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 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.

How to Grow Kava Kava

How to Grow Kava Kava“But Kava Guru,” you may ask, “why learn how to grow kava kava when there are so many online retailers offering products almost as new and potent as the fresh variety?” While it is pretty easy to get high-quality dried kava root at reasonable prices these days, there’s still a difference between kava brewed from fresh roots and that brewed from the dried variety. This why many “kavasseurs” decide to take the next step in their kava appreciation by growing kava at home! If you want to try growing kava at home, search for a kava vendor selling live seedlings or rootstock. Make sure that you have somewhere to store all of your equipment and tools before you start growing your kava. Something like these prefab cabins may be the perfect outbuilding that you need to have for your garden so you can make your plants the best they can be. They could also be an ideal solution for storing your garden furniture in, so once your plants have grown, you will be able to admire them in all their glory. Keep in mind that domesticated Piper methysticum (kava kava) plants are sterile-meaning they produce no seed-and new plants must always be grown from cuttings or the root bundle of the plant. Kava kava has relied on humans for its propagation for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Basic Requirements of Kava Kava

As a tropical plant, kava kava is happiest at temperatures of 68-80 degrees Fahrenheit (20-25 Celsius), and in conditions with lots of water, sun and moderate humidity [1]. If you live in a warm southern state, say Florida, Texas, Southern California or of course Hawaii, you may just be able to keep kava happy outside all year long! Residents of more northern states can usually still plant kava outside in the summer, but should take it inside or to a greenhouse once temperatures drop to 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 Celsius) or below for three consecutive nights. In nature, kava kava usually grows under the jungle canopy, so it does best with partial shade rather than full sun, especially when young; a good indoor solution is to keep kava in a pot next to a sunny window to provide good light conditions or you may want to store it within a light deprivation greenhouse here and there to mimic natural growth [1]. You might even want to buy an LED light to ensure your plants get the correct level of sunlight. Check out agron.io to learn more about this.

Watering and Soil Requirements

Pot your kava kava plant in loose soil that allows for water drainage to prevent root rot: growers usually recommend a blend of 50% organic compost and 50% Perlite or coconut coir. Remember, kava evolved to expect regular rainfall in its jungle habitat, so water your kava regularly! If you’re growing it in a drier environment such as indoors, you’ll probably want to mist your kava’s leaves with a spray bottle to maintain a good level of humidity. Make sure to keep it away from air conditioning vents (or areas of high wind, if outside), as it could dry out your kava plant [1]. When kava kava is young, it typically needs a soil depth of between 6 inches to a foot to put down roots; however, as it matures kava will require much deeper soil so that its root system can expand. One method is to repot kava in your garden bed: select an area where the soil is at least 2 feet deep, then dig a hole 2 to 3 times deeper than the length of your kava plant’s roots. Add a couple trowelsfull of compost, manure, or fertilizer (see below for the recommended fertilizer ratio!). Then backfill the hole with about half the loose soil you just removed, place your kava plant into the hole and gently tamp the loose soil around the base of the stem [2].

Fertilizer Requirements

As a jungle plant, kava kava rapidly depletes nutrients in the soil, so it will definitely do best with a rich fertilizer in the mix. You can add a natural humus, animal manure, or even a commercial nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) fertilizer. If you go with an NPK fertilizer, use an element ratio of 14-14-14; when the plant is young, use about the half the manufacturer’s recommended dose to avoid burning the young kava’s roots, which can lead to root rot-definitely not something you want! Once your kava has reached maturity at one or two years, you can add more fertilizer. Replenish your kava plant’s fertilizer once a month. A bonus of adding fertilizer is that it helps the soil maintain a pH balance of between 5.5-6.5, which mimics that of the soil in kava’s indigenous jungle habitat [3].

