The roots of KAVA

A South Pacific odyssey to uncover the traditional uses of this mild-mannered medicinal.

Kava, or Piper methysticum, is both a Pacific island plant and a beverage made from the pulverized roots of the plant. And while kava supplements are becoming popular in the U.S. for relieving stress and anxiety, kava -- as a beverage -- has been consumed by island cultures as a social beverage, and ceremonial libation, for an estimated 3,000 years.
An herbal odyssey

During my first trip to the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, I drank kava on several occasions in a traditional village called Baie Martellie. There, only men drink kava. In other countries in the South Pacific, women also drink kava. In the remote islands of Vanuatu, however, men and women believe that the favor of the ancestors and the integrity of the community is maintained by enforcing certain cultural taboos, or rules, including behavioral divisions between men and women. Of a total village population of about 140 people, there were about 40 men. To serve their kava drinking needs, there were three kava drinking huts, or nakamals, busy each and every night.
How kava is prepared traditionally

I was in the care of a heavily tattooed Tahitian prince and kava expert named Paea, who was staying in the village. At the largest of the three nakamals, Paea stepped over a knee-high threshold. I followed. The hut was spacious inside, with a high thatched roof and a hard dirt floor. Planks propped up on stumps and rolls of wire served as seating. Outside the opposite end of the nakamal from where we had entered, a man with a long, heavy wooden pole was pounding fresh kava root in a length of wide, upright pipe fastened at the bottom to a heavy stump. The device resembled a large butter churn. He repeatedly raised the pounding pole high, then drove it down with force into the hollow of the pipe, making a resonant thoomp, thoomp, thoomp which rang out through the entire village.

Several men milled around inside the nakamal. The man who was using the pounding pole entered the nakamal with cupped hands and presented a large pile of mashed kava pulp to a young man who sat down with it at a kava board to begin the evening's drinking festivities. On the board were a couple of cups. Three half coconut shells rested in holes at the end of the board. On the ground beside the man were two bowls of water, one for cleaning utensils, and one for adding water to the kava. Also beside him laid out on a log was a length of woven palm fiber to be used as a strainer. Dipping a cup into water, he slowly poured a little on to the pile of mashed kava on the board. Kneading the mass of pounded kava root with his hands, he worked the water into it thoroughly. Adding a little more water he repeated the process.

The kneading and wetting of the kava took about 10 minutes. Once the kava was completely wet, the young man wrapped a handful of it into a length of palm fiber, and squeezed the mass over a cup. Essentially he was juicing the kava. The small amount of water he added was just enough to make the kava wet. Once the strainer of kava was squeezed dry, the young man set aside the spent kava, and washed the palm fiber thoroughly in the container of water used for cleaning. Next, he wrung water out of the palm fiber with a quick, tight twist. In the very last step of the kava drinking process, he strained the kava juice from the cup into a half coconut shell.

The very first shell of kava was made, and I waited for the village chief to drink it, because he was the person of highest rank in the nakamal. But Paea touched me on the shoulder and said in a low voice "That shell is for you." I realized the honor of being served first. Walking over to the kava board I squatted on the ground and lifted the coconut shell to my lips. "Cheers" -- in one quick toss I gulped down the shell. The others in the nakamal clapped loudly. The evening's kava drinking, which would go on for hours, had officially commenced.

The kava was remarkably strong and pleasurable. As its relaxing effects spread quickly, my entire body became deliciously warm and loose. My face relaxed as though it had been thoroughly massaged. The muscles of my body felt as supple as they ever have. My mind was calm and at ease. I felt thoroughly content just to sit in the nakamal among my new friends in Bale Martellie, enjoying the peace and tranquility promoted by this most remarkable plant.

Kava enjoys unusual status among health-enhancing plants. For while thousands of herbs may be of potential value to health and well being, kava is one of the very few that you can actually feel. And while it is not possible to faithfully reproduce the exotic atmospheric experience of drinking kava in a tropical paradise, some kava products do, in fact, deliver the tranquil effects of this beneficial Pacific root.
Kava chemistry

Kava contains a group of relaxing compounds known as kavalactones. As many as 18 kavalactones are known, though only six are believed to be primarily responsible for kava's relaxing effects. Animal and human studies show that the six primary kavalactones relax muscles and promote tranquility. These relaxing compounds can be standardized in liquid or powdered extract form, so you can derive the same consistent benefits each time you take kava.

The way that a plant is used by indigenous native people usually proves to be the most efficient and beneficial means to use it. The people of the Pacific islands basically use an extract of kava. Their mixing of water and pounded kava results in an aqueous extract which delivers a concentration of relaxing kavalactones. While standardized extracts of kava are made by high-tech methods and employ sophisticated chemical analysis, the two-fold purposes of making an extract are the same: to concentrate the active ingredients and make them readily available to the body.
Kava quality

With kava, it's easy to tell if the product you are using is good quality; you feel it. One way to assure a level of kava efficacy is to use standardized extracts. Fluid extracts allow you to modify the amount of kava you take to suit your needs, and typically are rapidly absorbed into the body. Thus you can achieve a relaxing effect within a few minutes. The disadvantage of fluid kava extracts is flavor. Kava is quite bitter, and not everybody enjoys slugging it down. In fact, even in the islands, nobody really likes the taste of kava. Standardized kava tablet and capsule products take a bit longer than fluid to work, but also promote relaxation, without the unusual flavor experience.

Despite credible European studies on kava, officials at National Institutes of Mental Health are unwilling to acknowledge kava as a safe and effective aid for anxiety until successful studies have been conducted in this country. To leap kava over that hurdle, two U.S.-based kava studies have commenced at Duke and Columbia Universities. Both will use standardized doses of a kava extract. Assuming that those studies reaffirm the efficacy of kava, this beneficial plant will most likely become a vastly more popular staple product in the ever-expanding natural pharmacy.
Kava: elixir of peace?

For those who have found the truly efficacious kava products on the market, kava has already amply proven to be a superior remedy for stress and anxiety, and an unrivalled relaxant. We can learn valuable lessons from the native people of the Pacific islands, who regularly enjoy the relaxing effects of kava, and use the occasion of drinking kava to put a leisurely end to the labors of the day and reflect on life. In our hectic, overworked, fast-paced world, reduced stress and greater relaxation can help to make your everyday experience more enjoyable. With or without the warm breezes and swaying palms of the glistening Pacific islands, kava is one of nature's great plant treasures, a true elixir of peace.
Kava dosage recommedations

Human studies conducted in Europe demonstrate that kava does indeed relieve anxiety and promote a feeling of greater well being. In these studies, the dosage of kava extract used was 70 milligrams of kavalactones, 1 - 3 times daily. Look for kava products that can deliver this potency or more per dose. The American Herbal Products Association recommends that you limit your kava intake to 300 milligrams of kavalactones per day. One thing everybody agrees on, though, is that you do not drink alcohol and take kava together, as doing so may markedly increase the effects of the alcohol.

PHOTO (COLOR): Kava grower with prized 12-year-old Borogu kava roots, Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, South Pacific. (Photo courtesy of Chris Kilham.)

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Chris Kilham

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By Chris Kilham, Contributing Writer

Chris Kilham is an author, educator, and researcher. The founder of Cowboy Medicine Expeditions, Chris conducts research on medicinal plants around the world. He is the author of 10 books, including Kava: Medicine Hunting in Paradise (Inner Traditions International/Park Street Press), and is also a diplomat, with a post as Honorary Consul of Vanuatu, South Pacific. For those interested in ordering the book, ask your retailer to call: 1-802-767-3174.

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