Kava is a perennial, dioecious shrub with a lilac odor native to the humid South Pacific in the Piperacea, or pepper family. It grows at altitudes of 500 to 1000 feet in loose, stony, well drained but moist soils in the shady forest understory. Kava has light green, alternating heart shaped leaves that grow down the lengths of their knobby branches. The male flowers sprout up in solitary, auxiliary, greenish white spikes up to six inches long rising up from axils positioned opposite the leaves. Female flowers are virtually unknown, and the kava plant does not seem to reproduce through conventional means. The fruits are berries that contain one seed. The plants can climb up to 20 feet, but those harvested for their medicinal roots are typically done so when they reach about 8 feet. Kava typically produces sterile plants, and even the plants that do produce flowers rarely produce seeds, so the best way to propagate it is through root cuttings.
Kava is an analgesic, antispasmodic, antiseptic, sedative, diuretic, and tonic herb. It is used in western herbalism in small, regular doses to treat anxiety, insomnia, nervousness, stress, agoraphobia, and other anxiety related social disorders. Small doses of the root have shown to reduce anxiety in as little as a week when taken regularly. It can help relieve rheumatic pain and can also be used as a local anesthetic. High doses have been known to cause lethargy, vivid dreams, and drowsiness, and can cause liver damage and intoxication when combined with alcohol or other anxiety drugs.
The root is part of an important ritual and ceremonial drink that is prepared differently throughout the South Pacific, but typically involves grinding, chewing, or pounding of the roots into a grayish tan colored drink. The grinding of kava is often done by hand into a cone shaped block of coral. Not much water is added to the kava, as moisture is released as the kava is ground. If the kava is pounded, it’s done on a large stone with a small log. Cold water is then added and it is consumed immediately. In Vanuatu, a strong, unflavored kava drink is followed by a meal or tea a short time later so that the psychoactives are absorbed into the bloodstream quicker. In Papua New Guinea, the locals in Madang province refer to their kava as “wild cognac”. The Fijians commonly share a popular drink called grog, which is made by mixing cold water into finely pounded, sun-dried kava root and then straining it. It is traditionally drunk from a cleaned half coconut shell, which is called a bilo. Grog is the Fijian social equivalent of sitting around and drinking beers together, which after a few hours has a relaxing and almost numbing effect on the drinkers. It’s known to numb the tongue a bit, so ofter spicy or sweet snack follow the grog. Chewing kava is said to have the strongest effect, and fresh kava is much stronger than the dried root.
Usually available in pill or tincture form; as a pill, look for a standardized extract that contains 60 to 75 mg of kavalactones per capsule, and take as directed. As a tincture, take 1-2 ml twice daily. If using the dried root, 1-2 tsp decocted in a cup of water for 5-10 minutes, then strain. It can be drunk immediately or refrigerated and consumed the next day.
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