Allergic Reaction to Kava?

Dear Kava Guru,

I’ve been using Kava for over a year but just had an allergic reaction. Is this permanent?

Best Regards,
Marc

Another great question; thank you Marc! It’s actually very rare that we hear about allergic reactions to Kava. Most of the allergic reactions to Kava occur after long-time usage, and in amounts that are far far more than the casual Kava drinker. I’ve been enjoying Kava for over 20 years now, and consume, nearly daily, up to 1000mg of Kavalactones (that’s about 4-6 shells of Kava per day). After bi-annual blood tests, and exhaustive self-observation, I haven’t noticed any allergic-type effects to Kava. But, everyone is quite different.

I bring that short snippet up because after looking through all available research on allergic reactions to Kava, it seems that the only documented allergic reactions occur after extensive use, like you, but also with heavy use. You didn’t tell me how much you were consuming per day, but I’m guessing that’s it’s far under the amounts that typically cause allergic reactions. Having said that, though, my best guess as someone who is not a doctor, is that if you discontinue use for a couple of weeks, and then try it again, that you will not have an allergic reaction. There are often a lot of factors that go into allergic reactions, and the only time I’ve seen allergic reactions to Kava in small quantities, is when it’s combined with alcohol.

For me, I can’t consume anything more than a shot a spirits if I am imbibing in Kava, and in all honesty, I can’t really mix the two ever. I get nauseated, and I get itchy skin when I combine the two. The moment I don’t combine the two, I’m fine. And, I know of at least 4-5 friends who regularly combine Kava with alcohol, and they suffer no ill effects whatsoever. It’s really because everyone is different, and different bodies will react to different conditions, and it becomes very hard to predict individual cases.

Just be smart about it, and take a break. When you finish you r break, just try to slowly ramp up your usage and observe carefully. I’m extremely interested to hear how you fare, as stories of allergic reactions are so rare. I’d be happy to share your experience with readers or keep it private; whatever you choose.

Mahalo,

Keith @ Kava.Guru

What About Baking With Kava?

Dear Kava Guru,

What about baking with Kava?

Abbey,

Planet Earth

Another great question; thank you Abbey! Most who know the fragile nature of Kavalactones have a number of 140 degrees Fahrenheit in their minds. This magical number is the temperature at which Kavalactones begin to break down. (If you’re not sure what a Kavalactone is, you can see Kona Kava Farm’s “Kava Chemotypes Decoded” for more.)

The key word is “begin“.

Most of my Kava career, I’ve been too afraid to heat Kava up beyond 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Baking with Kava seemed like a pipe dream. I wrote about “Cooking With Kava” in a previous post, and discovered some interesting things when it came to cooking or baking with Kava. It turns out Kavalactones are somewhat sturdier than Kava aficionados have been led to believe.

Also, thanks to the diligence of Wonderland-Labs, a testing lab that specializes in Kava, we now have a handy chart. This chart accurately shows at what temperatures and times that Kavalactones actually break down. Why do we care? Because we can do a lot more with Kava when we can cook with it. Kona Kava Farm has reported that countless people have offered them a number of recipes for cooking, and that the effects can pack quite a punch! There’s actually a good article on Kava.com called “Boiling and Baking With Kava” that also explains this curious topic. So, here’s the breakdown for you:

TO GET 50% KAVALACTONE LOSS

140°F – Heating for 1 hour
150°F – Heating for 55 minutes
160°F – Heating for 45 minutes
170°F – Heating for 40 minutes
180°F – Heating for 35 minutes
190°F – Heating for 25 minutes
200°F – Heating for 20 minutes
210°F – Heating for 15 minutes
220°F – Heating for 15 minutes

They also found that Kavalactone, under pressure, can withstand even higher heats for longer periods of time. This is exciting news to bakers, and explains why the many people I’ve spoken with swear by Kava cookies. Even better news, is that starting from an extract, such as 33% Kavalactone powder can yield very pleasant baked goods. Even if 50% of the Kavalactones were to break down during the baking process, you’d still have a solid 15% of the Kavalactone remaining. No, it’s not as strong as something made from 33% Kavalactone or 55% Kavalactone Paste, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Something equally as interesting to note is that Kavalactone typically absorbs into the human body via fats. So, coconut milk, very popular in Oceania, can help quicken the absorption of Kavalactones, making the effect even more noticeable. When we’re baking with Kava, there are several sources of natural, healthy fats such as margarine, vegetable oil, nuts, or chocolate chips.

In my humble opinion, Chocolate and Kava is the PERFECT pairing! Kava King also has a Kava Chocolate Bar that’s pretty darn awesome.

So, to me, one of the beautiful things about natural herbal products such as Kava, is the freedom we have to explore them as much as we want, and without fear. If you’ve got an idea for adding Kava to a recipe, I’d love to post it here. If you want to see what it’s like to take a capsule of Kava alongside some chocolate chips, you might be surprised at how extra-pleasant the experience turns out to be. From here at Kava.Guru, I say that baking with Kava can be quite an extraordinary adventure!

Live a little, try out some recipes and share them with us here! If I post your recipe, I’ll send off a 4oz package of Kava.com’s Instant Kava Mix, Natural flavor.

Mahalo,
Kava.Guru

Is Kava from China Dangerous?

Kava from China DangerousI understand that asking if Kava from China is dangerous is a very broad statement for a very broad market. And, after interviews with Kava importers as well as Wonderland Labs (a testing facility that specializes in testing Kava), the results were quite consistent across the board. From more than a dozen testing results from various China-based companies selling Kava in various forms, from powders to Kavalactone extracts in various strengths, the results fell into 2 main categories.

The Kavalactone lineup for 85% of all the Kava we studied from China had a Kavalactone lineup of 2-5-3, and a consistent Kavalactone content of about 11%. Most of this Kava root was advertised as “Noble” Kava root, although 2-5-3 lineups are almost exclusively Tudei Kava. Tudei Kava is actually a non-noble variety of Kava. Another 15% had a consistent Kavalactone lineup of 2-4-3, which is actually consistent with Noble Kava from Vanuatu or possibly Fiji.

Equally as interesting, though, is that the advertised percentages of Kavalactone within the test samples were almost always half of the actual Kavalactone content. When confronted with this information, we were told that the manufacturer’s testing shows results that are quite different than the confirmed results we found.

So, what about the 2-5-3 Kavalactone lineup? It tests out as a non-noble variety of Kava. Most Kava connoisseurs prefer Noble Kava root, which is somewhat analogous to single malt liquors or single origin coffees. Noble Kava root can usually be traced to a very specific geographical location in the world, and is typically thought to be a more “pure” form of Kava. for example, Hawaiian Kava has about 13 major varieties, all of which are a Noble kava root. Varieties such as Ne Ne, M’oa, and Mahakea each have very different characteristics, and typically have different Kavalactone lineups.

But, recent research has shown that Tudei Kava and its FKB content has several key health benefits in the amounts consumed by Kava drinkers.

Read on…

Tudei Kava on the other hand, has the same Kavalactone lineup no matter where it grows in the world. Tudei Kava is a faster growing Kava that typically has thicker rootstock. When the Kava market was exploding in the 1990’s, a lot of farmers were having difficulty keeping up with demand, and switched their crops to Tudei Kava. So, what’s wrong with Tudei Kava, one might ask?

