We’re guessing you probably don’t know much about Kava – and that’s okay.
The mysterious medicinal plant has mostly kept to the Pacific islands over the years, and is only now starting to make a name for itself among the wellness gurus of the Western world.
But with its strange history and enticing array of exotic uses, it might be the most interesting plant you never knew you wanted to know about.
First thing’s first: What is Kava?
Technically, it’s piper methysticum, the plant’s scientific name, but it also masquerades as ‘awa, ‘ava, yaqona, sakau, seka or malok, depending on which Pacific island you’re perched on.
In its native tongue, Tongan, “kava” translates to “bitter,” pointing out the prevailing flavor profile of the plant. But the meaning behind its scientific name, “intoxicating pepper,” may paint a better picture of what the plant has to offer.
And not necessarily the pepper half of that equation.
Kava mostly takes the form of a shrub, and, in fact, very rarely produces fruit. But the “intoxicating” claim is a different story.
That’s thanks to kava’s patented kavalactones, a plant compound clustered primarily in the roots of the shrub.
Much like the cannabinoids found in the hemp plant, kavalactones have been found to impact the body in a number of ways, purportedly producing a number of physical and psychotropic effects.
The end result has been described as anything from stress relief to mild euphoria to something similar to an alcohol buzz, but scientists are just starting to look deeper into why the plant may make us feel these ways – and how to potentially use it to our biological benefit.
In fact, the plant has been used for medicinal purposes for more than 3,000 years in its native Pacific islands.
It first sprouted up in the islands of Vanuatu, but it wasn’t long before whispers of the plant’s potential powers started speeding its growth, with seafaring natives taking kava with them everywhere from Polynesia and Micronesia to Fiji, New Guinea and Australia.
Traditionally, the plant was popularly ingested by boiling kava roots and leaves to make tea. In the South Pacific, kava tea is at the heart of a number of different cultural ceremonies, many of which are meant to bring communities together on a spiritual level by sharing cups of the buzzy stuff.
Another former customary way to reap the plant’s benefits was by chewing on kava leaves, but when the Pacific islands were colonized by the French and British, the Western rulers saw the act of chewing – and especially spitting – obnoxious and widely outlawed the practice.
Instead, natives then turned primarily to the tea, or making kava powder by drying out the kava root and pounding it into dust.
Nowadays, the use of kava is primarily restricted to dietary supplements, which come in a range of forms, from powders and pills to tinctures and teas.
It’s worth noting that the FDA has yet to approve any of these products for medical use, so if you want to explore the world of kava supplements, make sure to do your research first.
Still, it’s also worth noting that scientists are starting to discover that the benefits of the plant may be worth more than a placebo.
Indeed, kava has gained a recent reputation for its powers to calm, being touted by some in the scientific and wellness worlds as an all-natural anxiety remedy and even as an insomnia aid.
Research is still primarily in the early phases, but some have posited that kavalactones impact the body by interacting with the limbic system, AKA the wonderful and frustrating area of our brains responsible for triggering our fight or flight response.
By quieting receptors in the area, the theory goes, the enzymes involved in kavalactones work to help us keep an even keel – which manifests as smoother stress management and, for those afflicted with sleep depravation, an easier time relaxing enough to catch some z’s.
In fact, two Australian studies found kava to be more effective than a placebo at aiding anxiety, and one study conducted in Germany also saw kava provide “significant relief” from insomnia.
But nothing in this world is without its faults, even plants that may help us.
More well-documented than kava’s benefits are the potential drawbacks of ingesting the plant, including indigestion, numbness of the mouth, headache, rash and drowsiness.
Perhaps most serious is a link between kava and liver toxicity. A few cases saw a connection between heavy kava supplement users and liver damage, though many of the cases included a slew of other unfortunate factors, like pre-existing liver disease and heavy alcohol use.
Once again, it’s best to do research on kava – or any dietary supplement you may be interested in trying – before taking the plunge. But, contrary to what the Tongans say, we think the experience can be anything but “bitter.”