The kava plant, also known as kava or kava kava, is a psychoactive plant that has been cultivated on islands in the South Pacific since ancient times. The roots of the plant are loved for its medicinal properties and as a stimulant. Its birthplace is considered to be Vanuatu, a small archipelago in Oceania.
Kava is banned in the Netherlands.
Plant properties of kava
Kava belongs to the Piperaceae, which also includes pepper and betel pepper. The plant is a shrub, with many small branches and no overarching stem. Kava reproduces by cuttings. It is not possible for it to reproduce sexually. The plant produces no to very few female flowers and does not bear fruit even when hand pollinated. Originally, the plants are not harvested until their fourth year, as this is when they contain the highest concentration of active substances. However, nowadays many Kava plants are also harvested that are younger. The older the plants get, the slower they grow. They grow to be about 2 meters tall and then grow mainly in their roots, which can go about 60 cm deep. The roots prefer loose soil where water can drain off well.
Kava likes a warm environment between 20 and 35 degrees Celsius with high humidity.
The botanical name of kava is Piper methysticum. Piper is Latin for "pepper," methysticum is Greek for "intoxicating.
What is the kava plant used for?
Kava is processed into a traditional medicine and stimulant, which has been used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. There are several different cultivars, which are grown on islands in the South Pacific, including Hawaii, Micronesia, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Each cultivar has specific psychoactive properties.
Today, kava is only grown commercially on Vanuatu and Tonga. The Vanuatu archipelago is also considered the "home of kava". Kava spread throughout the region, but could not take root in several places, including New Zealand.
The name Kava comes from the Tonga and means "bitter. Other names include kava kava, 'awa, yaqona and sakau.
The root of the plant is processed into beverages with various properties. For example, the effects are anti-anxiety, analgesic and euphoric.
Traditional use of kava kava
Kava is traditionally made as a beverage. The roots of the plant are chewed, pounded or ground. Grinding the root is done by using a dried piece of coral. The material is mixed with a small amount of water, as the root by itself releases a lot of moisture. When the mixture is completely mashed, more water is added and drunk as quickly as possible.
This traditional way of using kava is many times stronger than processed kava. Chewing the fresh kava root produces the strongest psychoactive effects. Fresh, not dried kava makes for a stronger drink. In traditional preparation, no additional flavor is added. The original drink is dark green in color and has a pungent taste, which can vary somewhat based on the quality of the kava.
In Fiji, there is a different tradition with the kava plant. Here kava is dried in the sun and then ground into a fine powder. This is sieved and mixed with cold water. This traditional drink is called "grog" and drunk in the half shell of a coconut. Grog is still very popular, especially among young men. It is seen as a time of being together, telling stories and relaxing. The effect of grog is to relax the body and mind. Often the drinking is followed by eating a sweet or spicy snack.
In Vanuatu, kava is usually drunk, after which one waits some time with the hot meal or a tea. In this way, the active ingredients are more quickly absorbed into the blood.
Kava kava as a religious medicine
The kava plant is considered sacred and plays an important role within the religious, spiritual and medicinal world of the inhabitants of various islands located in the South Pacific. Even in the political arena, kava kava plays an important, respectful role. In Fiji, for example, a kava kava ceremony is often held in conjunction with an important social or political event.
Kava kava use illegal in the Netherlands
Because of several reports of health risks associated with the use of kava kava, the plant was banned. However, no harmful effects were detected in traditional users. The conclusion is that the western world marketed kava products that were not prepared in a traditional manner. This led to the use of the wrong kava cultivars and the processing of parts of the plant that contained toxins.
Active components of kava kava
Kava contains several active ingredients that contribute to its psychoactive effects. The fresh root of the plant consists of about 80% water. When dried, this is about 12% water, 3.2% sugar, and 15% kavalactones. In general, these active so-called kavalactones are found mainly in the roots of the plant and disappear more and more as you go higher into the stem and leaves. These active compounds, including kavaine, demethoxyangonine and yangonine. In total, some 18 different kavalactones have been identified.
As mentioned earlier, the concentration of active ingredients is highest when the plant has about four years to grow.
Is kava kava toxic?
A toxic alkaloid, pipermethystine, was also found in the kava plant. However, this substance is found in the parts of the plant that are not normally consumed.
After several reports of liver damage, among other things, after using kava kava, the plant was banned in many places in the western world. It should be mentioned that the "western" way of kava use differs from that of traditional use. As mentioned earlier, in the traditional way only the roots are used, which are processed into a drink by means of water extraction.
Water extraction ensures that the active ingredients can be absorbed, while the harmful substances are not extracted.
The products sold in the West containing kava kava were manufactured in a different way, often using other parts of the plant. They also worked in a different way with the extraction, so that toxic substances from the plant also ended up in the final product.
Due to ignorance from the West, kava kava products that are dangerous to the general health were put on the market in this way.
Another important fact is that there are different types of kava, so-called 'noble' kava cultivars and 'impure, or non-noble' kava cultivars. The former variant is considered true kava, with associated desirable effects. The latter variant causes various side effects, including nausea.
In 2016, an in-depth study was done by the WHO (World Health Organization) on the harmfulness of kava kava. This concluded that the use of the traditional kava drink poses very little health risk (in moderate use).
Effects of kava kava
The noble kava variety, properly prepared, generally produces the following effects, among others:
- A feeling of calmness
- Improvement of cognitive functions
It should be mentioned that the effects depend greatly on the quality of the kava used.
One user reports, "Kava causes the way I process information to change. It also expands my way of thinking, in a very different way than psychoactive substances like cannabis, alcohol or nicotine. I would describe it as a broader way of seeing, and a satisfaction with 'being'. Memory seems to improve. I had a great desire to be in a quiet and calm environment, without much light and sound. All my senses were sharpened.”
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