The major constituents of ethanolic kava root extract are kavalactones, including kawain, dihydrokawain, methysticin, dihydromethysticin, yangonin, and desmethoxyyangonin. Kava root extracts also contain chalcones, including flavokawain A, flavokawain B, and flavokawain C. We initially screened all 6 major kavalactones and 3 chalcones for cytotoxicity toward HepG2 hepatoma cells using MTT assays. None of the kavalactones, except yangonin, exhibited toxicity at concentrations up to 150 μM.

Tudei Kava is known to have larger amounts of Flavokawain A and Flavokawain B (sometimes spelled Flavokavain) than most Noble Kava root. With all of the controversy over extremely rare cases of liver damage with Kava consumption, recently, flavokavain B is emerging as a possible link to that rare liver damage. In study published in the US National Library of Medicine, they had this to say about Flavokawain B (FKB):

Interestingly, all other compounds tested, including FKA and yangonin, failed to induce cell death in L-02 cells (data not shown). FKB (Fig. 1B) was therefore chosen for further investigation, not only because it was a more potent cytotoxin in liver cells as compared to FKC, but also because FKB was >20-fold more abundant than FKC in acetone or ethanol extracts of kava.

Before anyone gets in an uproar though, it’s important to note two key items:

  1. What SOLVENT IS USED to extract Kava.
  2. The AMOUNT of Flavokawain-B that needs to be present to cause this cell damage.

Water, the most common extraction method for Kava, is considered a solvent, and therefore, is included on the below chart. What the chart shows, is that very little Flavokawain-B is extracted from Kava when it’s extracted by water. This is of critical importance, especially when researching what the Kava products you choose to purchase were extracted into. Take a look at the chart below:

flavokawain b extraction chart

Out of 46.6mg/g of Kavalactones extracted into water, there was only 0.2mg/g of FKB. In a full day’s serving of 290mg of Kavalactone as recommended by the FDA, that’s only 1.2mg TOTAL Flavokawain-B in your entire day’s Kava serving.

So, let’s take a look at what amounts were measured in the trials: In the quoted study, mice were orally administered FKB in amounts that are equal to 25mg/kg body weight daily for 1 week. Since a mouse weighs about 0.02kg, that means about 0.5mg of FKB were administered per day for a week.

Translating 25mg/kg of weight into human terms, for a 125lb/57kg person that’s 1425mg of FKB every single day for a week. For a 165lb/75kg person that’s 1875mg of FKB every single day for an entire week.

Let’s look at these astounding numbers for a second: So, even if a human consumed several water-based shells of Kava a day (a typical “shell” of Kava contains about 120mg of Kavalactone), they would only be consuming about 1.2mg of FKB in total. That’s about 1,375 times LESS FKB that induced the reported cell death in mice. Even if you had a full day’s serving of Kavalactone per shell (about 290mg per shell) and still drank several shells a day (rarely happens, even with experienced Kava drinkers), that’s still about 458 times less FKB that induced cell death in mice.

To put this another way, to achieve the same levels of toxicity that were done in the quoted study, a person of average weight would have to consume over 1,000 shells of Kava every day for an entire week. Yes, the argument can be made that over time, damage could accumulate, but that’s not how FKB operates. FKB was shown to be dangerous only in extremely large doses, administered daily over the course of a week. It doesn’t “store up” in the human body, and get more toxic over time.

What does this mean for the average consumer of Kava: If you don’t drink Kava, and a lot of it every day, there is little to no evidence that Kava is hepatotoxic in the amounts you would be consumed. If you happened to purchase some bad product from a shady vendor that was extracted into ethanol, you would still need to consume about 100 shells of Kava in a single day, for an entire week to have the same effects that were shown in the study.

So, if much of the Kava coming out of China is actually 2-5-3 and considered Tudei Kava, is it dangerous to consume? It’s only my very non-scientific opinion, but from the various amounts of evidence I’ve gathered, I would have to say no. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be looking for Noble varieties of Kava root from a reputable vendor when you’re looking to purchase Kava, but it means that Tudei Kava doesn’t appear to be as dangerous as some of the media hype has made it out to be.

In fact, in that same study, they stated this:

Controlling the levels of FKB in kava products by modifying existent extraction methods or possibly by genetically modifying FKB biosynthesis should in principle reduce, if not eliminate, those rare hepatotoxic effects observed in consumers of kava root extracts.

What they are referring to is Kava that is extracted into water. Most consumers are extracting their Kava into water, so it appears that even though this study does show hepatoxicity with levels of FKB that no consumer would be able to physically ingest, even the levels of FKB that could potentially exist in water-based extracts do not appear to be harmful.

As a further note, they also concluded this:

Kavalactones have been proposed to account for kava-induced liver toxicity, but no noticeable toxicity was observed in rats fed with kavalactones (>500 mg/kg, daily for 4 wk). In agreement with this in vivo observation, our data showed that indeed kavalactones had no significant effects on the viability of selected liver cell lines.

This is true for any Kava, whether it’s a Noble variety or the Tudei variety, and this is good news for Kava, wherever in the world it comes from.

Flavokawain B’s Health Benefits?

Now, this will likely be more controversial than any of the other statements in this article, but there’s a peer reviewed study from January 20, 2016 that has concluded that the amounts of Flavokawain B (FKB) contained in the amounts of Kava an average consumer might typically ingest, are not harmful, but protective to our health. Some may find this difficult to believe, but the evidence couldn’t be any clearer. I have taken three of the most definitive conclusions from the study:

Flavokawains promote an adaptive cellular response that protects hepatocytes against oxidative stress. We propose that FKA has potential as a chemopreventative or
chemotherapeutic agent.

And secondly:

Both flavokawains activated Nrf2, increasing HMOX1 and GCLC expression and enhancing total glutathione levels over 2-fold (p < 0.05).

And third:

Calculations by Teschke et al. have shown that the dose of FKB obtained from an ethanolic kava extract is 250-fold below the amount needed to cause modest hepatotoxicity, based on rodent studies (Teschke et al. 2011).

Ths should give plenty of fodder for discussion for those who remain convinced that Tudei Kava is the scourge of the Kava world…

Mahalo,
Kava.Guru

P.S. Read a similar article on Tudei Kava and Flavokawain B called “Is Flavokawain B Dangerous?” to find out more.

Lab Certified Kava – Does It Really Matter?

Kava for Beginners Ultimate GuideOne of the questions I’m getting asked more and more these days is whether “lab certified Kava” means anything. After all, Kava is a natural plant product that grows in places like Hawaii, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and a few other places. That means it’s mostly untouched by the perils of the modern world right? Well, after just a bit of investigation, the answer is a resounding; “Yes, Lab Certified Kava is critically important to your health.” Whether or not the Kava you are purchasing has been tested in a lab and manufactured in an FDA-compliant facility, it can mean the difference between a pleasant experience and an upset stomach, or worse; a trip to the hospital.

Before anyone sounds alarms of me being alarmist, let me present the facts.

First, I went to Amazon.com and purchased 6 random samples of Kava. I wasn’t too particular, I just wanted to get a wide range of Kava products. I purchased ones that appeared to be very “official” and also had claims of “GMP Kava.” I also purchased ones that said “Lab Certified Kava”, as well as ones that didn’t appear to have any Supplement Facts on them whatsoever. (Supplement Facts are required by the FDA for any consumable product.) I got what I felt was a “representative” selection of Kava products.

