When Was Kava First Used?

Dear Kava Guru,

When was Kava first used and can you tell me a little bit about the history of Kava in general?

Mitch, Carmel, CA

In the beginning – a long, long time ago there was kava kava in its most raw and untamed, wildly beautiful and organic form, Piper wichmannii.   The exact origin of Piper wichmannii seems to be indeterminate, although mythical accounts speak of heroes and gods as the  beings responsible for introducing Piper wichmannii to the South Pacific regions, having imported it from some far off nation or spiritual realm [6, p. 14-15].

Although I have reviewed many sources – an exact date or date range does not seem to be identifiable for when or where wild kava kava (Piper wichmannii) was first used before it was domesticated.  As Yadhu Singh, who writes about kava at great length and across many well-cited texts, says: “Kava usage itself is much older than any documented history of this part of the world and oral traditions do not seem to have brought forward relevant, reliable, or consistent accounts” [6, p. 51].

The first dated records of domesticated kava kava (Piper methysticum) surface with the colonization of the South Pacific Islands in the 17th and early 18th century [7, p. 108].  Captain James Cook made records in the 18th century about his visit to the South Pacific that explained the narcotic effects of the kava plant that were experienced by his crewmembers upon ingestion – this log was dated for 1785.  Additionally, there is an even earlier log (1769) of a drawing by Captain Cook’s botanist of the kava plant and it can still be viewed in the London Natural History Museum today [6, p. 5].

John Lynch discusses at some length the linguistic history of the word “kava” and concludes that this information may give some idea of the plant’s domestic origins.  It is possible that the word “kava” has its roots in the Proto-Oceanic term kawaRi – which may refer to the wild kava (Piper wichmannii) that domesticated kava was derived from.  If this is the case, then it is likely that the original use of kava in its wild form was specific to the Oceanic region of Melanesia – and more specifically to Papua New Guinea.   However, botanical evidence seems to suggest that kava kava was first domesticated in Vanuatu [4].  So, ultimately – it seems to be indisputable that kava kava is Oceanic in domestic origin and specifically Melanesian, but whether or not it was first domesticated in Vanuatu or New Guinea is unclear.

Domesticated kava kava or the kava kava that we are all familiar with – Piper methysticum – is consistently referenced as having its origins in Vanuatu.  Although, some sources do fall more in line with the view that domesticated kava kava originated in New Guinea [4].  However, the argument for the Vanuatu origin does make a strong case, by suggesting that New Guinea did not have the resources necessary for domesticated kava cultivation [4]. And given that domesticated kava is dependent upon human interaction for survival [7, p. 108], I would say that this line of argument is also quite possible.

As Lynch mentions, this seems to lead to two veins of thought on the origin of domesticated kava: the origin within Papua New Guinea, and the origin within Vanuatu – neither can be wholly substantiated [4].  As Singh said, kava kava “…might be considered the one item in their material culture that linked together most of the peoples of Oceania” [7, p. 13], indicating just how widespread the use of kava was and still is.

The Historical Usage:

Historically kava kava was primarily used for ceremonial/ritualistic and sociopolitical purposes, although kava kava has also been used for medicinal purposes as far back as the domesticated origins of kava kava.  The ceremonial procedures revolved around a link to indigenous gods and the overall spirituality of the Oceanic peoples – such as an honoring of ancestry. Traditionally, the root and lower parts of kava kava are dried in the sun and then broken down into a powder that is then steeped in water.  The mixture is then massaged and strained using hibiscus tree bark and  distributed in half coconut shells.   However, during less ritualistic ceremonies, such as the installment of chiefs or resolution of conflicts, a cloth is often used instead of the hibiscus tree bark [8, p. 109-110]

The Banning:

Because of the link to non-Christian gods and other spiritual purposes of using kava kava – such as the initiation or lifting of curses – Christian missionaries that first landed in the 17th and 18th centuries proceeded to ban all use and growth of Piper methysticum.  Some missionary groups went so far as to buy kava kava plantations and then have them destroyed. Given the necessity of domesticated strains to be cultivated by humans, the plant died out in many areas across the Oceanic islands due to this forced neglect. Where blatant methods of destruction did not suffice to eradicate all of the plants, missionaries took to attacking the “unsanitary” method of kava preparation – namely, the chewing and spitting of the root into a communal bowl (the saliva aided in the breaking down of the plant’s active substances) [7, p. 113].

