Medicinal Plants

Kava: A Pacific Island Plant with a Calming High

Found growing across southwestern islands in the Pacific, kava (Piper methysticum) is a small shrub that can produce a mild sedative and euphoric effect. In Vanuatu, Fiji, Polynesia, and Hawaii its use has been deeply entwined with everyday life for centuries — from significant religious ceremonies to daily social gatherings.

Because of its wide usage, it’s grown as a crop throughout most Pacific islands and can be found growing in many gardens. It’s mainly known as kava, but it can often be referred to as kava kava, and ‘awa within Hawaii specifically.

Large kava plant at the center of the image, surrounded by other lush tropical plants.
Kava (‘awa) plants growing in a garden in Hilo, Hawaii. (This plant is about 5 years old) | Photo by Scot Nelson on Wikimedia Commons

What are the active compounds in kava?

The active compounds in Kava are known as kavalactones. They’re unique compounds that are only found in the kava plant, hence their name.

The root holds the majority of these kavalactones, so it’s the roots that are harvested and used in drinks and other supplement forms. Kavalactones create a mild sedative effect when consumed, and they can also help to alleviate anxious feelings.

How does kava make you feel?

Kava can make you feel calm, relaxed, joyous and may even bring on a general feeling of contentment and peace of mind. Compared to the potent effects of liberty mushrooms and other psychoactive plants or mushrooms, the effects of Kava are generally milder. Many people compare kava to a mild high, or even a mild drunk feeling as it increases confidence and happiness, causing a mild loss of inhibitions but not coordination.

What is the medicinal potential of kava?

Kava has a long history of use within Pacific Island cultures in treating a range of medical conditions. From menopausal symptoms to minor respiratory illnesses like coughs and colds. Because of the sedative effect, it has also been widely used to relieve pain and treat conditions that involve seizures or convulsions. Because of the soothing effects of the kavalactones, kava is currently being researched to determine if it could be used to treat conditions like stress and anxiety.

Is kava toxic?

Using kava sporadically or for a short period of time is considered safe. However, liver damage has been reported in a handful of long-term users. Studies have shown that kava may interact with other medicines, herbal or pharmaceutical, which would limit its usage.

Cultural Symbolism of Kava

Kava has an incredibly prominent place in society within Pacific cultures and has been used for hundreds of years. It’s often used daily for relaxed social gatherings, as men gather together at a kava bar after a day of work to enjoy the relaxing effects and alleviate the stresses of the day. But it also plays a role in many religious and political situations too, as it may be ritually presented as a gift to create or heal bonds between individuals or tribes.

Traditional Fijian bundle of kava roots used for presentations in cultural rituals such as official welcoming, funerals, reconciliation ceremonies | Photo by Hsz282 on Wikimedia Commons

Each country, island, or local tribe has variations of when kava is drunk, who can drink it, and the role it plays within life. Traditionally, only men were able to consume the kava drink, however, it’s almost always offered to female guests or tourists. Today however women can often be seen drinking kava as the cultures change and develop.

Kava is also valued for its medicinal properties and is now exported across the world where dried powders and extracts can be found in health and wellbeing shops.

In the Pacific, kava is usually prepared by grinding and pulverizing the roots using a sharp stone or modern press. The pulp is then soaked in water to release the kavalactones and create the kava drink. Within some areas, the roots are chewed by men to release the active compounds, and many say this process produces a stronger effect when drunk.

A man grinding a root of the kava plant | Photo by DMTrott on Wikimedia Commons

The sedative kava brew is then usually poured into a half coconut cup or shallow plastic bowl to be served. It tends to have a brown watery look, and many people compare it to the look of weak British tea or a muddy puddle. The flavor is particularly pungent and quite bitter, although generally, it is not drunk for the taste, but the calming effects.

Kava is legal in most countries, however many have regulations in place that control imports, exports, and even dosage amounts. In Poland and the UK, it is illegal to sell, consume or import kava for human consumption. In the US, however, it is legal for personal use and you can find an increasing number of kava bars appearing in cities.

What does kava look like?

Kava is a member of the pepper family. It can grow to heights of 2m when fully matured. It has a woody stem and large, veined, heart-shaped leaves. Kava roots have a woody and fibrous appearance and are usually harvested after 4 years when the kavalactones become more potent.

Where does kava grow?

The kava plant is native to islands within the Pacific, and many believe it may have originated in Papua New Guinea or Vanuatu. It’s a tropical plant that grows best in loose, well-drained soil and it thrives in the humid climate of South Pacific islands.

Conclusion

With such a prominent place in Pacific island culture, kava is relatively unexplored within other cultures. The medicinal benefits are still under research in a number of countries, although its ability to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and stress seems very promising.

Featured Image: Photo by Forest & Kim Starr on Wikimedia Commons

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