Protecting Kava from Pests and Disease

It’s pretty rare for kava grown in the home or garden to have disease or pest problems, but it can happen. Some pathogens kava is susceptible to include phoma or “shothole” fungus, cucumber mosaic virus (CMV), Pythium root rot, root knot nematodes, melon aphids, and spider mites. Whew! The most common causes of these pathogens is diseased or infested starting material, and poor growing conditions that make the kava plants susceptible to infection. Buy your kava plants in person if possible, or if ordering online, check them as soon as your shipment arrives to make sure the plants don’t show signs of disease like wilted or curled leaves, holes or spots on leaves, or roots that might be swollen, deformed, or rotted. Compost any diseased looking plants you find, and don’t mix the compost in with healthy plants [2]. Poor growing conditions can also contribute to disease, especially poor soil drainage, so always make sure your plant’s soil drains well; maintaining a moderate level of humidity can also go a long way toward deterring pests like spider mites and aphids. You can also usually wash pests off kava leaves with a strong jet of water, or apply a gentle insecticidal soap to the leaves-just make sure not to let it dry on them. Sprinkling a little diatomaceous earth around the top of the soil can also help control soft-bodied insects [2]. This should work for most people, but unfortunately, some people will have a harder time with it than others. If the water or insecticidal soap doesn’t make much of a difference to their visit, it may be time to think about bringing in a pest control expert, similar to these experts from Nebraska (https://www.pestcontrolexperts.com/local/nebraska/) so that they can make them leave for good. You don’t want pests to disturb your Kava so you must try everything you can to get rid of them.

How to Propagate Kava Kava

Let’s say your kava plant is growing wonderfully and you’ve started to think about getting some seedlings started. There are two ways to propagate kava plants, both of them fairly easy once you get the hang of it [4]. The first method is to divide your kava plant’s root bundle: gently pull your kava plant from its pot or garden bed and brush off any excess soil. Then divide the root mass in places where you see smaller root masses branching off-this may be easiest at the edges of the root mass, where there are usually many root offshoots. Remove the offshoots and repot them in smaller containers, then replant the parent plant, and you’re done! A Young Kava Seedling

Young kava seedlings can be grown from root or stem cuttings.

Once your kava plant has sufficiently matured, you can also take stem cuttings to make new kava seedlings. These are areas along kava’s aboveground stem, usually near the nodes, where new leaves branch off on daughter stems called pikos. To make sure your plant is mature enough, wait until the stem is tough enough that you can’t easily penetrate its skin with a thumbnail. Use a clean blade to remove greenwood stem cuttings from the stalk, and pot up the cuttings in a loose mixture of organic compost and vermiculite or coconut coir. Place the cuttings in a greenhouse ( to create humidity) or a heated propagator. You can also place a loose plastic tarp over the cuttings and mist the inside periodically to maintain humidity [4].

Harvesting Your Kava Root

Ah, now we get to the part you’ve all been waiting for! Growing kava is a project that takes patience, not least of all because you must wait 2 to 5 years for kava to fully mature before harvesting its roots. Harvesting kava before at least one year of age (ideally two or more) could kill or seriously harm the plant. This will also give time for the accumulation of kavalactones in the roots, making for a stronger kava brew [3]! Luckily, kava kava is easy to harvest: simply pull the roots gently from the soil, wash off the rootstock, and snip off a few lateral roots. These are the roots growing along the soil. Lateral roots are generally considered to be higher in kavalactones and have a better flavor than the vertical root [3]. After repotting your plant, examine the harvested roots and discard any that have mold on them. Cut the fresh roots into small sections, and freeze or sun dry any that you don’t plan to use immediately. Now you have your very own supply of exquisitely fresh, potent kava root. Yum! Mahalo, Kava Guru REFERENCES 1. “Kava Plant for Sale”. Buy Kava Direct. Accessed June 2nd, 2014. http://buykavadirect.com/kava-plant-for-sale/. 2. Green, Jenny. “How to Grow Kava Kava”. eHow. Last updated May 29th, 2014. http://www.ehow.com/how_4421053_grow-kava-kava.html. 3. “Kava Plants”. Kona Kava Farm Accessed June 6th, 2014. http://www.konakavafarm.com/kava-plants.html. 4. “Growing Piper methysticum– Kava Kava”. Plot55. Accessed June 5th, 2014. http://plot55.com/growing/p.methysticum.html.

