Piper methysticum - Kava Kava
- Piperaceae - South Pacific, Hawaii


(For LOTS more info on all things Kava, visit Makaira's Kava Blog)

Kava Kava is also known by the names Ava, Ava Pepper, Intoxicating Pepper, Kawa Awa, Kawa Kawa, Wati, Yogona, and Waka. This herb, a member of the pepper family, grows as a bush in the South Pacific.

Explorer Captain James Cook, who gave this plant the botanical name of "intoxicating pepper", first discovered Kava Kava. Kava has been used for over 3,000 years for its medicinal effects as a sedative, muscle relaxant, diuretic, and as a remedy for nervousness and insomnia. The rhizome (root stock) is used medicinally. This botanical marvel has been used in parts of the Pacific at traditional social gatherings as a relaxant, and in cultural & religious ceremonies to achieve a "higher level of consciousness".

The roots can be made into a mildly narcotic beverage that is comparable to popular cocktails in Western culture. Kava is used ceremoniously in the South Pacific to celebrate beginnings and endings, such as marriages, birth and death. It is often used to honor a guest, to enhance communication, and even to help in settling disputes and sealing business agreements.

In Germany, Kava Kava is used as a nonprescription drug to reduce anxiety. Kava was first mentioned in scientific records in 1886, and it is gaining popularity in the US for its relaxing effects. More recently, Kava Kava has also gained popularity with the natives of Hawaii, Australia and New Guinea where it is used medicinally as well as recreationally.

Kava also is effective as a pain reliever and can be used instead of aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Recent clinical studies have shown that the herb Kava is a safe, non-addictive anti-anxiety medicine, and as effective as prescription anxiety agents containing benzodiazepines such as Valium®.

While benzodiazepines tend to promote lethargy and mental impairment, Kava has been shown to improve concentration, memory, and reaction time for people suffering from anxiety. Kava has been clinically demonstrated as a means of achieving a state of relaxation without the adverse side effects.

In a 1996 randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study, two groups of 29 patients with anxiety syndromes were treated with 100 mg of Kava extract standardized to 70- percent kavalactones three times a day for four weeks. The symptoms of anxiety were significantly reduced in patients taking Kava as compared to placebo. No adverse reactions were observed in the Kava group.

In a 1997 multicenter, randomized, placebo-controlled study, a total of 101 outpatients were given one capsule of a Kava extract containing 70 mg of kavalactones or placebo three times daily. In this twenty-five-week study, all the patients suffered from moderate to severe anxiety, including agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobia, and social phobia. The results showed that the short- and long-term effectiveness of Kava was superior to that of placebo. After twenty-four weeks, over half of the Kava group were rated as "very improved" whereby anxiety, fear, tension, and insomnia decreased steadily with treatment. Kava was well tolerated, and adverse reactions were mild and rare. The researchers concluded that Kava was a treatment alternative to both benzodiazepines and synthetic antidepressants for anxiety disorders.

Propagation / Cultivation

The plant is almost exclusively propagated from cuttings, as with many other psychoactive plants (like Salvia divinorum), the plants rarely flowers, and even more rarely; seeds.  Cuttings are taken from lower plant stems or younger ones, taken from the rootstock whenever the Kava plant is harvested.  This is a fast grower, though, and a fully mature plant, with pounds of useable root, typically matures in 5 years.

Fertilizer for Kava Kava plants is quite simple; typically anything “ashy” works, like wood ash, as well as coral, lime shells, and lime.  The plants grow best on the cliffs where it’s dry and well aerated, rather than the valleys where it can be wet and marshy.

Preparation / Dosage

Fresh root is the most potent form of Kava Kava Root known, but it isn’t typically available outside of the places it is cultivated for many reasons.  When harvested, there are large “main roots” which are separated from the smaller, stringier roots, which then need to be peeled.

Since Kava Root doesn’t extract well into water, it needs fats and/or alcohol to extract well.  For that reason, the pharmaceutical industry uses solutions of 94% ethanol or acetone, and natives use a mixture of alcohol and coconut milk to prepare the root, while young men and women chew the pieces, mix them with Salvia, and spit them into a bowl, to help the extraction process.

