Kava Kava, or simply Kava, is an herbal substance with mild sedative qualities derived from the plant of the same name (scientific name: Piper Methysticum). The plant is native to a number of islands in the western part of the Pacific Ocean, namely Vanuatu, Hawaii, Micronesia, Fiji, Samoa and several others. In these island cultures it has a long history of use, dating back several thousand years, as a ceremonial beverage and as a social substance, relaxant and mood enhancer.
More recently, extracts from the plant have been imported to western countries and packaged and sold as herbal remedies, and in some instances as ‘legal highs’.
In traditional use, the root of the Kava Kava plant is prepared through grinding and pounding before being mixed with water, strained and then drunken. The reported effects of this are relaxation, mental clarity, mild euphoria and increased sociability. For this latter reason the use of Kava Kava has been compared to alcohol consumption by some.
The reason for Kava Kava’s effects is attributed to chemicals contained in high quantities in the root of the plant, known as Kavalactones.
In western culture, Kava Kava is usually found in the form of pills, capsules and powders which can be mixed with water to make an herbal drink. It has also been sold within certain soft drinks in the past. It has been marketed as a naturally derived solution for relief of stress, anxiety, insomnia and general wellbeing.
Products containing Kava Kava grew in popularity in Europe, North America and elsewhere during the 1990s, and were regularly available from health food shops, online and elsewhere.
Kava Kava was taken off the market and banned in many countries in 2002 after a number of studies linked it to liver damage and even several deaths due to liver failure.
However the laws surrounding the ban remain a grey area in many cases, enabling its continued usage by some. In the UK for example, food and medicinal products containing Kava Kava were banned from sale in January 2003 by the Food Standards Agency and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency respectively. However possession of Kava Kava is not illegal, nor is the sale and import of it for uses other than consumption as food or medicine.
Some advocates of Kava Kava contend that the reason for liver-related negative effects was that western pharmaceutical companies had used the stem and leaves of the plant in their products, rather than just the root as in its traditional use by pacific islanders. However, insufficient controlled studies have taken place to prove the fact one way or the other, so the laws regarding its sale remain largely unchanged.
In its traditional use as a ceremonial drink, Kava Kava goes by a variety of names amongst the islands it is used on, with Kava being the name used by the people on the island of Tonga. Other island names include Yaqona, Awa and Ava, from Fiji, Hawaii and Samoa respectively. In Fiji it is also sometimes referred to as Grog.
The scientific Latin name for the plant is Piper Methysticum, which roughly translates as ‘intoxicating pepper’.
In its westernised form as a herbal medicine it has been sold under a variety of brand and product names (usually including the words Kava Kava, or at least Kava), as specific strains of Kava Kava, such as Melomelo Kava, and as Kava Kava root. It has also been marketed as a fizzy drink called Lava Cola and Kava Cola.
Specific strains of Kava include Borugu, Sese and Tudei. The latter is a particularly potent strain of Kava grown in Vanuatu and its export from the country is forbidden.
Kava’s main properties are as a sedative, and in high enough doses it will lead to drowsiness and deep sleep. In lower doses, as are often taken, it is reported to promote calmness and relaxation. It is also said to have muscle relaxant qualities.
Another well documented effect of Kava is its anaesthetic properties, and during use the individual may feel numbness in their stomach or around the mouth, which in turn can lead to feelings of nausea.
In heavy frequent users of Kava Kava it has been demonstrated to result in a number of visible detrimental effects. These include drying out of the skin, rashes and consistently bloodshot eyes.
According to some researchers in Australia, where heavy Kava use is particularly problematic amongst Aboriginal populations (who are not counted amongst the traditional drinkers of Kava), side effects from long-term use include chest pains, muscle spasms, weight loss and high blood pressure.
The most serious reported negative effect of Kava though is liver damage, and this was the reason for it being banned in many western countries from 2002 onwards. This effect relates specifically to Kava-containing manufactured products, and has not been reported by traditional users in the Pacific.
The substance’s association with liver damage comes from an estimated 70 reports of liver damage worldwide and a number of deaths through liver failure. However, further research is needed to determine whether Kava was solely to blame, and whether it was due to improper use of stems and leaves in manufactured products.
The Kava Kava plant (Piper Methysticum) from which the drug is derived, is native to many islands in the western Pacific Ocean. These islands include Vanuatu, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Hawaii, Fiji, Micronesia and the Samoan Islands, and these remain the chief growers of the plant worldwide. Vanuatu is the plant’s most prodigious grower, and is thought to be home to more than 80 varieties of the plant. There are many different varieties, or cultivars, of the Kava Kava plant which have been produced through selective breeding.