However, this monotheistic banning of kava kava was not universal across the islands and some Christian denominations actually began to incorporate the use of kava kava in their own ceremonies [7, p. 115].  I think that this sporadic acceptance of kava kava as well as the colonial accumulation of foreign materials is likely how kava first began to trickle from the South Pacific islands into European countries and elsewhere.

European and Western History:

However, it wasn’t until about 30-40 years ago that kava kava began to seep out of the South Pacific and grow in popularity in the Western and European world.  Kava kava first began to gain popularity locally as the South Pacific Islands gained their political independence and adopted the Piper methysticum plant as a kind of national identifier.   As immigrants from these South Pacific regions began immigrating to the United States and Europe, kava kava began to gain popularity amongst South Pacific cultural pockets within those regions. Once herbal medicine became more widely accepted and gained popularity within the United States and European nations, kava kava naturally grew in popularity as well [6, p. 43-44], and was primarily sought as an alternative to pharmaceutical treatments of anxiety and other neurological disorders.

The Commercialization of Kava:

Kava bars initially began developing across the South Pacific islands and local regions [11].  As these regions gained political independence and adopted the Piper methysticum plant as their national identifier, kava became more and more a socially used plant – although it does still retain its medicinal and ceremonial use [6, p. 43].  As kava became socialized, so to speak, so did the places where it would be frequently consumed – hence the birth of the “kava bar”.

The kava bar has very recently begun making an appearance in Europe and the United States.  Nakava, initially named Nakamal, was the first kava bar to open its doors in the United States of America in 2002 and it has since gained a Floridian following for kava kava – a popularity that has since seeped into other states and will likely continue to grow [1].

A Look to the Future:

Although kava has been banned in Australia and many European countries, such as the ban in Germany as of 2002 [9], there has recently been a growing acceptance of the plant and some European bans were lifted in 2008 [5].   As of yet, there hasn’t been any entirely concrete evidence indicating why kava kava should be banned and it is growing in popularity as a casual drink at kava bars and in European and Western homes.   Furthermore, kava kava has been growing in popularity as a medicinal alternative to Western anxiety medication. German physicians prescribed kava kava as early as 1990 [10].

Many Oceanic countries are driving toward universal acceptance of kava kava and have succeeded in many cases.  Initially the bans greatly agitated the kava trade and production within Oceanic countries, with a claimed annual net loss of $US200 million [9].  This loss was recorded in 2003, just after the 2002 European bans, which would then suggest that these bans greatly affected the kava-growing and trading regions.  However, this would also suggest that with the lifting of many European bans in 2008, the trade will greatly grow and kava culture will likely become stronger and more pronounced as it is more widely accepted.  Additionally, one of the most prominent issues that the European and Western world has had with kava is the lack of standardization.  But, as of 1999 the South Pacific regional organization,  Pacific Island Kava Council, had a meeting and agreed upon publishing a producer’s manual for standardization purposes [6, p. 40-41].

As standardization methods are increased and conspirator scares deflated, it is safe to say that Piper methysticum will live on forever and ever, to give the people of this world all of the calming and beautiful benefits that the peoples of the South Pacific islands have enjoyed for many upon many peaceful centuries past.

Mahalo,

Kava Guru

REFERENCES

1. Bula Kafe. “What is a Kava Bar?” Last modified: October 25, 2010. http://www.bulakafe.com/general-info/what-is-a-kava-bar.html

2. Ives, Laurel. “Make Mine a Kava”.  Sunday Times, London UK: January 31, 2000.  Ed. 1GZ.

3. Krape, Micheal. “Taste of Kava Culture”. Sunday Herald Sun: October 14, 2007.

4. Lynch, John. “Potent Roots and the Origin of Kava”. University of Hawai’i Press: December, 2002. Oceanic Linguistics, Vol. 41 – 2, pp. 493-513.

5. Pollock, Nancs J. “Sustainability of the Kava Trade”.  University of Hawai’i Press: Fall of 2009.  The Contemporary Pacific, Vol. 21 pp. 265-297.

6. Singh, Yadhu N. “Kava: from ethnology to pharmacology”. Taylor and Francis LTD: 2004.

7. Singh, Yadhu N. “Kava: an overview”. Elsevier Scientific Publishers Ireland Ltd: 1992.  Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Vol. 37 pp. 13-45.

