About kava kavaKava Kava: this wonder plant from the South Pacific is nature's very own stress reliever. Read about the origin of the plant and its other uses.
Kava-kava, also known as just kava, a perennial shrub from the South Pacific [piper methysticum] grows in such romantic islands as Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti, Vanuatu and Samoa. Images of this string of islands include palm trees, brilliant tropical sunsets, white sandy beaches, and a paradise far, far away from bustling North American and European cities. That a remedy for our stressful lives hails from a part of the world where life is lived at a slower pace makes perfect sense. To further enhance its appeal, the verdant leaves of the plant are heart-shaped.
The Origins of Kava-kava: The name of the plant translates as "sharp" or "bitter." In the South Pacific the kava root is either chewed or drunk as a tea, not taken in capsule form. The Samoans tell of how kava came to earth. The gods in heaven were the only ones who drank this precious drink. The god Tagaloa and his two attendants descended from heaven to go fishing. When the fish were caught, Tagaloa wanted to drink some kava with his meal. As there was none available, the attendants had to return to heaven to get a kava root. They uprooted a plant and Tagaloa scattered its parts all over the earth where it flourished, aided by a divine rainfall that infused the kava root.
The Latin name assigned to kava back in 1777 translates as "intoxicating pepper," reflecting the effect on the body and the herb's relationship to the pepper family. When not being used to cure stress, the friendly kava plant is most definitely a natural aphrodisiac. In Fiji, spiritual healers are able to perform divinations after consuming kava. The kava plant has thrived in these islands for thousands of years, but upon the arrival of missionaries, any type of kava drinking, [especially ceremonial drinking] was forbidden.
Outlawed Kava: On the island of Tanna in the Vanuatu [formerly the New Hebrides] archipelago northwest of the Fiji Islands, kava was banned. People were not allowed to consume kava according to their age-old custom until after 1950. People suspected of kava drinking were unable to attend church and were thereby ostracized by the mission members and oftentimes were arrested. The return to kava drinking ceremonies was initiated in the 1930s by John Frum, a multi-lingual man able to speak many dialects as well as English, who attended evening kava drinking gatherings and encouraged people to drink it in public and reject the ways of the white missionaries. Those who pledged an allegiance to John Frum were imprisoned, but only temporarily as it was in the midst of the Second World War. Today kava is freely able to be drunk at ceremonies on Tanna, thanks in part to the efforts of a man who lives on in legend ? John Frum.
Harvesting Kava-kava: When the plant is approximately eight feet in height, it is ready to be harvested. Ideally, the plants should be at least five years old for that's when the roots reach their full potency. In Vanuatu, kava isn't seasonal; it grows year-round. Germans are the biggest purchasers of kava, buying up to 50 tons of kava for various herbal medicines that later are sold in the form of extracts, liquids, capsules and pills.
Cultivated by individual kava growers and in villages, Vanuatu kava contains no pesticides and the exceedingly rich and fertile soil makes for perfect growing conditions.
For export purposes, the root must be cut and dried in the sun. During the summertime, this process takes a week per ton of kava. In the rainy season, the time is lengthened to about one month.
On the island of Santo, the largest island of the Vanuatu archipelago, kava doesn't grow in neat, long rows. Mixed in with the abundantly bushy kava plants are other local delicacies such as mango, coconut, ginger, sugar cane and papaya. The bulbous kava roots resemble much larger versions of the ginger plant. The method of obtaining kava is age-old ? hand cut by machete.
Preparing Kava-kava: For natives of the South Pacific, the daily ritual of preparing kava is considered important. Kava is always consumed fresh, there are never any leftovers used. As always, it's drunk at sunset. This is done according to custom and to ensure that a person sleeps well at night.