Let’s first take a brief class on what the different terminologies mean:

Lab Certified Kava” – This means any Kava was sent to a lab that can test for things that the FDA requires of all dietary supplements. The typical tests are biological (testing for mold, yeast, Salmonella, E. coli, and a few other pathogens). Kava is a root, and because of that, it spends most of its life underground. Dirt, at least these days, isn’t as harmless as it used to be. Chemicals leech into the water table, and contaminants that get released into the air and get into rain. The Earth itself builds up contaminants over repeated cycles of growing and harvesting. So, getting Kava tested in a lab, and subsequently lab certified Kava is an absolute must for anyone who manufactures, distributes, or sells Kava at a retail level.

And although not every retailer understands, even if the Kava from a supplier was actually lab certified Kava, that’s not actually acceptable to the FDA. Every person who holds Kava for distribution is required to get their Kava tested in a lab to verify the and confirm the results that they were provided with by their supplier. And this is a requirement for every single batch that’s made. With smaller companies and smaller batches, costs just for testing and getting their lab certified Kava into the marketplace can be an astronomically costly undertaking.

Another integral part of the lab certified Kava picture, is testing for heavy metals in Kava. Again, dirt itself may contain trace amounts of a number of contaminants that occur naturally, or were introduced into the ground from various means. Typically, heavy metals testing for Kava consists of Arsenic Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury. The FDA has set up very specific limits of what is acceptable for both food and dietary supplements. In the Kava we’ve tested. In the Kava that Wonderland-Labs tested (a lab that specializes in Kava testing), it appeared to be extremely rare for Kava roots to contain heavy metals.

Biological contamination is another story, though.

GMP Manufactured Kava” – This is another term that seems to be getting abused recently. Food and dietary supplements need to be manufactured under very strict conditions, to be legally sold in the marketplace. This set of extremely rigorous rules only continues to get stricter. The FDA is making it increasingly difficult for small businesses to survive as a result. For a Kava product to be truly “GMP manufactured”, any facility must follow a very strict set of procedures. They must also maintain a specific level of cleanliness and sterility in their manufacturing facility. This includes ensuring that every product offered in the marketplace has been “lab certified”. And this isn’t just for the initial product supplied from the manufacturer; every individual type of product must have a “Certificate of Analysis” accompanying it.

With costs for complete safety testing and identification of Kava, each product can cost up to $500.00 per product. For a company that has, say 24 different Kava products, you can see how the testing alone can get very costly. From our interviews, this is causing smaller companies to cut corners, and subsequently, to allow less safe Kava into the marketplace.

Now that we know the main terminology, let’s take a look at some actual testing results. All of our examples come from a lab that specializes in testing Kava. I trust their expertise. And, with literally thousands of test results from virtually every brand of Kava, they seem to be an authority on lab certified Kava. I also know them personally.

O.K., let’s get back to those 6 Kava samples chosen at random.

Lab Certified Kava Biological Testing

And then, the additional biological testing:
lab-certified-additional-bio

Nearly all of the samples came up as safe, or at least safe enough, which was quite a relief. But, out of the 6 Kava samples, one had dangerous levels of a biological contaminant. This could mean at least an upset stomach, or worse; a trip to the emergency room:

Kava Labs Results Danger

I want to stress that I’m not here to be alarmist; these are real results from a random sampling of real Kava on Amazon.com. Also, despite repeated requests, I’m not going to reveal the sources of our samples. Each Kava company has been alerted to the testing results, and we have asked for a follow-up regarding their remedy to this situation.

There are difficulties with Kava safety. Kavalactones start to break down after just 20 minutes in heat above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Traditional means of pasteurization of irradiation can’t happen for Kava as a result. This makes it even more imperative that any Kava be handled with the utmost care, from farm to your stomach.

The new American Kava Association hoping to make a difference in Kava testing. They require testing of every Kava product by every member. this forces companies to adhere to the strict manufacturing standards that the FDA requires of every dietary supplement manufacturer. They also offer a number of benefits for their members. This includes Kava testing at reduced prices for any member, trusted Kava suppliers, and knowledge that they are part of an organization devoted to Kava safety.

Lab Certified Kava Conclusions

Even our cursory study has shown how critically important it is for Kava to be lab certified. Look for the American Kava Association logo on any retailer offering Kava. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when making your Kava purchases. Don’t be afraid to ask if the Kava is manufactured in a GMP facility. Ask for a bit of a description of the process they employ to ensure the safety of their Kava products. Anyone who truly does manufacture their Kava in a GMP manufacturing facility, will be able to share enough details of their process to assure you that their Kava is what they say it is.

Also, Wonderland-Labs offers free Kava testing for anyone who has become sick from any Kava they have purchased. This is simply a courtesy to the consumer. Hopefully you’ll never have to take them up on their offer. But it’s comforting to know that there’s someone out there looking out for the Kava consumer.

What About Growing Kava Cuttings?

Growing Kava Cuttings

I often get asked about growing Kava cuttings. With over 20 years of working with Kava plants, I’ve got a number of techniques that have proven successful to me. Despite that, though, I’m still torn on whether planting cuttings horizontally or vertically produces the most reliable new Kava plants. I’ll explain as we go.

As many of us already know, Kava is a sterile plant. That means that it produces no seeds, although it still produces strange-looking flowers that look like long, skinny bananas, they serve no purpose, other than to perhaps provide a temporary home for a few insects.

Having said that, the topic at the moment is growing Kava from cuttings. That’s the only way Kava is known to propagate. And, it’s important to understand that Kava will only grow from very specific cuttings: They need to be taken from the main stems of the plant.

Wild Dagga Flower

Many plants can grow from any random cutting taken from anywhere on the plant. One of my favorite plants to propagate is Wild Dagga. Not only does it produce a copious amount of seeds, I can take cuttings from just about anywhere on the plant, stick them in water, and roots will start to appear within just a few days.

Kava Stem Nodes

Kava, on the other hand, needs to have at least 1 major node in any cutting you take, and preferably 2 nodes. A node is really easy to see. Take a look at the photo to the left. the left-hand stem is the new Kava plant that grew out of the stem on the right-side. The plant on the right side was placed into the soil vertically. It was a cutting that had two nodes to begin with. I’ve planted cuttings vertically in the past, directly into the soil, but I don’t always get the best results. The root bundle tends to be a bit thin, and they don’t usually take very well when transplanted.

On the other hand, when I take a two-node cutting and place it into a cloner, especially one that uses aeroponics instead of hydroponics,

Aeroponic Kava Cutting

the root bundle flourishes. Take a look at the image to the right. This is from a short two-node cutting of a Hawaiian Nene Kava plant. The root bundle is an explosion of strands, and reacts great to being placed in a rich soil.

So this is a check in the “pro vertical cutting” column of Kava plant propagation, but only because of the help of an aeroponics-based cloner. (Speaking of, any aeroponics cloner seems to work just as efficiently as the next. I know I’ll get questions about which cloner is the best cloner, but I just choose the one that seems the most reasonably priced, and with the number of cloning sites that I need, in the space I have.) I have to admit that when space is limited, sprouting new Kava plants from any sized two-node cutting is a joy with the assistance of a cloner.

Growing Kava from Cuttings

So, it doesn’t hurt to make a few cuttings and try out a few different methods to see which one works for you. Another very efficient method (and one I’ve had the most luck with outside of aeroponic Kava growing, is horizontal planting). I also like this method because it feels the most natural to me. With just a little effort, and a box full of rich soil, you can get a bunch of Kava shoots in just a few weeks. Take a look at the image to the left. In about 3″ of well-drained, and very rich soil, mixed very well with plenty of Perlite, I placed several single and double node Kava stem cuttings. Both the single and the double node cuttings bore shoots, but the double node plants seemed to produce stronger shoots.

