Piper methysticum is a bushy evergreen which usually grows about two meters tall, though it can reach heights of as much as five meters.The leaves are light green and heart shaped, and can grow up to thirty centimeters. The greenish white male flowers form in spikes at the leaf axils and can grow up to six centimeters. Female flowers have not been observed. The fruits are single berries with one seed. The root can develop to a very large size with multiple branches, and will weigh from two to ten pounds (Whistler 1992).
Piper methysticum is always cultivated, and wild plants are no longer to be found. The plant is grown primarily in Polynesia, and was brought from there to Hawaii very early on. It is also sometimes found in New Guinea and the New Hebrides. There are a number of different varieties of Kava with different appearances and alkaloid contents, which may account for differences in recorded experiences with the plant (Ratsch 1998, 444).
The plant is almost exclusively propagated from cuttings. As with many other psychoactive plants (like Salvia divinorum), the plants rarely flower, and seed even more rarely. Cuttings are taken from lower plant stems the rootstock whenever the Kava plant is harvested. Kava 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; anything “ashy”, such as wood ash, coral, lime shells, and lime, will work well. The plants grow best on dry and well aerated cliffs, rather than in valleys and wet, marshy areas (Ratsch 1998, 444)
TRADITIONAL USES: Explorer Captain James Cook, who gave this plant the botanical name of “intoxicating pepper”, was the first European to learn of Kava Kava. 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 Western 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 (Ratsch 1998, 444).
Kava ceremonies are wide and varied around the world, ranging from very formal to extraordinarily casual. The ceremonies have permeated every corner of Polynesian culture, much like coffee drinking has in the USA and Yerba Mate drinking has in South America.
The kava ceremony is said to have been brought about initially by one Tagaloa Ui, the first high chief of Samoa, who was the progeny of a mortal girl, Ui, and the sun. He was miscarried, but then revived and cared for by a hermit crab, a plover, and a shrike. Along with this, there are many other legends regarding the origination of the kava plant and ritual (Singh 1986).
After the kava is prepared, the participants sit in a circle and the chief of ceremonies sings to the plant. A bowl of kava may then be offered to the gods, and then the participants are served the beverage in a half coconut. They must receive the drink with great respect, although they do not have to drink the entire dose, or any of it at all, if they chose not to. There are many regional variations to this ritual, but the above details are generally consistent (Singh 1986).
Kava roots have also been placed in temples as offerings, and parts of Kava harvests are often saved for the gods. 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 the kava root, the sorcerer buries it with wishes to send harm or evil to the intended target, in a place they hope the target will pass by. When the victim passes, he will absorb the dark magic and will fall victim to the curse (Singh 1992).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Fresh root kava root is the most potent form of the medicine, but this is not typically available outside of the places it is cultivated, as it is quite difficult to transport. When harvested, there are large “main roots” which are separated from the smaller, stringier roots, and which are then peeled for processing (Ratsch 1998, 445).
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 saliva, and spit them into a bowl, to facilitate the extraction process (Steinmetz 1973).
Once the chewing has been completed, the resulting milky substance is filtered through hibiscus or coconut fibers, and poured into drinking bowls. At Kava ceremonies, 1-4 bowls of Kava are consumed, usually in single gulps. Many Polynesians won’t go a day without a dose of 1-2 bowls of Kava, and once one has an experience with this amazing plant, it’s easy to see why (Ratsch 1998, 445-446).
Traditional preparation uses 100 grams of root per 100 ml of water, which yields about 70 mg of Kavalactones, the active alkaloids in the root. There are many additives used to potentiate the psychoactive effects of Kava, including chili pods, coconut milk, thorn apple seeds, and hibiscus (Ratsch 1998, 446).
MEDICINAL USES: Kava has been used for over 3,000 years for its medicinal effects as a sedative, muscle relaxant, diuretic, and remedy for nervousness and insomnia. The root is used for gonorrhea and elephantiasis, and all parts of the plant are used internally and externally as a pain reliever (Whistler 1992). In Hawaii, the pre-chewed root is given to children in the morning and evening to calm them and to stop crying. The fresh leaves may be rubbed on to the stings of poisonous insects and fish, and kava may even be used as an antidote for strychnine, or Strychnos nuxvomica poisoning (Ratsch 1998, 447).
In Western medicine, kava is used for nervous anxiety, insomnia, and tension. Kava may also be blended with St. John’s Wort to produce a mild antidepressant. A homeopathic preparation of the plant is used to treat overexcitation and exhaustion (Holzl et al. 1993 cited in Ratsch 1998, 448).
Kava is effective as a pain reliever and can be used instead of aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Recent clinical studies have shown that Kava is a safe, non-addictive anti-anxiety medicine, and as effective as prescription anti-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.
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The major active components of Piper methysticum are kavalactones, which occur in all parts of the plants. There are numerous reports of Kava Kava being extremely psychoactive, verging on hallucinogenic, with participants in rituals and ceremonies not only able to leave the body but also able to glide over the island landscape in a disembodied state while journeying to the heavens. There are countless reports of complete connection and union with the divine through kava use. This is a complete union, and is sometimes even sexual in nature – another reason why kava kava has become known as a potent aphrodisiac (Ratsch 1998, 448).
Chemically speaking, it is not only kavalactones that account for the psychoactive effects of the kava plant, and this is important to note when choosing which type of kava preparation 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, pastes, and many more.
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 recommend products that contain a full spectrum of kava alkaloids, or my personal favorite; plain ol’ kava kava root. After all, 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 profoundly enjoyable than with isolated extracts of any kind.
In a 1996 randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study, two groups of 29 patients with anxiety 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 (umm.edu n.d.).
In a 1997 multi-center, 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. All of the patients in the study were suffering 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”, meaning that 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 anti-depressants for anxiety disorders (umm.edu n.d.).
In one study, the following 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 expression of a suppression of emotional excitability and an improvement in the mood” (umm.edu n.d.) In other words, kava has been shown clinically, on numerous occasions, to lift spirits and induce euphoria!
DANGERS OF KAVA: Although the FDA has greatly lowered the 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, addiction, or liver toxicity, as has been proven in 3,000 years of use by the Polynesians. In fact, the World Health Organization did a lengthy study on Kava, and even published their conclusions in a rather thick book that anyone can purchase called; “Assessment of the Risk of Hepatotoxicity with Kava Products“. One would think that that might be enough to quell the flood of negative press
Since there was a scare that many believe was engineered by the pharmaceutical industry in response to Kava Kava being widely prescribed in Europe as a safe and effective alternative to synthetic drugs, the stigma 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 stigma still exists.
However, thanks to the internet, there are multiple resources through which you may determine for yourself how safe kava actually is:
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.
For LOTS more info on all things Kava, visit Makaira’s Kava Blog.
Keith Cleversley, Kava Lover
Hofmann, A., Ratsch, C., Schultes, R., Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1992.
“Kava Kava”, n.d. http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/kava-kava-000259.htm.
Singh, Y. Kava: A Bibliography. Suva, Fiji: University of the South Pacific, Pacific Information Centre, 1986.
———. “Kava: An Overview.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 37 (1992): 13–45.
Steinmetz, E.F. Kava-kava: Famous Drug Plant of the South Sea Islands. San Fransisco: Level Press, 1973.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.
Whistler, A.W. Polynesian Herbal Medicine. Hawaii: National Tropical Botanical Gardens, 1992.