8. Singh, Yadhu N. “Kava: An Old Drug in a New World”. University of Minnesota Press: winter of 2009. Cultural Critique, No. 71 pp. 107-128

9. The Fiji Times. “Europe Lifts Ban on Kava”. Suva, Fiji: November 2008. Ed. 17

10. The Province. “Kava is Hot Stuff – Final Edition”.  Vancouver, B.C: January 27, 1999. Ed. B13

11. Wikipedia. “Kava Culture – Vanuatu”. Last modified: February 26, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kava_culture

 

What Is the True Origin of Kava?

Kava Guru,

Where is Kava Kava from?  Did all Kava originate in Oceania, or was it found elsewhere in the world?

Anastasia, Chicago, IL

The question, “Where did kava originate?” has long been of interest to Kava scholars who have done dedicated research on the plant. The quest for a definitive Kava origin has been complicated by the fact that Oceanic cultures have an oral rather than written history [5] —scholars couldn’t conveniently check an indigenous historical record to trace Kava’s origin the way they could with tea or coffee, both of which are surrounded by rich written histories! It was Kava scholar Vincent Lebot who first traced Kava’s origin to northern Vanuatu [2]. More recent botanical and biochemical evidence has helped solidify Vanuatu as the most likely place of origin for kava kava, and Vanuatu has become the most accepted place of origin [3].

Aside from the evidence briefly outlined above – which I will later go into in more detail – there isn’t much else to go by in determining the origin of kava kava as we know it. We know Kava as a drink made from a root of a pepper plant called Piper methysticum, and it is the exact origin of this drink and its uses that escapes us along with the physical origin of Piper methysticum. However, the mythological accounts of kava kava – prior to cultivated uses – do offer a fantastical account of how the wild version of Kava (Piper wichmannii) was graced upon our earth by deities and god’s [6]. But, it is the exact origin of Piper methysticum – the cultivated version of the wild plant – that I will be concerned with here.

Origin Possibilities:

Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is a member of the pepper family Piperaceae, and early taxonomists attempted to trace Kava’s origin to regions of the world where other pepper species were found. Some early (but now generally discounted) theories speculated that Kava originated in South India or Southeast Asia, regions where the pepper species Piper nigrum (black pepper) and Piper longum (long pepper) are found. These arguments trace the similarities of ceremonial and ritualistic procedures in each culture. One scholar suggested an Asian origin for Kava by linking the Kava ceremony to the Chinese tea ceremony [7]! And another scholar outlines the similarities of Kava drinking ceremonies to the ancient Vedic religion of India. There is one ritualistic rule governing Vedic ceremonial traditions that declares that an older brother must offer a sacrifice before his younger brother does and this declaration is directly in line with the order of brothers in a Kava ring ceremonial procedure [5].

One author – John Lynch – actually goes so far as to say that the argument of origin is clearly divided in two: one line arguing for a New Guinea origin and another arguing for an origin in Vanuatu. As was indicated in the introduction, most scholars have accepted Vanuatu as the true origin and Lynch is among those scholars [4]. While I will later go into more detail about why Vanuatu has been accepted as the true origin, I will here briefly outline why there is such a pervasive argument about a possible New Guinea origin.  It is widely accepted that Piper methysticum (cultivated Kava) was domesticated and adapted from Piper wichmannii (wild Kava). Quite simply put, the most prevailing evidence to suggest that domesticated Kava originated in New Guinea is that the largest diversity of wild Kava is found there; New Guinea has the single most diverse population of the Piper wichmannii plant. As the theory goes, Piper methysticum cannot self propagate or at least very rarely does so; the Piper methysticum plant requires human interaction in order to continue growth and adaptation [4]. In fact, domestic varieties of kava kava are said to essentially be sterile and can only be propagated by grafting or dividing the root bundle of a parent plant [2]. Furthermore, there are forty variants of words intended to refer to Kava in New Guinea that have so far been recorded [5]. So, these bits of information have led some scholars to conclude then that New Guinea must be the place of origin of Kava. However, Lynch along with other authors such as Vincent Lebot, still side with the argument that leans toward Vanuatu as the origin of Kava.