Two Node Cutting

The single node still worked, but the shoots were a little more sickly. If you’ve got a lot of parent plant to choose from, I’d say to try both yourself to see what works best for you. The aeroponic Kava cutting in the thumbnail above had 3 nodes to start with, and consistently, the three node cuttings produced stronger new plants with larger root bundles time and time again.  I’m not a botanist, but my guess is that when there are two or more nodes, the core systems of the plant are sealed in between the nodes, perhaps better protecting the plant and any new growth?  It also allows the plant to split responsibilities; one node can handle roots, and the other can handle making the new Kava plant.  Take a look at the thumbnail to the right; that’s a two node cutting placed directly in the soil. Notice the shoot at the top node. Again, I’m not sure why these produce better results than new Kava plants made from single nodes, but that’s how it’s worked for me time and time again.

As with Kava in general, plants prefer about 30% shade. This seems to be especially true with new Kava cuttings. It’s tempting to give them tons of light, but young Kava plants tend to burn easily. They’re strong plants in general, but they are fussy in a few key areas, and sun is definitely one of them. The good news is that once a plant is mature, you can accelerate the growth by moving them to more sun. I’ve had Kava plants about a year old that were placed into direct sunlight, and they showed accelerated growth over the ones in 30% shade, without any noticeable negative effects. The roots were also slightly larger, which, with Kava, is usually the goal.

When can you actually take new cuttings from a Kava mother plant?

I’ve tried all different time frames to see which one made the best shoots. In my mind, thought that perhaps young plants were more pliable, and that younger Kava plants would make better new Kava plants. I also thought that perhaps mature plants are more established, that they could stand up to being cut and stuck into soil better. After testing out numerous Kava plants at different ages; from 6 months all the way up to about 5 years, I didn’t actually notice much of a difference in success rate. What mattered far more was the method of propagating the new cuttings. And, the downside to using younger Kava plants (6 months or less), is that you have a lot less plant to work with. On a mature plant, you’ve got a number of sections to choose from, and you can cut down an entire stalk, knowing that there are plenty left for the plant to flourish.

On a younger Kava plant, there are fewer sections, and cutting an entire Kava stalk from the plant may have a more detrimental effect on the overall health of the plant. I personally haven’t seen a plant suffer from cutting one of just two stalks, but older plants definitely have many more candidates to pick from, and you’ll have more Kava plant left when you’ve taken a new round of cuttings. The bottom line is growing Kava cuttings is a fun and rewarding experience on many levels. Kava plants aren’t always easy to come by, so having your own collection of Mother Plants to choose from ensures you’ll have plenty of freshly-harvested Kava root to pick from.

To me, there’s nothing better than fresh Kava root. Yes, dried root still has all the pleasurable effects, but it is definitely more permeating and pleasant of an experience with fresh roots. Perhaps the inherent Kavalactone content is greater, but then perhaps something is lost in the drying process. Either way, few things have brought me more joy than my first shell of Kava made from freshly-harvested Kava roots from plants that I tended to myself. I’d love to hear about your Kava growing experiences below, and the best of luck to you if you decide to try.

Mahalo,
Kava.Guru

What is Kava’s Legal Status? Is Kava Legal Everywhere?

Dear Kava Guru,

What is kava’s legal status? Is kava legal everywhere?

With all of the recent legal changes surrounding kava, it’s certainly hard to keep track of where it is and is not legal and what its actual legal status is in those places. For example, there was even a change as recent as June of this year – in Germany the Federal Administrative Court overturned the 2002 ban that had been placed on kava-containing products [1].

So, I am writing the following article to help clear up some of those confusing bits surrounding kava legalities.

Is kava legal in my country?

Thankfully the list of countries where kava is formally illegal or partially illegal is much smaller than the list of where kava is fully legal. So, I will do my best now to outline where kava is not legal and in what respects.

As mentioned above, in Germany there has been a recent victory for kava with the repeal of the 2002 kava bans. However, there are still limitations on the marketing capabilities of companies selling and distributing kava and kava-containing products – so the actual legal status of selling kava in Germany is still a bit foggy. The International Kava Executive Council (IKEC) and partners of the German Pharmaceutical Industry initiated the file that led to the repeal of the kava ban [1].

While the IKEC’s involvement in serving justice with regard to kava is an ongoing positive force – the pharmaceutical companies were (interestingly enough) where the initial bans were said to have come from. Of course it’s not entirely clear what is going on here, but I have my guru suspicions. My guess is that some members of the German pharmaceutical industries are seeing the potential for a grand investment in manufacturing kava-based pharmaceuticals. It is no secret now that kava has real anxiolytic properties, and pharmaceutical companies could certainly make a killing by joining in the battle to fully legalize kava everywhere; although ever fiber of my kava being would rather keep kava the pure, earthy and unadulterated natural remedy that it is.

In some countries kava has had quite the tumultuous legal history, resulting in the creation of actual legal bodies to deal with the regulation of kava. For example, in Australia the National Code of Kava Management has been implemented to deal with the supplies of kava coming in and out of the country and circulating throughout it. It would appear as though the legalities of kava are also not uniform across Australia – with the Northern Territories perhaps exhibiting a heightened legal sensitivity to kava: the sale of kava is illegal in this part of Australia and in a majority of cases the actual possession of kava is also illegal [7]. The legal status is not any clearer in the other countries that have laws surrounding the regulation of kava.

Many other countries with laws surrounding the kava plant have regulations similar to the ones now in Germany – where kava is not actually banned, but where there are a series of regulations and restrictions placed on the sale of kava. Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and Canada are all countries that have these types of legalities surrounding the sale of kava, even though kava is not actually banned in these countries [5].

The U.K also has unclear laws regarding kava. While the sale, supply, and import of kava-containing products is illegal and could result in a criminal offense – there is nonetheless a kava bar in the U.K called the Kava Pub, so kava cannot actually be fully banned [5, 7].

In terms of fully locked-up laws regarding kava – Poland is the only country that I am currently aware of. In Poland kava is completely illegal in all respects – the import, sale, possession, distribution and all other related activities involving kava are completely prohibited in Poland [5].

Aside from the South Pacific islands, states within the United States of America are probably the next place to look for the most liberally kava-loving populations. Not only is kava no longer banned in the U.S, but there are also a rising number of kava bars: places where people can go to explicitly enjoy the relaxing and wholesome properties of kava. As far as my guru knowledge is aware, the U.S is the only other area that has a steadily rising-kava loving population outside of the South Pacific.

To Summarize:

  • Kava is explicitly banned in Poland only (as far as I know)
  • There are unclear legalities surrounding the sale of kava in Germany, Switzerland, Canada, the Netherlands and other unclear laws and regulations in the U.K.
  • Australia does not strictly ban kava, but its regulations and other legal structures that surround kava are so obscure and problematic that the use of kava in Australia can be difficult.
  • The United States was at one time a country that banned kava, but is now a kava-loving nation!

Why is kava illegal at all?

Back in 2002 there was a popularized series of cases that declared kava had hepatotoxic properties – cases that brought kava into the eye of many legal systems across the globe. A series of studies funded and published by the German Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (Bundesinstitut für Arzneimittel und Medizinprodukte, or “BfArM”) advertised unsubstantiated claims that kava was causing liver damage [1]. However, as many reports and case studies have indicated, there are numerous reasons why these studies have since been proven to be inconclusive. Most recently a study presented at the 2014 International Conference on the Science of Botanicals indicated that the strains used in the BfArM study may be responsible for the hepatotoxic scare [3].