Is Kava Better Fresh?

Dear Kava Guru,

Is Kava better fresh?

Karen,

Wichita, KS

This is a question for the true kava aficionado—one who has deeply explored all the facets of kava, the many tasty and enjoyable varieties, and is now wondering what more can be done to maximize the kava experience. Is kava better fresh is certainly a question the Guru has also pondered, and when given the chance, I would say the experience of fresh kava is not to be missed!

In the South Pacific, kava brews made from fresh roots are often the norm. Though kava roots are usually dried before being sold at market or given away as gifts, in informal village get-togethers the root is often prepared fresh. This means that more effort must be put into processing the kava: while dried roots can be easily pounded into a powder using a mortar and pestle, due to their moisture content the fresh roots are more resilient and must be shredded or chewed—still a common practice in some South Pacific regions—before being steeped in cool water [1]. However, this effort may well be worth it!

There are three main reasons why kava may be even better fresh than dried: higher strength, sweeter flavor, and the certainty that you’re getting a single strain of kava. Read on as I share my guru wisdom about the points in favor of fresh kava root!

Strength: First on the list is that all-important factor when choosing kava—strength! Fresh kava root often has the reputation of being stronger than the dried root [2], and there are two very simple reasons why this is probably so. First of all, fresh kava root is, well, fresh! When you buy fresh you know for certain that the kava root was harvested from the plant only a few days ago and the kavalactones have had little time to degrade [3]. Though dried kava root or root powder lasts longer if properly stored, if it has been stored in suboptimal conditions it can lose a great deal of its strength.

The second reason fresh kava may be stronger is because it is sold whole rather than pre-ground. This has to do with surface area: once the root has been peeled, the kavalactones in kava (being somewhat volatile) can escape when exposed to the air over time. When kava root is ground into a fine powder, it creates LOTS of surface area for compounds to escape from, because each granule of kava root is exposed to air [4]. In contrast, the whole fresh root has a smaller overall surface area, which seals in most of the root matter and its constituents from the air. For a useful analogy, think about coffee beans: baristas and coffee gurus everywhere always tell us that whole bean coffee is better than ground for the same reason—whole beans lose fewer constituents to the air and thus retain their full flavor for much longer.

Single Strain: Perhaps more important to the kava connoisseur, but certainly worth noting as well, is that when you buy fresh kava root you know you’re getting a single strain of kava. Powdered kava root, as well as products like instant kava and kava capsules, may often be a blend of different kava strains rather than a single-origin cultivar. Again, this is totally fine if you simply want to use kava to relax and unwind; all kava strains have their merits and I would be overstepping my bounds by declaring one strain to be better than the others (though the Kava Guru has his favorites, heh heh). Yet if you’re interested in getting to know kava’s various strains and their individual effects, perhaps to employ them for a specific medicinal use…then obtaining whole kava root, fresh or dried, is absolutely the way to go!

Flavor: Another reason for the buzz around fresh kava root is simply that it may taste sweeter than the dried version. There’s reason to think the drying process may affect the ratio of chemical constituents in kava root (especially the older, vertical roots), resulting in a bitterer brew than that made from fresh kava root [2]. Now, kava is quite a chemically complex plant, so it makes sense that even a simple heat treatment such as sun drying could affect its overall flavor. If you’re someone who finds the taste of dried kava less than agreeable, it might be worthwhile to seek out the fresh variety.

However, don’t despair if you can’t order fresh kava where you are; there are ways to get the most out of dried kava for an experience approaching the fresh variety. Check out strains of kava known to be sweeter even when dried, such as Tongan kava or Hawaiian Mahakea kava. You can also look for kava powders with a high lateral to vertical root ratio, as the young lateral roots of kava tend to be sweeter (and may be stronger as well). To prevent your dried kava from losing strength, try buying the whole dried kava root or kava root chips and shred or grind them as needed to prepare your kava. Store dried kava powder in an airtight bag away from extremes of heat or moisture, and it should last about 3-6 months. Even better, if stored in a vacuum bag in the freezer, dried kava powder can last indefinitely!