Accepted Origin:

Lebot used morphological evidence to argue that kava kava likely originated on Vanuatu [2]. Lebot observed that Vanuatu grows over 80 morphotypes of Kava — Kava strains that are distinguishable based on their physical appearance. In contrast, other South Pacific regions Lebot examined have far fewer morphotypes: 12 in Fiji, 7 in Tonga, and 6 in Samoa. Furthermore, there is also a much greater diversity of names for kava kava in local Vanuatuan languages, which Lebot took to mean that Kava had more time to diversify and spread on Vanuatu than elsewhere. Finally, Vanuatu is also home to two wild varieties of kava kava, while other South Pacific Islands have no wild Kava varieties at all. As a result, Lebot suggests that Vanuatu may have been the point of origin for domestic Kava, which was then spread to other South Pacific islands by trade [2]. Lynch goes on to say then that, if this Vanuatu origin of Kava were correct, Kava would have arrived in New Guinea via Micronesia and Polynesia or perhaps even from Vanuatu through the Soloman Islands [4].

Chemotype Specifics:

Current researchers are trying to narrow down Kava’s point of origin even further within the Vanuatuan archipelago, with some favoring an origin on Maewo Island, or possibly Pentecost Island [3]. This research is focused on identifying clusters of specific Kava chemotypes as a reliable way of determining both Kava’s origin and the pattern in which it spread to other regions of the South Pacific [3]. The Kava Guru understands chemotype to be a very useful tool in identifying different strains of plants and other organisms. While a morphotype refers to strains of a single species that differ in their outward characteristics, a chemotype means a variety of organism (commonly a plant or microorganism) that produces a chemical metabolite that distinguishes it as a class from other varieties of the same species [1]. In essence, plants of the same species can be different chemotypes, meaning they can have the same physical appearance but a different chemical makeup.

In Kava’s case, different chemotypes are defined based on the ratios of kavalactones in their roots. There are five known chemotypes of kava kava, all of which contain differing ratios of kavalactones in their roots. As it turns out, all five chemotypes are represented among the Kava varieties grown in Vanuatu [3]. Kava’s five distinct chemotypes are not found in one place anywhere else in the South Pacific, which further suggests that kava kava may have originated and diversified on Vanuatu before being spread to other South Pacific regions.

Well, there you have it: not only does Vanuatu grow some of the strongest, most medicinal Kava on the market, it may very well be kava kava’s original home. That would certainly explain Vanuatu Kava’s notable, mouth-numbing potency! And with that thought, the Kava Guru is off to the nakamal for the evening…

Mahalo,

Kava Guru

REFERENCES

1. “Chemotype.” Wikipedia, Accessed March 6th, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemotype.

2. Lindstrom, Lamont, Vincent Lebot, and Mark David Merlin. Kava: The Pacific Elixir – The Definitive Guide to its Ethnobotany, History and Chemistry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

3. Lindstrom, Lamont. “History, Folklore, Traditional and Current Uses of Kava”, in Kava: From Ethnology to Pharmacology, edited by Yadhu N. Singh. CRC Press, 2004.

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

5. Singh N. Yadhu. “Kava: An Overview”. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Vol. 37: 1992, p. 13-45.

6. Singh, Yadhu N. “Kava: from ethnology to pharmacology”. Taylor and Francis LTD: 2004.

7. “What is kava?” Kavaroot.com. Accessed March 6th, 2014. http://www.kavaroot.com/what-is-kava

How Many Kava Varieties?

Dear Kava Guru,

How many different varieties of Kava are there, and how do I know which variety to choose?

Kava Lover, Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Any plant that’s been cultivated for a long time tends to branch out into different strains: just as apples, tomatoes, lettuce, and other produce have their varieties, so kava has its treasured strains. This article will help you know what to expect from the most commonly available kava varieties in terms of taste and effects.

Although kava kava is technically one species (Piper methysticum), there are many kava varieties spread out across millions of square miles in the South Pacific. “How many kava varieties are there?” is a question whose answer keeps changing as botanists and phytochemists come up with different methods of distinguishing between strains of kava. Vanuatu alone grows at least 30 and as many as 70 kava varieties depending on the source one consults. However, many Vanuatan kava strains are never exported to the world market because they are classed as “ignoble” strains of unreliable quality and strength. By law, only “noble” strains of kava that have a reliable kavalactone content can be exported from Vanuatu for global trade.

