by Dennis McClain-Furmanski (dynasor.infi.net)
Kava-kava (Piper methysticum) is a plant native to the Pacific Islands, originally from the island of Vanuatu. Following the influx of missionaries over the last century, its cultivation and use has decreased but not disappeared. Several botanical houses in the US and elsewhere have begun regular cultivation. The supply remains low, as the harvest rotation period is from 1.5 to 5 years. Restrictions on import have been considered and may be imminent, meaning only locally grown supplies will be available. Indigenous growths are now being protected as endangered in some areas, but this does not preclude cultivation.
Kava is more of a social and ceremonial preparation than it is medicinal. Its primary action is as a relaxant, and at high levels an intoxicant and divinitory preparation. In normal use, the kava drinker becomes relaxed and sociable, and may later drift off into revery. Large doses, as used by village chieftains and seers, induces a trance-like state with vivid dreaming. It is still used in some areas as a medicinal liniment, being prepared there as a tincture. Modern use of kava has included a preparation given to electroshock therapy patients as a muscle relaxant.
The active constituents of the plant, such as the lactone resins yangonine and kawaine, are found primarily in the root rhizomes, although some preparations such as the Hawaiian liniment make use of the fresh stem. Most preparations use chopped root material. There are some commercial products in the form of tablets made from a powder, but these tend to suffer in strength, apparently due to excessive drying.
Use of kava requires bringing the insoluble resins into emulsion. Traditional preparation is done by chewing the stems and spitting them with copious saliva into a bowl, to which water and coconut juice is added. The mixture is then kneaded and strained through fiber and drunk immediately.
A more palatable preparation is to wrap about an ounce in a single layer of plain cotton cloth or a few layers of cheese cloth, and tied off to form a ball. This is dunked in a quart or so of water, lifted and squeezed out, repeating this until the bubbles forming from the dripping water tend to remain on the surface of the water -- about 10 to 15 minutes. As with the traditional preparation, this tastes strongly musty and not particularly pleasant. It is drunk immediately in gulps. A tablespoon of sugar helps, and my favorite additive is a tablespoon of Ovaltine or other malted mixture. Most non-traditional preparations such as herb teas and other mixtures are either too low a dosage or improperly prepared and so are ineffective, most probably due to the bad taste of effective dosages.
A tincture is made by soaking the chopped root material in 3 times its volume of alcoholic liquor such as brandy or gin. This is shaken daily over 2 or 3 weeks and then strained. Internal use is 1 to 2 ounces, and external use is an ounce rubbed into sore muscles or soaked into a cloth which is laid over the affected area.
Some reports have been made regarding chewing and swallowing fresh root. All the same effects are noted, with the addition of a decongestant-like opening of breathing passages. This is only in healthy individuals; there is no true decongestant effect in congested individuals.
Heavy daily use of kava for years has been reported to cause dry, flaking skin, yellowing of the eyes and persistent lethargy. The doses involved are those used by local chiefs and visionaries, and normal recreational or medicinal use will not cause this. When this syndrome does appear, 2 to 3 weeks of abstinence cures it. Reports of lowered peripheral blood flow seem to be anecdotal only.
The plant itself is available from some ethnobotanical houses, and seems to thrive even in non-tropical conditions, though it still requires indoor cultivation.