But, in order to stay on topic – I will simply direct you to other places on the site where I discuss these implications and the BfArM case in more detail:

Pure kava does not cause liver damage
Tudei kava

Long story short, these German studies initiated a multinational discussion on the topic of kava and the possibility that it might cause liver damage. As a result a series of bans on kava’s sale and import from the South Pacific began to surface and controversial information about kava began circulating on a multi-national level. Kava and its friends have since had quite the battle trying to restore justice on a global front with regard to the improper legal restrictions placed on kava and its use or sale.

The Kava Act

As a result of these many legal issues and the large body of information now surfacing with regard to the Piper methysticum plant, primary export nations within the South Pacific have enacted and implemented The Kava Act. The Kava Act is intended to regulate the cultivation, sale and export of kava – ensuring that only regulated and permitted strains of noble kava are in legal circulation. The Vanuatu Parliament enacted the Kava Act back in 2002 in order to respond to the global circulation of misinformation regarding kava. The Kava Act prohibits the sale of any other kava cultivar outside of noble kava strains. The Act is part of an international effort to regulate the sale and export of kava – in order for it to be used properly as it was intended for its natural and beneficial properties [2].

International Kava Executive Council (IKEC)

There is one primary executive body that is at the forefront of the battle to serve justice when it comes to fighting for the legal status of kava on a global front – the International Kava Executive Council (IKEC). The following definition is from the IKEC’s official Internet home page:

“The IKEC is an international organization consisting of delegates from the Pacific and the EU, focusing on re-establishing the kava trade between the kava-producing South Pacific Island States and the countries of the European Union [4]”.

The IKEC is headed by Roy Mickey Joy – the Vanuatu Ambassador to the European Union. Currently Mr. Joy is working with the IKEC and other governing bodies to lift the few bans that remain on the sale, cultivation or export/import of kava – with a particular focus on the bans that surround kava and its use in the EU [6].

My guru instincts tell me that it will just be a matter of time before kava (pure noble kava) is legalized completely on a global scale. With people like Mr. Joy and others involved in the battle to legalize kava and all activities related to kava kava – I believe that our beloved Piper methysticum is in very good hands. There are only a few pockets of the world where there are still laws restricting the use of kava and these pockets are actively intertwined with people and government bodies who are fighting for such restrictions to be lifted.

Ahhhh, I certainly cannot wait until the day when I’m welcome to bring my kava bowl to all corners of the world and sit and share the joy of kava with all of those around me – what a beautiful day that shall be!

Mahalo,

Kava Guru

Sources:

1. Lealaiauloto Aigaletaulealea Tauafiafi. “Kava Lifted: German Court Lifts Ban on Pacific Kava”. Pacific Guardians, Dec 06, 2014:
http://pacificguardians.org/2014/06/12/kava-lifted-german-court-lifts-ban-on-pacific-kava/.html.

2. Lebot, Vincent and Patricia Simeoni. “Identification of factors determining kavalactone content and chemotype in Kava (Piper methysticum)”. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Vol. 56: 2008, p. 4976-4981.

3. INSIDER T.V. “New Science May Boost Kava Market”. http://www.naturalproductsinsider.com/videos/2014/05/insider-tv-new-science-may-boost-kava-market.aspx.

4. International Kava Executive Council [IKEC]. “News”.  http://www.ikec.org/?q=node/10.

5. Kona Kava Farm. “Kava Banned Countries”.  http://www.konakavafarm.com/kava-banned-countries.html.

6. Radio New Zealand International. “Vanuatu Wants Kava Bans Lifted”: http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/249183/vanuatu-wants-kava-bans-lifted.

7. Wikipedia. “Kava”. Last updated Sept 1, 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kava.

Are Kava Tea Bags Effective?

Dear Kava Guru,

Are kava tea bags any good?

Doug,

Salem,

MA

I know of several ways to answer this question, depending on what exactly you mean by “good”; if it comes down to asking are kava tea bags effective, or do kava tea bags work, I can say without hesitation that they certainly can be quite relaxing! Like any kava beverage, getting the most out of kava tea bags lies in how you prepare them as well as making sure you have quality raw material to start with. Kava tea bags may not be as strong as fresh-brewed kava—of course, few things are!—but many people still enjoy kava tea immensely. One advantage of going the kava tea route is that these products often blend kava extract with yummy flavorings to help ease the kava newcomer into a more welcoming taste experience. After all, drinking kava shouldn’t just be about the physical effects; sensual elements such as taste, smell, and mouth feel are important too!

The most popular kava tea I know of is Yogi Tea’s “Kava Stress Relief”, which the folks over at Kava Dot Com are now offering on their marketplace! Kava Stress Relief combines kava extract (this is crucial!) with flavoring ingredients like carob pod, Indian sarsparilla, cinnamon bark, cardamom, and ginger root. Sounds tasty, right? While the Kava Guru has not yet tried Yogi’s kava tea—I prefer my kava kava “straight” if you know what I mean—apparently many people like the way the spice ingredients mellow out the earthy, peppery taste of kava. One review described it this way: “There is just a burst of amazing flavors and spices that come out of this tea. Downing something is not healthy. If you’re consuming something for everything but taste, then you’re doing it wrong. I enjoy this tea because it goes down nice and smooth and has a pleasant aftertaste.”

I absolutely agree with this philosophy when it comes to kava—or any substance with a physiological effect, such as coffee, tea, or wine. It should be about the holistic experience of consumption, in which taste, smell, and mouth feel are as important as the eventual effects. Especially with a relatively subtle herb like kava, I believe that working patiently with it rather than slamming a glass of kava hoping for an instant effect is the best way to discover kava’s many joys.

That said—do kava tea bags work? This is really the crux of any kava supplement: if you aren’t using the whole kava root but rather a capsule, powder mix or tea, you absolutely have to make sure the supplement contains a kava extract—not just the dried and powdered root. Without some form of extraction, plain powdered root will not be physiologically active. To be effective, a kava supplement product should contain at least 70 milligrams of kavalactones, the active relaxing and anxiolytic constituents of kava. According to the information I could find, Yogi tea bags contain 78 mg of a peeled kava root extract, plus 23.4 mg of a 30% kavalactone extract. Since the kava root extract itself is not 100% kavalactone (the typical range is 60-70%), this means that the maximum kavalactone content of the tea would be 78 mg, and could be in the lower range of 70.2 mg. In other words, one tea bag would contain about the minimum effective dose of kavalactones for the average person. This can definitely be an effective dose for some, but it will probably not be strong enough for others depending on each individual body’s unique tolerance. The instructions on the box even say to use two tea bags for a stronger effect if desired.

However—a weaker brew isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t know about you, but in the Kava Guru’s opinion not every experience with kava has to be a 15-hour nakamal session with a hard-hitting Vanuatu brew. Kava tea bags might be the perfect option if you just want to relax of an evening, take the edge off after a stressful day, or get into a relaxed, focused state before work or to dive into a creative project. A gentle kava tea is also an excellent beverage option for those mornings when you anticipate a stressful day ahead: the lower dosage of kavalactones can lessen your anxiety while still leaving you alert.

