity, including liver failure in some people who had used dietary supplements containing kava extract. The severity of liver damage consequently prompted action of many regulatory agencies in countries where the legal precautionary principle so mandated. In the UK, the Medicines for Human Use (Kava-kava) (Prohibition) Order 2002 prohibits the sale, supply or import of most derivative medicinal products. Kava is banned in Switzerland, France and The Netherlands. The health agency of Canada issued a stop-sale order for kava in 2002. But legislation in 2004 made the legal status of kava uncertain. The United States CDC has released a report expressing reservations about the use of kava and its possibly adverse side effects (specifically severe liver toxicity), as has the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration has recommended that no more than 250 mg of kavalactones be taken in a 24 hour period. According to the Medicines Control Agency in the U.K., there is no safe dose of kava, as there is no way to predict which individuals would have adverse reactions. However, none of these negative regulatory actions took into account the fact that when kava preparations are made, as traditionally for millennia, with the peeled root of the plant no toxicity is found.