Mahalo,

Kava Guru

REFERENCES

1. “I was so drunk on kava last night I…” The Traveling Editor Blog. Accessed May 14th, 2014. http://www.thetravellingeditor.com/i-was-so-drunk-on-kava-last-night-i/.

2. “How to Use Kava”. Kona Kava Farm. Accessed May 14th, 2014. http://www.konakavafarm.com/kava-how-to-use.html.

3. “Fresh Kava Root.” Buy Kava Direct. Last modified August 3rd, 2012. http://buykavadirect.com/fresh-kava-root/.

4. Kealoha, Makaira. “How Do I Use the Whole Kava Root and Kava Root Chips?” Makaira’s Kava Blog. Last modified August 7th, 2012. http://www.konakavafarm.com/blog/ask-makaira/how-do-i-use-whole-kava-root-and-kava-root-chips/.

What is Kava Root?

Dear Kava Guru,

What is Kava Root?

This is difficult to believe, but it was pointed out to me recently that I’ve never actually addressed the most basic of questions regarding something as simple as what exactly Kava root is.  It’s further evidence that the obvious is what often escapes me, but I will make up for that oversight by shedding some light on my favorite plant in the world!

Kava root is of course, first and foremost – a root – the root of the Piper methysticum plant. But, just what does this mean on a broader basis? Well, below are a few personal insights as to what Kava root is in its entirety, right down to its bio-constitution.

Kava Root Overview:

First off, it’s important to realize that when people refer to commercial Kava or Kava supplements more generally – they are referring to the root of the Kava plant. The other parts of the plant or aerial parts (parts above ground – not including the lateral root) are absolutely no good to us! The leaves, stem, and other sub-components of these upper parts of the Kava plant are actually hazardous to our health, as they can be poisonous [5]. It’s quite possible that these other parts of the plant are the source of the problems indicated by infamous cases of Kava and liver toxicity. There have been reported cases of Kava causing liver toxicity – cases that have since been proven to be unsubstantiated – and it’s quite possible that Kava was actually misused in these cases [4]. So, remember when discussing Kava as a supplement that is ingested, we are referring only to the Kava root and not to the entire plant. The dried Kava root used to produce Kava root powder has the highest kavalactone content at 15% of its constitution, while the rest of the root is made up of starch, fibers, sugars and proteins – which are all good things [7].

Rootstock Anatomy – Lateral vs. Underground Root:

Plant roots are composed of various parts and all plants have roots of some kind, which are responsible for many biological functions, but are primarily for nutrient and water uptake. Some vascular plants, including Piper methysticum (Kava or ‘Awa), have both lateral or aerial (above ground) roots and underground roots [6]. The lateral roots can serve many purposes, including nutrient reception from the air or even aeration of the plant.

While it is known that these lateral roots start to develop after Piper methysticum’s initial three-year maturation [3], the exact purpose of the lateral roots are unclear. However, my guru senses lead me to believe that it is likely that the aerial roots allow the plant to gain certain nutrients from sun exposure that it wouldn’t other wise have access to if all of its roots were underground. The reason I speculate this is that the amount of kavalactones in the lateral roots are increased upon sun exposure – indicating that increased sun does interact with the lateral root chemistry in some way [2, p. 40].

Given that the sun-drenched aerial roots of the Kava plant are brimming with kavalactones (more so than the underground roots), the most potent/strongest Kava is made from these lateral roots. Kavalactones are the compounds in a Kava plant that are to be thanked for all of the wonderful benefits and pleasurable outcomes of having a Kava root beverage [1] – so, it’s no wonder that processes of cultivation have led us to be more attracted to the potent aerial roots!