Botanists can often distinguish kava strains by the appearance of kava’s aboveground stems and leaves: kava ranges in color from light to dark green depending on the strain; some strains also have white or purple spots on their stems or leaves. As a consumer, you’re more likely to encounter kava in its powdered root form. Kava powders from different strains will have distinct aromas, colors, tastes, and effects. For instance, some kava varieties can be very uplifting, while others may be sedating and encourage introspection. Likewise, some kava varieties are renowned for their physically relaxing and analgesic effects, while others may work primarily on the mental or emotional plane. The list below will introduce you to the most common strains and their typical effects, so you can make the best choice for your needs.

Fu’u: From Tonga, Fu’u is a very finely ground kava with a complex, nutty, almost coconut or almond-like flavor. It also has very low bitterness. Said to inspire humor, creativity and lively conversation on a wide range of topics, Fu’u is probably best enjoyed at a social occasion with lots of opportunity for conversation.

Tongan White: As the name suggests, this kava is very light tan when prepared —like coffee with a lot of cream—and has a creamy, smooth taste that is quite accessible to the newcomer. It also brews up thicker than other kavas, so you might want to use a bit more water than the typical recipe calls for. Tongan white kava offers palpable muscle relaxation and endows the mind with a calm alertness. Along with Hawaiian Mahakea, many “kavasseurs” mention Tongan white as their favorite kava for relaxing after the workday.

Fijian Kava: Kava seems to have come to Fiji later than other regions of the South Pacific. That didn’t stop Fijians from adopting this healing root as a national staple, and Fijian kava’s stress-relieving and anxiotlytic effects make it easy to see why! Brewing to a rich golden tan, Fijian kava is creamy with an underlying hint of pepperiness and lightly sedating, relaxing effects on the mind and body. Fiji kava helps many people simply feel at ease and is a wonderful variety for relaxing on a weekday night.

Melo Melo: Along with Fu’u, this Vanuatan kava is perhaps the best “party kava” the Kava Guru has encountered. Unlike some varieties that make one want to lay down and contemplate the universe, Melo Melo has a laidback yet euphoric energy that makes us want to get up and dance (though not too fast!), and while the evening away telling stories and cracking jokes. However, as the name suggests, Melo Melo can also be a very “mellow” kava should you decide to approach it that way.

Isa: Also known as Tue Dai or Tudei (pronounced “two day”) kava, the Isa strain from Vanuatu has caused a bit of a kerfuffle in the kava world for its supposed strength, bolstered by the rumor that it is actually Piper wichmannii, the ancient wild relative of kava. As far as the Kava Guru is aware, this claim is marketing hype that has never been confirmed. There is some controversy surrounding Tudei kava strains, however: they can be high in Flavokawain B, a compound that may deplete the liver-protective enzyme glutathione. Since there are so many strains of kava to choose from with purely beneficial effects, in general it may be better to abstain from “tudei” kava cultivars.

Mahakea: Because the Hawaiian Islands are relatively isolated from the rest of the South Pacific, they have given rise to unique kava strains found nowhere else. Take Mahakea: often thought to be the sweetest and least bitter of the kava varieties, Mahakea is rich and earthy with black tea-like undertones. Less cerebral than Vanuatan kavas, Mahakea tends to be very physically relaxing and analgesic, making it helpful for easing sore muscles, headaches, backaches, and general stress relief.

Mo’i: Another famous Hawaiian varietal, Mo’i is often known as the kava of kings: before European Contact, its use was restricted to Hawaiian chiefs and their families—not surprising given its intriguing and unique effects! Mo’i is mentally stimulating and feels physically lighter than other more sedating kava strains. It’s up there with Melo Melo as a euphoric, energizing kava that can make worries disappear and conversation flow freely. With a flavor that is smooth and buttery with hints of cocoa, we believe Mo’i kava really is fit for a king.

With so many varieties of kava, we believe there is a strain to suit everyone—or really several strains, based on your own mood and intention for a particular kava session. When you read the list above, consider what you want to use kava for, as well as the kind of experience you wish to have. You’ll quickly discover the kava varieties that appeal to you!

Mahalo,

Kava Guru

Sources

“Kavasseur: Your Number #1 Source for Kava Reviews and Kava News.” Accessed March 4th, 2014. www.kavasseur.blogspot.com.

