Kava is a plant grown in the western Pacific, kava’s active ingredients are known as kavalactones. Many Pacific Ocean cultures (such as those in Vanuatu, Hawaii, Fiji, and more) use the roots of the kava plant to create a drink that is consumed for its sedative and anesthetic properties. It is a member of the pepper family Piperaceae, and it means bitter, sharp, or sour. Kava is known for its complex biological activity, which makes it both difficult to categorize and incredibly useful and versatile. Kava is also known as “kava kava,” “awa,” and “ava.” The active ingredients in kava are called kavalactones, which are responsible for the calming and anesthetic effects that kava is known for.
Planting and Growing Kava
The kava plant is best grown in warmer climates with plenty of sunshine and rainfall, hence its prominence in many Pacific communities. It requires loose soil that is well-drained so that significant amounts of air can reach the most important part of the plant—the root. Mature kava plants generally reach about 2 meters in height (about 6 and a half feet), and they should not be harvested before four years of age. The roots of the kava plant, which is the part that is harvested for use and consumption, can reach a depth of 60 centimeters (about 2 feet) and can weigh about 50 kg (about 110 pounds)—from only one plant!
Generally speaking, the older the plant, the higher the concentration of kavalactones, the active ingredients. Different variations of the kava plant are grown in different places, and they offer varying amounts and concentrations of kavalactones, making them more or less effective than their counterparts for medicinal uses.
Kava is used socially in many Pacific cultures, most notably Fiji, Vanuatu, and Hawaii. In these places, it is most commonly consumed in drink form, using the roots of the kava plant to prepare the beverage. This beverage is generally used to help individuals relax without affecting their mental clarity. When used in social settings, kava is known to elevate the mood of the consumer, as well as encourage lively speech and increase sensitivity to sound. When used medicinally, it has also been known to reduce anxiety, offer pain relief, relax muscle tension, and act as a local anesthetic. Additionally, it may have significant antibacterial properties. While it has been used to treat various genitourinary tract ailments for more than a century, its primary uses in the United States and Europe include mood boosting, stress relief, and muscle relaxation. Recent studies have also shown its promise as a sleep aid and antidepressant.
The creation and preparation of kava is deeply embedded in Samoa’s history, as its first appearance in the world was believed to be as a gift from the sun god to the first high chief of the Samoans, Tagaloa Ui. The legend begins with a virgin that was to be sacrificed but was instead saved because of love. Her child was named Tagaloa Ui and he instructed the first mortal, Pava, in how to make the ceremonial drink and how to conduct the accompanying ceremony. Legend has it that Pava’s son laughed at his father’s attempts to create the beverage, and Tagaloa Ui cut him into two pieces as punishment. When the kava drink was finished, Tagaloa Ui apparently did not consume it, but rather poured it over Pava’s son’s body and spoke the word for life, which brought the boy back to life. Pava’s happiness resulted in his clapping his hands, which has been incorporated into the ceremonial drinking of the kava drink in many cultures.
History and Preparation of the Kava Drink
Throughout the Pacific, Kava is used in various ways, including medicinal, cultural, religious, and political purposes. Its use dates back at least 3000 years and has roots in both healing and spiritual acquisitions. One of the original methods in which kava drink was produced included several steps of preparation. First, the kava root was cut into small pieces. Next, several people would take turns chewing up the pieces of kava root and spitting them into a bowl. The chewed up pieces would be mixed with coconut milk and then strained through coconut fiber and mixed with water. It was (and in some places, still is) believed that the mixture of kava root and enzymes present in saliva encouraged the release of the root’s active ingredients, resulting in a more delicious and effective end result. Nowadays, even in many cultures where kava drink is consumed regularly, the preparation practices have changed to remove the chewing and spitting portion of the process. However, in the Pacific communities where kava is still enjoyed regularly, some locals maintain those traditional practices of preparation.
In Fiji, where kava is still consumed regularly and is considered the national drink, it is an important part of many ceremonies, including marriages, funerals, healing ceremonies, initiation for children, and to welcome newcomers. It is a generally accepted (and expected) practice for a visitor to a village to bring the kava root as a gift. The local villagers prepare the kava root and make the ceremonial drink, which is then consumed by the village chief and the rest of the community. After the ceremonial drinking is finished, everyone present is considered friends.
Risks of Consuming Kava
There has been some question as to the safety of consuming kava, as some cases of hepatotoxicity (liver damage) have been reported. However, these reports have been highly criticized and their legitimacy has been called into question due to the subjects of these reports often having histories of alcohol or prescription drug abuse, which are more likely culprits for the reported hepatotoxicity. Due to the lengthy history of kava consumption in Western cultures and the extremely low number of cases of hepatotoxicity in those consumers, kava has been deemed safe by the majority of governments and organizations. Its production and consumption is often regulated for the purpose of maintaining standards and ensuring proper cultivating and processing of kava throughout the world.