Although underground roots are also used in the production of Kava supplements and are more abundant than the lateral roots [3] – they aren’t the best option when it comes to choosing what Kava supplements you would like to take. There are a host of reasons as to why the lateral roots are used more often. For one, underground roots are less potent, as mentioned above. Additionally, they are more difficult to harvest. Furthermore, on more of a tragic vein – much of the plant must be destroyed in order to get at the underground roots [3]. Why would we want to destroy a plant to get at the less beneficial parts, when we could just snip away at the lateral roots and get a higher quality Kava root? We wouldn’t! That’s why the highest quality and morally intact Kava supplement you can get is from the lateral Kava root, while the underground root is used in the cheaper, lower-quality options.

Kava Variants:

Many years of cultivation and genetic pruning of the Piper methysticum plant have allowed it to travel and grow in regions of the planet that are best suited to its prime development. The wild version of Piper methysticumPiper wichmannii – hasn’t had the care and tender support of educated farmers and as a result tends to have lower amounts of kavalactones. This is why Hawaii has become known as a prime source of Kava root – it has all of the resources to cultivate and care for the highest quality of Kava [2, p. 40]!

Different varietals of the Piper methysticum plant have different levels and types of kavalactones, but the Hawaiian varietals – or the cultivars primarily used in growing Kava in Hawaii – have been developed over the years to have the highest quantity of potent kavalactones. There are three kavalactones in particular that Hawaiian cultivars are known for: kavain, methysticin, and dihydrokavain. And no wonder Hawaii is known for its Kava – those three kavalactones have been dubbed as the perfect concoction for “fast-acting and pleasant experiences” [2, p. 31]!

According to Wikipedia, “…one of the most potent strains of Kava is called ‘Isa’ in Papua New Guinea, and also called ‘Tuday’ in Hawaii. In Vanuatu, it is considered a type of ‘Tudei’ kava, pronounced as ‘two-day’ because it is said to have effects lasting two days due to its chemical profile being high in the kavalactone dihydromethysticin. The plant itself is a strong, very hardy, fast-growing variety with multiple light to dark green stems covered with raised dark spots.”

When it comes to kava, though, “most potent” certainly does not necessarily mean it’s the best.  If you’re curious to find out why, read some Facebook comments regarding this topic, the Kava Forums Tudei post with an opposing viewpoint, or a recent study regarding “Flavokawain B, the hepatotoxic constituent from kava root“.

What About Those Kavalactones?:

According to James A. Duke, “Phytochemicals called kavalactones produce kava’s stress-beating, muscle-relaxing influence.  Each produces a somewhat different physiologic effect in the body and all of them working together are better than any of them acting alone.” [8]

For someone who simply enjoys Kava as the best natural means I know of to calm my mind outside of meditation or surfing, what had intrigued me most about these mysterious kavalactones, are finding out which ones are most responsible for the pleasurable effects of Kava.  Many years ago, just some cursory digging in my favorite Kava books got me the answer I wanted and in detail, summarized below.

In 1989, the true guru of Kava; Vincent Lebot and J. Lésque and a subsequent paper entitled “The origin and distribution of Kava (Piper methysticum Forst. f., Piperaceae): A phytochemical approach”, they assigned numbers to the 6 major kavalactones.  As mentioned above, there are about 18 known lactones in Kava, but just 6 of these account for 90% of the total Kavalactone content, and subsequently, for most of the effects Kava produces.

These 6 major lactones are as follows:

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

These 6 numbers have become the accepted system for not only identifying the overall amounts of Kavalactones in relation to each other within a single sample of Kava Root, but the 6 digit code that is generated from a single Kava sample can also be used to identify its geographical location.  How?  Well, each region of the world produces a very unique cultivar of Kava due to it’s own unique weather patterns, sunlight intensities, soil composition, and even the elevation that the Kava plant grows.  All of these factors, including human propagation and selection over the past 3,000 years, gives Kava a distinct “fingerprint” that is extremely consistent in the Kavalactone content within that regions main cultivar of Kava.  And it’s the combination of the 6 major kavalactones that provide the range of effects.