“Kava- Strains and Origins.” Wikipedia. Last modified February 21st, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kava#Strains_and_origins

Kilham, Chris. 2000-2005. “Kava, The Plant” in “Kava: an Ethnomedical Review”. University of Massachusetts teaching notes. Last modified March 27th, 2009. https://www.erowid.org/plants/kava/kava_article1.shtml.

“Hawaiian Kava.” Kona Kava Farm. Accessed March 4th, 2014. http://www.konakavafarm.com/kava-hawaiian.html

“Tudei Kava”. Kona Kava Farm. Accessed March 5th, 2014. http://www.konakavafarm.com/kava-tudei.html.

Pure Kava Kava Does Not Cause Liver Damage

Dear Kava Guru,

Can Kava really cause liver damage?

Linda, Carson City, CA

To answer your question simply – there hasn’t been any formal or concrete evidence to indicate that pure kava kava causes liver damage or toxicity. In fact, South Pacific Island populations have been using kava kava (Piper Methysticum) for centuries on end without any known incidences of liver damage [2].

Now for lengthier Kava Guru wisdom on the topic of liver damage:

Kava kava has effects that are said to be similar to those felt from the consumption of alcohol – alleviation of stress, mood elevation, contentment, and overall relaxation.  Kavalactones, the kava compounds believed to grace us with those benefits, have been shown to have anesthetic and muscle relaxation effects as well [1]. Given these much sought-after qualities, it’s no wonder it has been used as a remedy for anxiety, insomnia and other neurological disorders and is steadily growing in popularity!

Additionally, kava kava has been shown to actually improve cognitive functioning, making it a worthy alternative to other neurological medications that impair cognitive functionality. For instance, the University of Maryland Medical Center recently published an article that documents a 2004 case study.  This case suggests that 300mg of kava kava can actually improve cognitive functioning while alleviating anxiety.  As the article also indicates, this is quite a significant result given that standard anti-anxiety medications, like diazepam (Valium), have been proven to cause cognitive impairment [7].

This information could substantiate the reasoning behind the recent evidence that pharmaceutical giants  have conducted false and corrupt reports about kava kava and liver damage, in order to have them banned from hosting countries.   Given that kava kava has become an increasingly popular anti-anxiety, and insomnia remedy, with the added benefit of cognitive improvement – it’s no wonder that some may think that pharmaceutical companies might have a vested economic interest in devaluing kava kava.

Not to mention that there are even reports about “fake kava” being distributed that are actually chemical elixirs intended to induce a “high” and have nothing to do with kava at all! These elixirs are reported to cause some pretty serious health risks due to the types of toxic chemicals used in their preparation and these cases have been lumped in along with other information regarding kava – and it’s not even kava! Inevitably these types of cases end up in skewed and misinformed data regarding kava.

According to LiverTox and the World Journal of Gastroenterology, there are some documented cases indicating that some individuals have had liver damage and in a few cases required liver transplants after using kava kava [2,3].   However, several other sources, including the American Association of Family Pharmacists (AAFP) and the Journal of Toxicology have indicated that there is no evidence of permanent liver damage [5].  Additionally, Yadhu Singh – an author that writes extensively on the subject of Kava – states that these problems were not encountered with the traditionally prepared beverage, which was prepared as a water infusion.  Commercialized Kava extracts, that are extracted with organic solvents, are the source of Kava used in the potential cases of liver toxicity [4].  Further yet, a professor out of  Menzies University – Medical School has studied aboriginal populations of Australian Northern Territories, who were first introduced to kava kava as an alternative to drinking alcohol in the 1980’s, and there were no records of hepatotoxicity related to kava kava during  those studies.   And interestingly enough, the subjects of these particular cases ingested a substantially larger amount of kava kava (10-50 times) than what is recommended by European standards [9].