The plant is thought to have been cultivated, prepared and consumed by these cultures for several thousand years, and is deeply ingrained into their social and religious practices. It goes by a wide variety of names across the different languages and societies of the Pacific.
The Kava plant itself is green and leafy, and is part of the pepper family. It can grow up to 12 feet tall but is commonly somewhat smaller, between 4 and 10 feet. It has distinctive heart-shaped leaves and flowers regularly, but these flowers are usually sterile and the plant is dependent on human intervention for reproduction. New plants are grown by taking a cutting from the plant and replanting it in moistened soil.
The Kava Kava plant can live for decades, but is usually harvested after around four years as this provides a good level of potency for human consumption. However, following a commercial drive in Kava production for western markets, younger and younger plants have been harvested.
Kava Kava is not known to be addictive physically or chemically. That is, when frequent use is discontinued, it does not result in any known adverse withdrawal effects.
However it has been suggested that it may be psychologically addictive and that users may develop an emotional dependency on the substance. This is due to the ‘relaxed’ and sociable feelings that Kava promotes, states of mind that a user may seek to constantly recreate through use of the substance. Kava may also become a ‘crutch’ to enable them to deal with stressful or anxious situations. As with many drugs, excessive use may be detrimental to health.
A variety of visible signs and symptoms of frequent and heavy use have been observed. One of the most noticeable symptoms among frequent users is dry and flaky skin, which may even be scaly in appearance. In addition to this, their eyes may be bloodshot and they appear gaunt and malnourished. Such effects generally disappear after the individual discontinues use of the substance. It has been proposed that some of these effects may be due to a resultant vitamin deficiency caused by heavy use, but little research has been carried out in this area.
Jaundiced yellowing skin has also been observed in those who have been found to be suffering from liver damage, possibly as a result of improper commercial preparations of Kava.
It has also been suggested that simultaneous use of drugs such alcohol and prescription medications may be responsible for a reaction with Kava Kava, leading to the detrimental effects on the liver.
Because Kava Kava is not addictive in the chemical sense it does not require treatment with specialised substitute substances or supervised recovery. When it was extensively marketed in Europe and North America pre-2003, it was generally held to be a ‘non-addictive’ herbal remedy, and in some cases was suggested as an alternative to addictive drugs such as alcohol.
As with any substance though, there is of course the risk that an individual may develop an emotional, psychological dependency on Kava Kava. However there have been few mainstream studies on this, and as such there are no Kava-specific methods of treatment for frequent heavy users. Though the plant and its derivatives have been in use in Pacific island cultures for thousands of years, it remains relatively new to western science and culture.
People who are concerned that they may be developing a Kava using habit or behaviour pattern beyond their control, or those who are concerned about friends or family, may wish to consult rehabilitation professionals who can offer generalised advice and treatment for addiction.
If Kava Kava is being used to mitigate stress, nervous tension, social anxiety or similar (as is often the case in western use), then the solution may be to switch use to another method or treatment for these conditions. Consulting a doctor who can prescribe medications such as anti-depressants is one approach, while some people might prefer to take a therapeutic route where they can learn new coping and relaxation strategies that do not rely on substances. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may be one avenue worth exploring.
In terms of any psychological addiction to the physical act of drinking a Kava beverage or otherwise imbibing a preparation of the substance, the individual might try substituting this ritual with something else. For example a soothing herbal tea might be consumed instead, to recreate the act of taking the substance.
To reiterate, cessation of Kava Kava even after long periods of heavy use is not known to produce any specific withdrawal effects or physical cravings for the substance. Amongst frequent users though, a psychological dependency may develop, in common with other psychoactive and mood-enhancing substances.
It is interesting to note that some research has been carried out which suggests that Kava Kava itself might be useful in the treatment of addictions to more serious illegal drugs, and to frequently abused legal drugs like alcohol and cigarettes. It has been suggested that the effects of the substance may lessen the negative physical withdrawals from chemically addictive drugs, and diminish the associated cravings. However such research has slowed since Kava was banned in a number of countries, and no conclusive findings have been publicised to support this potential use.
In some aboriginal communities in Australia, Kava Kava was introduced in the 1980s in the hope that it would be a calming substitute to destructive alcohol abuse in these impoverished areas. However it emerged later that it too was being abused, leading to a range of health problems.