The factors that contribute to drinking the finest kava-kava always means that the root is at its peak of potency, and that it is prepared according to tradition. Many missionaries and foreigners had a difficult time accepting the custom of pulverizing the root of the plant as it was prepared by mastication. Approximately 300 years ago young maidens did the kava mastication, but that also varied from island to island. As the root is very tough and fibrous, only very thorough chewing would soften it to a pulp. Saliva was mixed in with the root, further speeding up the process. To the explorer Captain Cook, the process was seen as revolting. In the 1800s, missionaries banned drinking of kava, partially due to the way in which it was processed. In the book "Kava Medicine Hunting in Paradise" by Chris Kilham, he describes the mastication process: "Researchers believe that the reason for this difference is that mastication liberates more kavalactones, because saliva contains an enzyme which breaks down the starchy components of the pulp."
Other methods of preparing the root include smashing it with a solid stick of wood in a device that resembles a butter churn. Pounding kava root with a stone or grating it with coral are methods employed in some Fijian communities. More up to date methods consist of putting the root into a meat grinder or power mulcher.
The next stage of making that kava drink consists of placing the ground up root onto a wooden board or a large wide bowl. Cold water is poured over it. In some parts of the South Pacific a small plastic washtub is used; the tub almost filled to the top with water. The yellowish-brown kava root is mixed with the water and stirred well, then strained through nylon, or in more traditional villages, palm fiber. In true South Pacific fashion, the refreshing non-alcoholic kava beverage is served in a coconut shell.
Kava-kava and Magic: Before Christian missionaries tried to convert the native people of the South Pacific, they had their beliefs rooted in a form of magic or sorcery. The use of kava by a shaman became a spiritual event in which he partook of the kava root for the purpose of communicating with the spirits of the deceased. Some sorcerers used the discarded chewed kava remains to perform spells on those who had chewed the root. To avoid those sorcerers with malicious leanings, the remains were spit into a river or ocean.
Kava-kava as Medicine: Hawaiian kava is used to treat asthma, arthritis, depression, insomnia, muscles spasms, rheumatism, seizures and wounds.
The usage of herbs in Europe always has been more prevalent than in the United States. 100 tons of kava is shipped to laboratories each year. A Swiss company makes capsules containing kava claiming it will help bladder disorders. A German company mixes kava with valerian, another calming herb, to cure sleep and nervous disorders. A large company in France makes a kava-containing product that is good for eliminating urinary tract infections.
A Testimonial: While many people take the kava herb in an extract, powder or pill, a case study reveals just how effective kava can be: "A 39-year-old lab technician who was suffering as a result of severe daily job pressures, decided to participate in a four-week clinical study on stress sponsored by Natrol, Inc, the makers of Kavatrol. After four weeks of taking Kavatrol as recommended, she experienced dramatic improvement: ?I love this stuff,' she said. ?I'm less stressed-out, I'm a lot calmer, I have more fun, and I'm not worried about things. I works wonders for PMS, too.' She added that she takes kava for better sleep, for headaches and gastric problems. Nor did the herb affect her manual dexterity ? a necessary skill for her occupation" from the book "Kava" by Maggie Greenwood-Robinson, Ph.D.
Warnings: Overuse of any substance, even a natural herb, can lead to serious side effects. Kava-kava is no exception, and if used in large amounts on a daily basis, intoxication will follow, as will weight loss, skin disorders, weaken the immune system, and cause pulmonary hypertension.
Pregnant women and those suffering from severe depression should refrain from using kava. Not recommended for children under the age of 10.
Refrain from mixing kava with alcohol. If using prescription drugs, please check with your doctor.
Taking too much kava can cause nausea. Always read the label to learn what the recommended dosage is and go by that. Better to take too little. If you should overindulge, ginger root capsules will be of great help as ginger is a known remedy for nausea and dizziness.
A Kava Recipe: The buzz from kava can be felt by some, but not by others. It's described as being similar to Novocain. Others report that their limbs feel weaker. If taken before bedtime it often induces a full night's sleep?wonderful news for the stressed. Here's a recipe for using Kava to help you get some sleep.
Kava-Kava Coconut Drink
Where Is Kava-Kava Sold? Kava can be found in capsule, powdered or tincture form at any health food store.