One example of this is the Borogu Kava variety from the Islands of Vanuatu.  This particular variety is famous for its psychoactive effects throughout Oceania.  It has the 6-digit sequence of 245613, with dihydrokavain followed by kavain as its highest concentration kavalactone constituents [9].  Those seeking for “happy” kava, typically seek out the Vanuatu cultivar of Kava, and specifically the Noble Vanuatu variety.  “Noble” is a name that’s reserved for just a few cultivars of Vanuatu Kava.  They are prized for their excellent “drinkability” as well as the quite noticeable effects on the mind.  We know that Bula Kava House offers only Noble varieties of Vanuatu Kava, as does Kava Dot Com.

And In Closing:

Now you have more than a basic understanding of what the Kava root is when it comes to the drinking kind of Kava root. You also now know the important distinction between lateral root and underground root and can do your research on various vendors to determine which one has the highest quality of Kava as well as the Kava with the “Kavalactone lineup” that you prefer most.  If you choose to go with lower quality products that is, of course, up to you – but do remember that it’s always wise to be advised.  Whether you choose the Tudei Kava, go with a Noble Vanuatu cultivar, or find a Fijian Kava that, as Bula Kava House says offers “an inner warmth and mental bliss”, part of the joy of Kava and the many varieties found around the web is simply trying out as many as you can, and discovering your own ‘awa ‘uhane (Kava spirit) in the process!

Mahalo,
Kava Guru

Origins


The origins of the Piper Methysticum variety that most simply know as “Kava Kava”, may have derived from a different plant altogether, called Piper wichmannii.  Piper wichmannii is indigenous to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.  According the “Kava: The Pacific Elixir“, the argument has been made that there is “convincing morphological, checmical, and genetic grounds for considering these two taxa of Piper to be wild and cultivated forms of the same species.”  What exactly does that mean?  It means that Piper methysticum consists of several sterile cultivars (Kava does not reproduce sexually; it’s by cuttings only) cloned from P. wichimannii in a selection process throughout the early history of Kava Kava.  It appears that the psychoactive effects were what was most revered by early cultivators, so of course, the plants that produced the most pleasant and/or the strongest psychoactive effects, were the cultivars that were selected for cloning and subsequent transplanting.

Folklore


Evidence shows that the earliest kava consumption, always in the form of a drink, was more closely associated with ancestor worship.  Each morning, in the house of an ancestor known as a “būrau”, prepared kava as an offering to the village ancestors.  There were priests, so it was definitely a religious ritual of some kind, but evidence is scant for the early uses, partly due to the missionaries and conquerors attempting to completely obliterate the consumption of kava.  It was not only thought to be the “work of the devil”, it was deemed “unhygenic” because the method of preparation involves chewing the leaf, and spitting it out into a 4-legged bowl called a “tanoa”.

Traditional Preparation


According to Clunie and Tora at the FIji Museum in Suva (capital of Fiji), the practice of chewing the rootstock to prepare the kava drink was actually borrowed from Tonga in the late 1700′s.  Clunie also suggested that 18th century Christian Missionaries encouraged the move from Fijian preparation styles to the Polynesian style of pounding the root with rocks, adding it into water, and then filtering it through Hibiscus tiliaceus bark.  (The early Fijian style was to filter the kava through “bracken fern leaves held in a woven canister-like device.)

Sources:

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

2. Johnston and Rogers, Helen. “Hawaiian ‘Awa: Views of an Ethnobotanical Treasure”. Association for Hawaiian ‘Awa: Hilo, HI, 2006.

3. Kava Dot Com. “Kava Root”. Online: http://www.kava.com/?p=970.

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

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

6. Wikipedia. “Root”. Last Updated, March 26, 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Root#Root_growth

7. Wikipedia. “Kava”. Last Updated, April 5, 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kava#cite_note-5

8. Duke, James A. 2000. The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook: Your Comprehensive Reference to the Best Herbs for Healing.  Rodale Books.

9. Lebot, Vincent, Mark Merlin, and Lamont Lindstrom. 1992. Kava: The Pacific Drug. New Haven, Yale University Press.