If you decide to try kava tea bags, I’ve included a couple tips for you to get the most out of your kava tea experience. Yogi recommends pouring boiling water over 1-2 tea bags and steeping 5-10 minutes, but I would highly recommend using cooler water—the general opinion is that water heated above 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 Celsius) may degrade the kavalactones and diminish their efficacy. However, Kava Dot Com’s experiments with heating kava suggest that this temperature ceiling can be stretched a bit without harming the kavalactones, as long as you don’t actually boil the kava. What you might do is heat water to just under boiling—say, to 176 Fahrenheit/80 Celsius, the same temperature used for green tea. Especially if you add a fatty liquid such as milk during the steeping process, this temperature will be enough to extract the kavalactones so that you can get the most out of your kava tea bags!

Mahalo,

Kava Guru

What Are Some Non-Kavalactone Compounds in Kava?

Dear Kava Guru,

What are some compounds in kava root besides kavalactones?

George,

Reno, NV

By now, you’ve probably heard me gush enough about kavalactones to know that these relaxing, anxiolytic compounds are a big part of what makes kava such a joy to consume. Yet as it turns out, there is actually quite a diverse range of chemical constituents in kava root: beside the six main kavalactones—kavain, dihydrokavain, yangonin, desmethyoxyyangonin, methysticin, and dihydromethysticin—there are many subsidiary kavalactones that occur in much smaller amounts, as well as a totally different class of compounds called chalconoids [1]. Chalconoids are probably the most interesting compounds in kava, besides kavalactones of course. Otherwise known as flavokavains or flavokawains, scientists are starting to realize that the chalconoid compounds in kava have biological actions in the body, and have started to study their effects. There’s even a possibility that the kava market could see a resurgence in demand specifically for flavokavain A, which has been demonstrated to target some types of cancerous cells [2]!

Fresh kava root is about 80% water. Once dried, kava root contains a hefty amount of starch (43%), along with 20% dietary fiber, 12% water, 3.2% sugars, and 3.6% protein [3]. Kavalactones contribute about 15% of the weight of the root. As you can tell from the name, kavalactones are a kind of lactone, a compound widely found in edible food plants, including leafy green vegetables. Without getting too deep into organic chemistry, a lactone compound is classified as an ester formed from the condensation of an alcohol group (-OH) and a carboxylic acid group (-COOH) on the same molecule [4]. The letters in the abbreviations above stand for oxygen, hydrogen and carbon. Don’t worry too much about these terms; I’ve just included them to give you an idea of what chemical class kavalactones belong to.

Some lactones, especially the sesquiterpene lactones found in lettuce and other edible plants in the daisy family Asteraceae, have recognized health benefits. Sesquiterpene lactones are antioxidants and anti-inflammatories that may help protect cells from oxidant damage [5]. In other words, your mother was right when she told you to eat your vegetables—a diet rich in dark pigmented veggies is key to a healthier life!

Kavalactones are not sesquiterpene lactones; they are their own unique class of lactones found almost exclusively in kava kava (Piper methysticum) root. Kava kava’s benefits to health come from kavalactones’ sedative, anticonvulsant, muscle relaxant, nootropic, and anxiolytic effects on the central nervous system [6]. Although pretty much everyone knowledgeable about the kava world knows about the six major kavalactones responsible for these effects, it turns out kava kava may have as many as 14 kavalactone compounds, as well as the chalconoids I mentioned above and other trace compounds. Alexander Shulgin’s 1973 paper lays out a very detailed breakdown of the compounds in kava according to level of concentration, which I’ve reproduced below:

Compounds detectable in kava root at 1% concentration or more: kavain, dihydrokavain, methysticin.

Compounds detectable in kava root at 0.1-1% concentration: yangonin, dihydromethysticin, desmethoxyyangonin, flavokavain A, pinostrobinchalcone, dihydrotectochrysin, alpinetinchalcone, alpinetin, amd dihydrooroxylin A.

Compounds detectable in kava root at 0.01 – 0.1% concentration: methoxy-nor-yangonin, flavokavain B, and methoxyyangonin [7].

The takeaway from this is that while kava contains a range of interesting compounds, most of them are not present in any amount significant enough to suggest that they have biological activity in the body…

…except the chalconoid flavokavains A, B, and C. These compounds are an interesting exception I’ve been wanting to examine in more detail. Chalconoids are intermediary compounds in the biosynthesis of flavonoids—the compounds in plants responsible for pigments [1]. I find this interesting because flavonoids have been found to have a few notable health benefits: researcher are already thinking the flavokavains in kava kava may have antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor properties [1]. All this despite the fact that in 1973 when Shulgin wrote his paper, flavokavains were not considered biologically active compounds [7]!

However, there may be a downside to the flavokavains’ activity. In 2013, flavokavain B started causing some controversy in the kava world as evidence came to light that it might be harmful to liver cells [8]. Now, before you start to worry about your own kava use, let me make it clear that a) these results were based on lab tests of liver cells in vitro, not in human subjects; and b) flavokavain B only occurs in significant degree in so-called ignoble or tudei kava strains such as Isa and Palisi. I personally think the jury’s still out as to whether consumption of tudei kava prepared the traditional way poses a threat to health—but even if it does, it seems more like a reason to avoid tudei kava strains specifically. Kava researcher Vincent Lebot, who first brought the concerns about tudei kava to public light, has stated that noble kava strains are still unequivocally safe [1].

More encouragingly, flavokavain A may actually be beneficial to health: research by Dr Xiaolin Zhi at the University of California Irvine found that flavokavain A destroyed precancerous bladder cells in mice given the compound as a supplement to their diets [2]. Dr Zhi speculated that the flavokavain A specifically targets and destroys these cancer cells [2]. What’s even better about Zhi’s study is that the mice seemed to tolerate the flavokavain A well and did not experience any liver damage or other adverse effects [2]. Furthermore, a recent University of Minnesota study suggested flavokavain A might have similar preventive effects on lung cancers caused by tobacco smoking [9]. It’s clear we have a lot more to learn about the healing potential not only of kavalactones but of the full range of compounds in kava kava!

Mahalo,

Kava Guru

REFERENCES

1. “Simple Test for Checking If Your Kava Is Tudei”. Kava Forums: Connecting Kava Lovers Around the World. Accessed July 30th, 2014. http://www.kavaforums.com/forum/threads/simple-test-for-checking-if-your-kava-is-tudei-please-read-if-youre-new-to-kava.2451/.

2. Vasich, Tom. “Can Kava Cure Cancer?” UC Irvine News, Accessed April 9th, 2014. http://news.uci.edu/features/can-kava-cure-cancer/.

3. “Kava | Composition”. Wikipedia. Last modified July 27th, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kava#Composition.

4. “Lactone”. Wikipedia. Last modified June 11th, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactone.

5. Chadwick, Martin, Harriet Trewin, Frances Gawthrop, and Carol Wagstaff. June 2013. “Sesquiterpenoid Lactones: Benefits to plants and people”. International Journal of Molecular Science 14 (6): 12780-12805.

6. “Kavalactone”. Wikipedia. Last modified June 30th, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kavalactone.

7. Shulgin, Alexander T. 1973. “The narcotic pepper- the chemistry and pharmacology of Piper methysticum and related species”. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Bulletin on Narcotics 2: 59-74.

8. Ping Zhou, Shimon Gross, Ji-Hua Liu, Bo-Yang Yu, Ling-Ling Feng, Jan Nolta, Vijay Sharma, David Piwnica-Worms, and Samuel X. Qiu. December 2010. “Flavokawain B, the hepatotoxic constituent from kava root, induces GSH-sensitive oxidative stress through modulation of IKK/NF-kB and MAPK signaling pathways”. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal 24 (12): 4722-4732.

