If you live in any of the places in Hawaii, you’re probably familiar with Kava. A ceremonial drink in Pacific Islander culture for millennia, kava is now growing in popularity as both a social drink and a holistic treatment for a host of ailments. Visit any major Hawaiian social center and you are likely to find a bar serving up this soothing, earthy drink. Kava is even making headway on the mainland, where kava bars are slowly increasing in number. At Gingerhill, we are very excited to be propagating organic kava for community use. Why is it that kava is grown in so many places in Hawaii? Kava was a culturally significant drink in Hawaii long prior to the emergence of trendy kava bars and shops. It can also ease a variety of nervous conditions, and it’s a healthier alternative to alcohol. Below we further explore the origins and benefits of this popular Hawaiian plant.
The History of Kava
Kava is popular throughout the pacific islands, and it goes by several names, including Waka, Ava, Awa, and Kawa Awa. Though most people consume kava in liquid form, as tradition dictates, kava itself is actually an herb derived from the root of the kava plant. The psychoactive components of kava supposedly helped Pacific Islanders achieve a state of elevated consciousness. Though no one knows the precise origin of the kava plant, most trace its beginnings to its discovery on the Islands of Vanuato 3,000 years ago. When Pacific Islanders began to voyage through the south Pacific by canoe, they introduced kava to several different islands. Kava thus became popular throughout the pacific. The kava cuttings were easy for the voyagers to transport and transplant. The Polynesians introduced kava to many places in Hawaii upon their arrival between 500 and 700 AD. Since then, kava has become pervasive throughout the Hawaiian islands. The first historical record of kava emerged in the late 18thcentury upon Captain Cook’s arrival on the Big Island, one of many places in Hawaii that kava inhabited. Cook named the plant “piper methysticum,” meaning “intoxicated pepper.” Kava, when prepared correctly, possesses psychoactive properties. Traditional preparation of the drink required that islanders chew and spit the roots to create a paste that they then combined with water and strained. Children and beautiful women were typically responsible for this process, as they were considered cleaner than others. We know today that the enzymes in saliva extracted kavalactones, the psychoactive component of kava.
Kava was crucial to ceremony, tradition, and social gatherings in pacific island culture generally, and specifically in many places in Hawaii. Indeed, it was present at most marriages, naming ceremonies, healing rituals, funerals, and other culturally significant events. Though Kava was popular throughout the pacific, its mythological role differed vastly between island sub-cultures. Each culture possesses its own origin story of kava. For example, Samoans believed that a Fijian princess and the sun god presented kava to the Samoan high chief. Fijians believe kava symbolizes the bringing of two forces into harmony, and they often offer it as a visitation gift. Due to its powerful symbolism, the Fijians actually made kava their national drink.
Kava’s Health Benefits
The psychoactive components of kava are called kavalactones. Kavalactones affect the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain, altering mood and cognition. Specifically, kavalactones increase the activity of a neurotransmitter called GABA, which balances the activity of glutamate. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter that triggers nerve impulse transmission. High levels of glutamate are conducive to an overactive nervous system and thus give way to conditions like anxiety. GABA, on the other hand, interrupts the transmission of nerve impulses when it binds to a neuron’s receptor site, producing the inverse effect of glutamate. By increasing levels of GABA in the brain, kavalactones induce calmness, relaxation, and positive mood. Kava consumption served numerous medicinal purposes in Pacific Islander culture, and it is re-emerging today in the world of holistic health. Kava is used to relieve pain and tension in the muscles, PMS, and anxiety. It can even help prevent seizures and prevent neuronal damage. Kava is particularly useful as a non-addictive sleep aid. Poor sleep can cause high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, obesity, and depression. The cortisol spikes that result from sleep loss can leave one feeling “tired and wired.” By supporting healthy sleeping patterns, kava can help to prevent cortisol spikes and resultant inflammatory conditions. Kava is most widely available in liquid form here in Hawaii. However, you can also obtain kava in capsule or tea form. Today, kava producers use ethanol to extract kavalactones from the root of the kava plant and put them either in capsules or oral tinctures. An effective dose of kavalactones ranges from 70-250mg depending on metabolism and body size.
Chemically speaking, kava behaves like alcohol in many ways. Indeed, kava consumption in the south pacific began to decline in concomitance with the introduction of alcohol. Both substances increase levels of GABA in the brain, but kava is far less likely to result in a dangerous decrease in motor control. However, one should never consume kava with alcohol, as the combined effect of the two can impair cognition. Kava can also exacerbate the effects of, and should therefore not be consumed with, benzodiazepines and barbiturates. Though most kava consumers don’t experience side effects, some have reported incidences of headache, dizziness, fatigue, depression, skin irritation, and diarrhea. Others have even reported cases of liver complications, with a few ending in death. However, pacific islanders have been using kava safely for centuries. Pro-kava health experts believe that the reason kava poses a threat to liver health is because it demands the utilization of liver enzymes. In diverting the liver from breaking down other, more toxic medications and substances (that didn’t exist in the pacific islands), kava consumption can cause liver complications. For this reason, Canada and several European countries have banned the use of Kava. However, it is sage for most people to consume in moderate doses.