Kava-Kava, also known by the Hawaiian name ‘Awa, is a plant that is botanically related to the pepper plant, hence the scientific name Piper Methysticum – intoxicating pepper. And intoxicating it can be, although that is only a small part of its wide range of effects. We’ll look into this in a minute.
Kava and your liver
Before closer examining the benefits of this plant, we will address a matter of concern for many people new to this drug – and the one thing I stumbled upon first and most frequently when I first began my research about it: Kava use and liver damage. There are a whole army of people out there lingering on different advice-related websites, only waiting for someone to ask for Kava so they can shout “Don’t drink that stuff! It’s TOXIC.” Or so it seems.
A few years ago, that there has been a huge media outrage in Germany – consequently spreading across most of Europe and making its way to the web – when authorities banned Kava-based herbal remedies from being produced and sold. This decision was mainly based on 23 cases in which people suffered liver damage and even one death due to liver failure while taking prescribed Kava preparations. These cases, however, have largely been dismissed by the scientific community, and here is why:
The ill were never checked for hepatitis, a very common illness causing liver failure
There had apparently been people who appeared on the list more than once, hence artificially bloating the number of cases
The one dead person actually did have hepatitis, plus a cirrhosis from chronic alcohol abuse and was on a medication that could have caused liver failure in itself. She was 81 years old.
The bigger part of the cases mentioned listed risk factors like alcohol abuse, obesity and strong chemical medications (or, in some cases, all three) to have been present before Kava use was even started
They basically diagnosed an illness, saw these people took Kava preparations and jumped all over it, without any reason whatsoever to assume this was the cause and not merely a coincidence. These people probably all ate bread regularly before they became ill, yet nobody accused bread. Hm…
There is evidence suggesting that prolonged, excessive Kava use is linked with heightened liver enzyme levels, but not one cases of liver damage that can clearly be linked to Kava consumption.
To make things even more hilarious, these people consumed pharmaceutical preparations containing Kava that were reportedly produced using the whole plant. Now, as every islander will happily tell you, that is a stupid idea, as stems and leaves in deed are toxic. That’s why they only use the roots. Clever, eh?
So, in a nutshell: There might be a slight risk of damaging your liver if you overdo it, but then again there are thousands of islander doing this regularly all their lives, none of which ever died from it alone. Go figure.
One thing that is probably better avoided is mixing Kava with alcohol. Although there is contradictory evidence as to whether or not these two substances enhance each other’s undesirable effects, it is undoubted that alcohol is toxic to your liver.
The effects of Kava are plenty, though rather mild.
It relaxes both, muscles and mind, lifts the mood and makes people more talkative. It is indeed a very “social” substance, in that it makes for prolonged, pleasurable evenings of deep-felt friendship and long, open conversations. The mind, during all this, stays totally clear. Traditionally, islanders have a drink after work, right before dinner, spending the rest of the day sitting together and drinking bowl after bowl.
For these very reasons, it is also great for helping people with social anxiety, as it will give them more confidence when talking to people, take away the stress and at the same time keep their head clear. And there’s science behind this: Kava has been proven to reduce anxiety in more than one placebo-controlled study.
In larger doses, it acts more as a sedative, causing sleepiness and a sense of comfort, for many resulting in a deep, restful sleep afterwards. In fact, Kava has been shown to be effective against insomnia, not meddling with the sleep phases other drugs totally throw off – thus making you feel refreshed and rested the next morning, instead of letting you feel like you didn’t sleep at all.
Now this all might remind you of alcohol, which is not a totally stupid comparison. However, you should not drink it expecting to get “wasted” – unlike alcohol, Kava leaves you in control.
In moderate doses, it doesn’t cause any kind of hangover, making it suitable for pretty much daily use. If you overdo it, you might end up feeling exhausted the next day, though this takes a lot of Kava. A lot. This will also result in a definitive feeling of inebriation, with wobbly legs and difficulties speaking.
So, what’s a moderate dose?
That depends, I am afraid, on the specific type of Kava you have. Luckily, however, most vendors will provide you with dosage instructions, as they know their Kava best, and it is safe to stick with these or adjust them upwards when needed.
Be careful when driving a car or using heavy machinery: While Kava does not impair your cognitive capabilities, it tends to slower your reactions in higher doses.
On a side note, Kavalactones (the active ingredients in Kava) also have astringent properties, numbing mouth and lips slightly for a short time when drunk. This way, you will be able to tell if your preparation was successful.
Speaking of which:
The traditonal way is very simple: The fresh – or dried – Kava is put in a bowl, submerged in cold water, and then either kneaded by hand or crushed with some kind of tool until it has the right color. A very famous – and in deed real – traditonal way to prepare it was having a virgin chew the Kava, then spit it into the bowl and repeat until there was enough. Reportedly, this was a main reason why Christian missionaries took so much offense in the Kava ceremonies.
For this preparation method, all you’ll need is some sort of bowl, water and Kava. A very helpful tool is a piece of cloth, some nylon stockings or a paint strainer, so you can wrap your Kava in there and simply knead it underwater, so you don’t have to strain the resulting concoction.
You will want to work your Kava until it doesn’t feel “greasy” anymore and the brew has a coffee-and-cream-like color. This should take 5-20 minutes.
Drinking it unstrained is not unhealthy, but might result in nausea and digestive, uh, discomfort.
Using hot water has been shown to greatly increase the amount of active ingredients present in the drink, although boiling Kava will destroy some of them.
Another great way to prepare Kava is using a blender, putting water and Kava in there and blending for five to ten minutes. But beware, most blenders will heat up and might break if you don’t pay attention.
Adding lecithin is often recommended, but I have yet to verify its enhancing properties. The active ingredients in Kava are not water soluble, so when you prepare your Kava, you make an emulsion, not a solution, basically just knocking the chemicals into the water by force. Lecithin is supposed to provide a medium in which they can solute, supposedly rendering the resulting brew stronger.
Flavor-wise, Kava has a kind of soapy taste to it that puts many people off. I you feel the same, feel free to combine it with anything you like: Cocoa, milk, juices, sugar, honey – it’s completely up to you. Drinking the Kava chilled also helps.
One thing I like to do is prepare my Kava in the morning with the desired strength (I usually take 4 ½ tablespoons of Kava for three cups of water) for later that night, then prepare a second brew reusing the pulp to produce a much lighter concoction to drink during the day. This would be, I assume, a great way to prepare it for people who want to use it for both, anxiety and recreation.
Types and sources
There are may variants of Kava, grown in Vanuatu, Tonga, Hawai’i and many more places. The first two, in general, seem to be darker, stronger in taste and more sedative-like in effects, while the Hawaiian varieties seem more palatable and upbeat. This, however, can only be a very rough way of describing them and preferences here seem to be a very individual thing. I would recommend to simply sample as many varieties as you can get your hands on, then settle on one– or not.
Sources are plentiful and easy to be found on the web and importing Kava is legal in both, the U.S and most of Europe (even Germany).
I advise you strongly to always buy the whole, powdered root and make a preparation yourself, as extracts tend to be weaker, over-priced and lack certain effects, while capsules – especially the otc-variants – might contain possibly toxic stems and leaves.