However, the same studies do address a temporary change in liver functionality.   This change in liver function – namely, fluctuations in the liver enzymes gamma-glutamyl transferase and alkaline phosphatase [2] – may allow for some understanding about the misrepresentation of kava kava with regard to liver damage.  Furthermore, it is important to note that changes that do occur from using kava kava, are temporary – that is, liver functions become normal after a short period of time after using kava kava. Additionally, there is some indication that kava kava ingestion could disable certain enzymes, such as cytochrome P450 and  cyclooxygenase [10]. It is possible that due to the change in liver function, enzymes normally used in the metabolizing of ethanol and other substances may not properly function during the short period of time that kava kava is in the system.  As a result, consumption of alcohol or drugs while taking kava kava could result in liver toxicity.  It is possible that the subjects of documented liver damage cases had a history of alcohol or drug abuse, and that they either had damaged livers prior to the case studies or that they were actively using other substances during the studies.  This toxicity then is not necessarily due to kava kava itself, but is more likely due to the misuse of kava kava with other substances.   It would be wise then to not use kava kava with other substances, and this recommendation does not differ from the solo-usage requirements of other medicinal remedies [6,7].

There is also a body of evidence indicating that cases of kava kava liver damage or toxicity, if any, are due to an improper usage of the plant itself.  The AAFP suggests that cases of liver damage may arise from use of parts of the plant other than the root.   The leaves, stem and other aerial parts of kava kava that are not directly derived from the root, do come up in some bodies of evidence as poisonous or toxic.  Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that the kava extracts, used by the subjects in many of the cases of liver damage, could have been impure (tainted with other substances). Many commercial kava kava extracts contain as much as %60 ethanol, and are labeled as “standardized” simply on the basis that they contain a prerequisite amount of a given substance (in this case, kava kava) [9]. This suggests poor-quality and/or contaminated kava kava raw material, as a possible explanation for toxicity – not pure kava kava derived only from the plant’s roots [5,6,7].

In his discussion of prospective considerations with regard to hepatotoxicity (liver toxicity) due to kava kava, Rolf Teschke thoroughly addresses all of the above reasons for the misinformation surrounding kava kava.  Teschke indicates that in the cases where liver damage has been linked to kava kava, there was evidence of co-medication and improper adherence to dosage recommendations.  He furthermore addresses the possibility that the incorrect, and toxic, parts of the plant were used in those studies.  “By improving kava quality [purity] and adherence to therapy recommendation under avoidance of co-medication, liver injury by kava should be a preventable disease…” (Teschke, p. 1270).

Furthermore, the Journal of Toxicology not only indicates that there have been no cases of liver damage directly and undeniably linked to kava kava, but also that there is no evidence of liver toxicity or damage in Pacific Island populations – populations that have traditionally and properly been using kava kava for centuries [2].

Also, like with pretty much anything, overly high dosages are likely to play a factor in cases of toxicity.  If you take too much kava kava, no matter the source – there are likely to be negative consequences.  It’s probably similar to how a glass of red wine a day has been proven to alleviate stress and be beneficial in other ways – and yet, as we all know, too much alcohol can be quite damaging to our livers!

Kava Guru thinks it breaks down to this: anything in large quantities, or used incorrectly, is going to reap unhealthy results.  Sources suggest that small to moderate dosages of pure kava kava root – not the stem or leaf – do have benefits and are a solid alternative to pharmaceutical methods for alleviation of anxiety, insomnia, pain and other neurological problems.

And if you take nothing else away from reading this, do remember the following three bits of wisdom:

1)   Do not combine kava kava with drugs or alcohol.  Like with most – if not all – other medicinal substances this can not only interfere with the benefit of kava kava, but could also cause liver damage (as stated in more detail above).

2)   Moderate and monitor your use!  If your intended use is for a longer duration of time – such as for medicinal purposes – then do ensure that you seek out a physician specialized in medicinal plants for advice on dosage amounts and duration.

3)  And, as any guru of any product would remind you – always do your research on the vendor! Only buy kava kava from those companies that give you a guarantee that their product is pure kava kava made strictly from the root of the plant.  If they cannot vouch for their purity, that’s probably an assurance that the product is not pure.

If you follow those three points of wisdom, you will be sure to revel in the benefits of kava kava – a comfort that has been quietly enjoyed by the traditional people of the South Pacific islands for many upon many blissfully peaceful centuries.

