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Kava is an ancient crop of the western Pacific. Other names for kava include `awa (Hawaii), 'ava (Samoa), yaqona (Fiji), and sakau (Pohnpei). Its scientific name is Piper methysticum. Kava is related to the black pepper--both have heart-shaped leaves and flowers similar to the flower spike of the anthurium. Kava also has a peppery taste. Since time immemorial kava has been a part of religious, political, and cultural life throughout the Pacific.

In the Western world, kava is used as an herbal remedy to ease the symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.



Pharmacologically, kava is not addictive and is considered safe. Its active principal ingredients are the kavalactones, of which there are six major ones used to identify the chemotype of a particular variety.


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. The color is grey to tan to greenish opaque.

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.

An even easier method is to whizz up root powder and cold water in a blender.

In the west, it is often taken in pill form.


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. Sleep is restful and there are no after-effects the next day.

Other interesting uses of kava include: dispensation to military personnel (Fiji) to aid in vigilance and anxiety reduction; to provide concentration, focus, and muscle control before sports and music performances; to reduce the anxiety associated with public speaking and other public performances; use in corporate board rooms to aid in mental clarity, sociability and improved decision making.


Recently, concerns have been raised about kava's safety. France and Switzerland's regulatory drug agencies have outlawed kava completely, while Germany has made it available only by prescription. The United States' CDC has released a report (available on the Internet) expressing reservations about the use of kava and its possibly adverse side effects (specifically severe hepatic toxicity). Some counter that the cases resulting in the hepatic liver toxicity included concomitant use of alcohol or other drugs. Another claim is that kava extracts used by patients experiencing liver toxicity were made with solvents other than the traditional water and that the whole plant was used rather than just the roots. The issue is controversial and debate is fueled by economic interests of kava-exporting nations of the Pacific Ocean as well as disagreements between the medical establishment and proponents of herbal and natural medicine. There is ongoing research into the causes of kava liver toxicity and why it apparently does not affect traditional kava users but no conclusive results are available at this time (Nov 2004).

Heavy use of kava is associated with kava dermopathy, a scaly eruption of the skin which is reversible by discontinuing its use. It is considered to be a harmless curiousity. Ancient Hawaiians would drink copious amounts of kava to encourage this in order to bring about a smoother, complexion of new skin. Otherwise, with normal use kava dermopathy is non-existent.

Secondary Subtances and Hallucinogenic Effects

It should be noted that Kava contains several other purportedly psychoactive substances which are not appreciably soluble in alcohol or water, but are soluble in fats. Extractions of these into various vegetable oils with lecithin added are possible. Even though kava is usually an acquired taste, the taste of the resulting mixture is reportedly horrendous. The potential for use of kava as an hallucinogen therefore seems low.

It should also be noted that there are several varieties of kava plant, with varying concentrations of both primary and secondary psychoactive substances.

Kava Culture

Main article: Kava culture

Kava is used for a variety of purposes, medicinal, religious, political, cultural and social throughout the Pacific. These cultures have a great respect for the plant and place a high importance on it.

Kava Mythology

The Tongans have a story about the origin of kava.

On the island of Eue'iki, near Tongatapu, a family learned the King of Tonga would be arriving shortly. It was a time of famine though and they had no appropriate food to prepare. Their daughter, named Kava, who had leprosy was subsequently cooked and given to the king in order to eat. The king, learning of this was deeply moved and told the family to bury the girl. After she had been buried for some time two plants sprung from her head and feet. At her head the kava plant grew, from her feet the sugar cane.

This myth symbolizes the importance of Kava within the Tongan culture in terms of peace-making, sacrifice, diplomacy and loyalty.

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