After that, the preparation of the plant into the intoxicating drink (Kava Kava’s Latin name means “intoxicating pepper”, fittingly enough) is identical throughout Oceania.  The chewed material is placed in sacred bowls, but not for too long, as the root needs to stay fresh for the drink to have maximum effect. 

Once the chewing has been completed, the resulting milky substance is filtered through Hibiscus or Coconut Fibers, and poured into drinking bowls.  Then, 1-4 bowls of Kava is drank, usually in single gulps at Kava Ceremonies.  Many Polynesians won’t go a day without their dose of 1-2 bowls of Kava, and once one experiences this amazing plant, it’s easy to see why.

Traditional preparation uses 100 Grams of root per 100 ml of water, which would yield about 70mg of Kavalactones.  There are many additives used to potentiate the psychoactive effects of Kava, and some of those include Chili Pods, Coconut Milk, Thorn Apple Seeds, Hibiscus, and others. 

Besides numberous reports of Kava Kava being extremely psychoactive, verging on hallucinogenic, where participants in rituals and ceremonies are not only able to leave their bodies but that they are able to glide over their tropical paradise island in a disembodied state as they journey to the heavens.  There are countless reports of complete connection and union with their individual versions of the Divine.  This is a complete union, sexually as well, which is another reason why kava kava has become known as a potent aphrodisiac as well. 

Chemically-speaking, it is not only kavalactones that account for the psychoactive effects of this plant, and this is important to note when choosing WHICH type of kava you wish to work with.  Since Kava is gaining immense popularity, there seem to be more and more types of it available.  We've seen tinctures, elixirs, instant drinks, capsules, liquigels, paste and even one version called "Kavalovetone", which is an obvious take on Kavalactone Capsules. 

Kavalactone pastes and pure kavalactone capsules tend to be isolated extracts, leaving out many of the alkaloids that are thought to account for the more powerful experiences that Kava Kava can provide.  So, we always choose any products that contain Full Spectrum extracts, or my personal favorite; plain ol' Kava Kava Root.  Why mess with perfection? - Mother Nature provides for us in exactly the way we need, and in my personal opinion, experiences with a full spectrum extract of 'Awa has always been more prfoundly enjoyable than with isolated extracts of any kind.

So, in one study, this was reported: "like benzodiazepine, the kavalactones are capable of lowering the excitability of the limbic system, whereby the inhibition of the activity of the limbic system is regarded as an expresion of a suppression of emotional excitability and an improvement in the mood."

In other words, kava has been shown clinically, on numerous occasions to lift spirits and induce euphoria!

Ritual Use

Kava ceremonies are wide and varied throughout historical records, and range from very formal to extraordinarily casual.  The ceremonies permeated every corner of Polynesian culture, much like coffee has in the USA and Yerba Mate in South America.  Decisions would be made, guests would be greeted, events would be celebrated, and the list goes on.

Kava Roots have also been placed in temples as offerings, and parts of Kava harvests were saved for the gods as well.  There is only one place that has recorded use of Kava for dark magic, and that place is Vanuatu.  The practice is similar to “voodoo” made popular in Hollywood movies, and is called “elioro”.  After incantations are uttered upon it, the sorcerer buries the root with their wishes to send harm or evil to the intended target, in a place they hope the target will pass by.  The victim is then supposed to absorb the magic, and have the ill will fall upon them.

Dangers of Kava

Although the FDA has greatly lowered the daily limits for daily doses of Kava, it has been reported in many places that 500 Grams or less of Kava Kava Root is NOT toxic, and one can drink up to 4 liters per day of extracted Kava without any ill effects or addiction or liver toxicity whatsoever, as has been proven in 3,000 years of use by the Polynesians.

Since there was a scare that many believe was engineered by the pharmaceutical industry becuase Kava Kava was being widely prescribed in Europe as a safe and effective alternative to synthetic drugs sold by pharmaceutical companies, the stigmata that Kava causes liver damage is still with us.  Although the study that came to that conclusion has been debunked over and over again, the stigmata still exists.

But, thanks to the internet, there are multiple resources to find out for yourself how safe Kava actually is.


Related Articles

Kava Liver Damage - There has been a concerted effort on the part of pharmaceutical companies to lead the public to believe that with the consumption of kava liver damage may result.

More Evidence Against Liver Toxicity - Kava growers, users, and researchers were perplexed. Pacific Islanders have used kava for at least two thousand years without liver damage.