Mahalo,

Keith @ Kava Guru

REFERENCES:

1. Cassileth, Barrie, PHD.  “Oncology”. United Business Media LLC, San Francisco: April 15, 2011. Vol. 25-4 p. 384-385.

2. Clough AR, Bailie RS, Currie B.  “Liver function test abnormalities in users of aqueous kava extracts”.  Journal of Toxicology. 2003. 41(6):821-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14677792

3. Fu S, Korkmaz E, Braet F, Ngo Q, Ramzan I. “Influence of Kavain on Hepatic Ultrastructure”. World Journal of Gastroenterol. January 28, 2008: 14(4): 541-546. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080222111446.htm

4. Singh, N. Yadhu. “Potential for Interaction of Kava and St. John’s Wort with Drugs”. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 2005.  Vol 100, p. 108-113.

5. Saeed, Bloch, and Diana Antonocci.  “Herbal and Dietary Supplements for Treatment of Anxiety Disorders”.  Association of American Family Physicians, Aug 15, 2007: 76(4) p. 549-556.  http://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0815/p549.html

6. Teschke, Rolf, MD. “Kava Hepatotoxicity: pathogenetic aspects and prospective considerations”. Liver International: October, 2010. Vol. 30-9, p. 1270-1279.

7. University of Maryland Medical Center. “Kava Kava”. Last modified: May 07, 2013. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/kava-kava

8. U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Kava Kava – Piper Methysticum”.  Last modified: March 03, 2014. www.livertox.nlm.nih.gov/KavaKava.htm

9. Whitton, Lau, Salisbury, Whitehouse and Christine S. Evans. “Kava Lactones and the Kava-Kava Controversy”. Pergamon: June 5, 2003. Phytochemistry (64) p. 673-679.

10. Wikipedia. “Kava-Toxicity and Safety”. Last modified: February 21, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kava#Toxicity_and_safety

What Does Kava Taste Like?

Dear Kava Guru,
What does Kava taste like?
Rob, Chicago, IL

Now this is a challenge I’m happy to take on!  First of all, let me say that I have yet to meet someone who has been introduced to kava kava who hasn’t needed to acquire a taste for it.  As my wife said when she tried kava for the first time; “You really have to want to drink this.”

This isn’t to say the taste of kava is unpleasant.  Certainly not.  Even for those who find the bitterness something they’re not used to, especially in the West, don’t think the taste itself is necessarily unpleasant.  A comment we hear often is that kava has an “earthy” flavor to it.  That’s not to say that kava tastes like dirt!  I would agree with the assessment that kava has an earthy flavor.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for this complex plant.

For me, I would say that kava is something like unsweetened Turkish coffee.  It’s a strong coffee that has the coffee grounds still in it when consumed.  That’s not entirely accurate either, but it gives you a general idea of what to expect.  Imagine a very earthy coffee with the consistency of a milkshake.  The fact is, is a kava beverage made from fresh kava roots is much thinner than kava that’s made from the kava powder that’s typically commercially available.  Whether you extract kava yourself or purchase it as an instant mix, unless you double the amount of liquid that the instructions tell you to use, the kava drink will be a bit thick.

And the bitterness of kava is difficult to cover with just about any kind of sweetener.  Personally, I’ve found that the traditional mixers for kava continue to be the best at “masking” the bitterness of kava.  And those two key mixers/extractors for kava are coconut water or pineapple juice.

That’s my guess why kava is still a relatively obscure “afcionado” type of dietary supplement instead of a household name; it takes some work to get past the taste if you want to enjoy this complex plant as it has been used traditionally for thousands of years.

The good news is that making kava into a drink isn’t the only way to enjoy this dietary supplement.  There are pastes, cordials, capsules, and even a couple of beverages that have begun to appear on the market.  With kavalactone pastes, you still need to taste the kava, but it’s just a small pea-sized amount that can be swallowed quickly.  Capsules, of course, have virtually no flavor of their own.  But traditionally, kava has been drunk in a single gulp from a half coconut shell.  (A single round of kava brew is called a “shell of kava”.)

I can say this:  of all those who worked to acquire a taste for kava, about 75% of those I’ve introduced to kava have discovered the subtle complexities of the root.  They’ve found a mixer that they actually enjoy blended with kava, and find the taste quite pleasing.  For me, working to acquire a taste for kava changed me forever.  Now, I begin and end each day with a shell; it energizes me in the morning, especially when I eat a healthy breakfast with fruits and grains, but it has the opposite effect in the evening, when I slow down, unwind, and gulp down a shell of kava.  It gives me a relaxed, gentle repose that melts away the stress of my day.

Mahalo,
Kava Guru