Kava Kava (Piper methysticum) belongs to the same family as pepper and is a tall shrub native to the tropical islands of the South Pacific Ocean. Today it is cultivated and widely consumed throughout the pacific islands of Hawaii, Vanuatau, Melanesia, Polynesia and parts of Australia and Micronesia. It has a number of different names depending on the geographical location. In Fiji it is referred to as ‘yaquona’, Aboriginal tribes call it ‘grog’ and in Hawaii, it is called ‘awaj’. Most commonly, Kava Kava is simply known as ‘kava’. This plant is characterised by large, heart-shaped leaves tightly clustered on the branches and long, slender flowers that form where the branches meet the stems. The root systems resemble bundles of hairy, woody branches. It is these roots that are used for their medicinal properties.
The term ‘kava’ not only refers to the actually plant, but also the beverage produced from its roots. In Latin kava means ‘pepper’ and in Greek it means ‘intoxicating’. Kava is a significant component of South Pacific culture and ceremonial activities. It is the beverage of choice amongst the royal families of the South Pacific and has been compared to the social equivalent of wine in France.
Ways of administration
The roots of the Kava kava plant are traditionally ground down into a brown powder and then it is added to water and consumed. In some instances, the kava root is simply chewed to get the desired effect. While Pacific Islanders continue to consume kava using this traditional method, kava is now widely available in powder and capsule forms, tinctures or standard extracts and liquid form. Kava kava should not be smoked.
The principle active ingredients in the Kava kava roots are kavalactones. These are made up of chemicals such as dihydrokawain, kawain and methysticum. These chemical have been tested extensively in laboratory and animal research studies. This research has shown that these kavalactones help to promote sleep, minimise pain, relax muscles and reduce convulsions in animals.
For humans, when Kava is taken in enough quantities it has an effect similar to an alcoholic drink. It improves mood, contentment, wellbeing and produces a feeling of relaxation. There have been a number of medical studies that have shown kava to be helpful in relieving symptoms of stress, anxiety, nervousness and depression. Kava interacts with the brain to release anti depressant properties, fighting away the ‘blues’ and promoting a happy, serene disposition. Some studies have found kava to be just as effective as prescription anxiety medications such as Valium. Interestingly, unlike prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines which lower cognitive function, kava actually increases cognitive function. Consequently kava can be taken to improve mental wellbeing without causing drowsiness and fatigue.
Kava also has pain killing properties, making it great for treating migraines and muscle cramps. Due to anti-inflammatory properties it can also be used to help treat arthritis, bronchitis, stomach ache, urinary infections, backaches, asthma, gout and rheumatism. Kava is also used by people who are having problems with sexual capacity as it acts as an aphrodisiac.
While caution must be taken when using any drug, Kava is typically very safe and well tolerated when taken in moderation. Consequently, Kava has become a very popular natural herbal supplement used globally.
Nicolas ‘Axel’ Duval is the founder and content editor of this website. He launched Smokable Herbs in 2011. He later created the Smokably herb online store, which sells herbs and blends worldwide.
As an herbalist and marketing enthusiast, he used Smokable Herbs as a sandbox to test ideas and deploy content.