9. “Preliminary study in mice suggests possible lung cancer preventative effect of South Pacific herb.” January 8th, 2014. PR Newswire. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/kava-may-help-prevent-lung-cancer-in-smokers-say-university-researchers-239200161.html.

What is a chemotype & what are kava chemotypes?

Dear Kava Guru,

What is a chemotype and what are kava chemotypes?

Time and time again on my guru database here at Kava.Guru, I have used the word “chemotype” with reference to the Piper methysticum plant. But, I feel terrible because I don’t think I’ve once really explained what a chemotype is or more specifically what kava chemotypes are. So, it’s now time for me to break down this more scientifically based term so that you – my lovingly dedicated audience – can have a better understanding of kava right down to its scientific makeup.

A chemotype is used to distinguish varieties of plants within the same species – meaning that the members of a species can share the same basic genome and often the same phenotype (physical appearance) and yet have significant differences in their chemical composition. Another word that you might see tossed around in reference to the chemical composition of a plant is “chemovar”, which is just a way of denoting the chemically different variety of the plant [7].   We can break the word down into its etymological bits to get an even better understanding. Chemo is quite simply a prefix that turns the word in to something relating to chemicals, so when it is added to the front of “type” to become “chemotype” it essentially just means chemical type. Likewise, with chemovar, -var is just a suffix added to words to mean “variety” – so, “chemovar” just means chemical variety [2].

You will notice the word “cultivar” used frequently here on Kava.Guru and also, as an extended example of the etymological significance of –var, I’ll just point out that culti- is a prefix referencing cultivation – so, cultivar just means the cultivated variety of a particular plant species. All varieties of the Piper methysticum plant are cultivars because Piper methysticum is itself the cultivar of Piper wichmannii – the wild sister of Piper methysticum. In fact Piper methysticum is unable to self propagate, therefore making it dependent upon cultivation by humans [5].

The fun thing about the chemical composition of a plant is that you could have two plants that are botanically identical – two kava plants for example that cannot be told apart – and yet each could have a very different chemical composition. You could have two plants that have the same leaf structure and root anatomy and yet hold entirely different properties with regard to their chemical makeup. As a result these plants might look the same but actually have completely different effects with regard to chemical interactions in the human system. So you may have one cultivar of Piper methysticum that is essentially useless in terms of its sedative effect because it has a very low kavalactone index, whereas another variety that looks botanically identical might have a very pleasurable and noticeable effect.  This is why it’s always extremely important to know the variety of kava a vendor is offering – you certainly don’t want to endanger your system, but of course you do want to have kava that instills the benefits you desire.

So how is it possible for two plants of the same species that look botanically identical to have such varied chemical compositions?

Well, there are many upon many things that affect the chemical constituents of a plant and their interactions. The major variables are soil conditions and the climate, which is why the South Pacific Islands and Hawaii are so well-suited to the cultivation of excellent kava.   But, something as seemingly benign as the direction of the wind could have an impact on the chemical composition as well – for example, by carrying in particles from neighbouring regions that might change the soil composition, which could then change the chemical make up of the plant itself.  So, weather and the time of year of course have a lot to do with it as well [4]. Think of it like wine varietals. Vineyards are known for their wines because they have mastered a particular growing situation that yields a very desirable and specific type of wine. Two grapes of the same varietal could yield almost entirely different wines – just because of something as seemingly simple as one having been grown in the mountains and the other having been grown near the sea.

So, if the chemical composition of a plant is so flexible how on earth can one know what exactly they are growing and whether or not it will be the chemotype they desire?

Fortunately, the primary factor in the chemical composition of kava is its genetics. A particular variety of a plant can be cultivated over and over again because botanical geneticists have become skilled in producing a particular genetic structure – or plant cultivar. Furthermore, it’s actually possible to determine the chemical composition with respect to kavalactone quantities using near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy (NIRS) [4]. Spectroscopy is a field of study that looks at the interactions between matter and radiated energy and NIRS is a technique specific to the near-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum [10]. Breaking it down further, NIRS is a technique that measures the molecular overtones and the vibrations that happen through different molecular combinations and their interactions that create measurable radiant energy [8, 10].  While it’s difficult to determine which chemical components are responsible for certain features or results [10], two studies have nonetheless proven that it is possible to determine the kavalactone makeup of dried kava by using NIRS technologies [4]. This sort of technique is necessary for kava regulation because certain aspects of the chemical composition of kava – specifically the kavalactone quantity – can be affected by growing conditions, such as the climate or the use of particular agricultural techniques [4].

Kavalactones are the active component within kava cultivars and are the factor used for chemotyping different kava varieties. While the early pioneers have identified and classified eighteen different kavalactones, only the six most major or active kavalactones are used to determine or classify a particular kava chemotype: kavain (K), dihydrokavain (DHK), methysticin (M), dihydromethysticin (DHM), yangonin (Y), and desmethoxyyangonin (DMY) [6].

Different kava cultivars have more desirable chemotypes than others and some cultivars are actually potentially dangerous. In Vanuatu only strains of noble kava are legally sold and imported – “The Kava Act” prohibits the sale of all other varieties of Kava. The Kava Act was enacted by the Vanuatu parliament back in 2002 after misinformed accusations about kava causing hepatotoxicity – it is an act that regulates the sales and cultivation of kava [4]. It is now known that certain cultivars were likely responsible for the inconclusive hepatotoxicity studies and furthermore that it was likely prepared in a way that goes against traditional preparation norms. For example, Tudei Kava has been implicated as a possible cultivar that had been used during these studies and this particular cultivar carries a high quantity of flavokavain B, a chemical known to compromise liver functioning [3].

Well my friends – there you have it: a very thorough exposition of “chemotype” with relation to kava kava, or more specifically, the Piper methysticum plant. As you may have picked up from reading this – kava gurus like myself would only ever recommend drinking kava made from regulated strains and cultivars of noble kava and would warn against using the ignoble (Tudei) cultivars as these are likely the source of the hepatotoxicity scares of 2002. So, now you can kick back and enjoy your noble kava, knowing that it has been named appropriately!

To make things a little bit easier for you I’ve thrown together a small list of the most common and desirable noble kava cultivars [1, 9]:

  • Borogu
  • Fu’u
  • Mahakea
  • Boronggoru
  • Melomelo or “sese”
  • Palarasui

Mahalo,

Kava Guru

Sources:

1. “Buy Kava Online”. Kava Dot Com. Accessed July 7th, 2014. http://www.kava.com/?p=512.

2. Douglas Harper. “Online Etymology Dictionary”: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=chemo-

3. INSIDER T.V. “New Science May Boost Kava Market”. Online: http://www.naturalproductsinsider.com/videos/2014/05/insider-tv-new-science-may-boost-kava-market.aspxI

4. Lebot and Patricia Simeoni. “Identification of factors determining kavalactone content and chemotype in Kava (Piper methysticum)”. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Vol. 56: 2008, p. 4976-4981

5. Lynch, John. “Potent Roots and the Origin of Kava”. Oceanic Linguistics, Vol. 41 (2): December, 2002, p. 493-518

6. Teschke, Rolf. March 2011. “Special Report: Kava and the Risk of Liver Toxicity: Past, Current, and Future”. American Herbal Products Association Report 26 (3): 9-17.

7. Wikipedia. “Chemotype”. Last Modified on June 17, 2013: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemotype

8. Wikipedia. “Infrared”. Last Modified on July 6, 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infrared

9. Wikipedia. “Kava”. Last modified on July 1, 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kava

10. Wikipedia. “Near-Infrared Spectroscopy”. Last Modified on May 18, 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Near-infrared_spectroscopy

What Is A Noble Strain of Kava?

Dear Kava Guru,

What is a noble strain of kava?

Matthew,

Raleigh, NC

If you haven’t yet read the Kava Guru’s article, “The Emerging Controversy Around Tudei Kava”, that article provides a more in-depth exploration of the Tudei varieties’ chemistry compared to other kava strains, as well as the emerging controversy about the safety of Tudei kava. Suffice to say the Kava Guru is a little skeptical as to whether all the bad press for Tudei kava in its traditional aqueous form is justified; however, the research for that article made me realize there is another important aspect of kava I haven’t addressed yet. Many of those experienced in the world of kava may know that kava strains are separated into two broad classes, noble and ignoble strains. Only noble kava strains are considered suitable for export in Vanuatu and many other South Pacific regions.

What Makes a Noble Strain of Kava?

In the South Pacific, kava farming was a refined art long before European explorers made it to the region; farmers identified and named different types of kava based on the plants’ physical appearance and that of the brew produced by their roots. Just as importantly, people learned to distinguish different strains of kava by the physical and psychological effects they produced upon consumption. Although indigenous peoples didn’t yet know what kavalactones were, we know they had a well-honed understanding of the physiological effects of different kava strains. This helped them differentiate kava strains into “noble” and “ignoble” types based on these strains’ different ratios of kavalactones, which produced different physiological effects.

Noble Vs. Ignoble or Tudei Kava Strains

Another collective name for ignoble kava strains is Tudei kava, although the category includes some varieties that aren’t explicitly Tudei, such as wild kava, or Piper wichmannii [1]. Other ignoble strains include Isa from Vanuatu, and Palisi from Papua New Guinea. Common to all ignoble kava strains is that their use is culturally restricted to ceremonies and medicinal use in the South Pacific, and none of the ignoble strains is legal to export internationally [2]. Noble kava strains are legal to export either as whole root or processed into herbal kava supplements, and include famous cultivars such as Borogu, Fu’u, and Mahakea [1].

After thousands of years under cultivation by humans, kava has become a very diverse plant; but unlike other commercial crops like apples or tomatoes, kava’s diversity exists not so much in its physical appearance as in the chemistry of its kavalactones and other constituents. To really understand the difference between a noble and ignoble strain of kava, we must look at a little something called chemotype: a chemotype (sometimes also called a chemovar) is “a chemically distinct entity in a plant or microorganism, with differences in the composition of the secondary metabolites. Minor genetic and epigenetic changes with little to no effect on morphology or anatomy may produce large changes in the chemical phenotype. Chemotypes are often defined by the most abundant chemical produced by that individual, and the concept has been useful in work done by chemical ecologists and natural products chemists.” [3]

In the case of kava kava, different kava chemotypes are defined by the concentrations of the six major kavalactones in the kava root [2]. Kava chemists have assigned each kavalactone a number, which you can see below:

1= desmethoxyyangonin
2= dihydrokavain
3= yangonin
4= kavain
5= dihydromethysticin
6= methysticin

A kava chemotype is “typed” based on the descending concentration of these six kavalactones within its roots [2]. This means that a cultivar such as Vanuatu Melo Melo, with a chemotype of 245361, contains primarily dihydrokavain, followed in descending order of concentration by kavain, dihydromethysticin, yangonin, methysticin, and desmethoxyyangonin [2]. To be classified as a noble kava, a strain must have a chemotype that begins with either 2-4 or 4-2, meaning its roots contain primarily either kavain or dihydrokavain [2].

Legal Status of the Noble and Ignoble Kava Cultivars

As set out in the Republic of Vanuatu Kava Act of November 7th, 2002, only noble kava cultivars are legal to export from the archipelago, and those exporters also have to meet strict quality control standards for storing, harvesting and processing their kava, such as ensuring their kava raw material is free of aerial parts of the plant such as stems and leaves [2]. Ignoble kava strains and Piper wichmannii (wild kava) are banned from export, though unfortunately some less-than-scrupulous vendors still try to get around these laws to sell Tudei kava to customers.

Why make this legal distinction between kava cultivars of different chemotypes? Well, it actually has to do with the effects produced in the human body by those different ratios of kavalactones. “Noble” cultivars such as Borogu are higher in smaller kavalactone molecules, such as kavain, that metabolize faster, resulting in a shorter onset and duration of their physiological effects [4]. Because of this, kavain and other smaller kavalactones are thought to have fewer accompanying side effects; kavain in particular is considered a “happy” kavalactone with primarily mental, mood-lifting effects [5].

In contrast, the larger double-bonded kavalactones such as methysticin and dihydromethysticin, found in profusion in Tudei kava as well as wild Piper wichmannii, take longer to metabolize [4]. In fact, the name Tudei kava comes from the fact that these compounds can remain active in the body for up to two days! While many people still seek Tudei kava to take advantage of its long-lasting effects, this increased potency can often come with the pricetag of more undesirable side effects—often nausea or stomach upset, dizziness, headache, prolonged sleep, and drowsiness that can last into the next day [4]. There is also the possibility that Tudei strains may contain notable levels of flavokavain B, a non-kavalactone compound that has the kava community atwitter with studies that it may not be safe for the liver. That controversy is still evolving, and you can read “The Emerging Controversy Around Tudei Kava?” for my full take on it.

In Vanuatu and other South Pacific countries, it is understood that Tudei kavas are not everyday drinking kavas, and only noble kava strains are suitable for everyday use. That said, this doesn’t mean that ignoble kava cultivars have no use in the South Pacific. Actually, some ignoble cultivars such as Isa have specific medicinal uses for conditions such as urinary tract infections and cystitis, and are also used as analgesics [6]. Even more interesting, research has suggested that the very presence of large double-bonded kavalactones that make ignoble varieties unsuitable for casual use may be at the root of these varieties’ medicinal effects, especially analgesia [7]. So it seems even ignoble kavas have some pretty noble uses after all!

REFERENCES

1. “Buy Kava Online”. Kava Dot Com. Accessed July 7th, 2014. http://www.kava.com/?p=512.

2. Teschke, Rolf. March 2011. “Special Report: Kava and the Risk of Liver Toxicity: Past, Current, and Future”. American Herbal Products Association Report 26 (3): 9-17.

3. “Chemotype”. Wikipedia. Last modified June 17th, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemotype.

4. “Kava Definitions: Kava (Piper methysticum) and Types”. Kava Forums: Connecting Kava Lovers Around the World. Last modified May 30th, 2014. http://www.kavaforums.com/forum/wiki/kava-definitions/.

5. “Mahakea Kava: The Happy Kava”. Kona Kava Farm. Last modfied June 1st, 2014. http://www.konakavafarm.com/blog/kava-news/mahakea-kava-the-happy-kava/.

6. “Kava | Strains and Origins”. Wikipedia. Last modified July 1st, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kava#Strains_and_origins.

7. Bruggemann VF and HJ Meyer. 1963. “Studies on the analagesic efficacy of the kava constituents dihydrokavain (DHK) and dihydromethysticin (DHM)” [in German with English abstract]. Arzneimittelforschung 13: 407-409.