If you’re visiting the Pacific Islands, you might be given a ceremonial drink called kava kava that’s made from the kava plant (Piper methysticum), a shrub that can grow up to 3 meters (9.8 feet) tall.1,2,3
The kava plant is a member of the pepper family.4 Large, green and heart-shaped leaves grow thickly on its green, red-and-black striped or spotted stems,5 and its roots, often used to make kava kava, resemble bunches of knotty, woody and hairy branches.6
Kava’s Health Benefits
Kava is known for its relaxation capabilities, which may help elevate mood, well-being and contentment.7 These benefits are attributed to kavalactones, the main active ingredients in kava root. Historically, kava has also used by Pacific Islanders to help relieve pain caused by conditions like muscle and back pain, stomach problems, cystitis and urethritis, to name a few.8,9
Fancy a Cup of Kava Kava?
Kava roots are ground to make kava kava, a thick brew used as a “welcome drink” and given to guests and dignitaries visiting Pacific islands like Fiji and Tonga. Kava kava is consumed during social gatherings and ceremonies to reduce inhibitions, promote better relationships between people of the community, and induce relaxation and amiability.12,13
Kava kava is typically served in a coconut shell, and is swallowed in one or two quick gulps. When drinking kava kava, always mention thoughts of gratitude, especially toward the person who served you the beverage.14
It’s advised that you consume each kava kava serving 10 minutes apart. The drink’s effects can kick in quickly because of kavain, a kavalactone present in the plant. Other effects of kavalactones may not register until after 30 minutes.
However, this drink isn’t just used to foster good relationships. In fact, kava kava was traditionally used as a sedative because research shows that the kava plant itself can be ideal for alleviating anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain and benzodiazepine withdrawal, and in promoting relaxation.15,16
Kava’s Common Uses
Apart from its traditional culinary uses, kava is utilized for medicinal purposes too. Pacific Islanders used kava to help ease:
Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
Chronic fatigue syndrome
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Kava has also been used as a mouthwash to help relieve canker sores and toothaches, and as a topical ointment to help heal wounds and sores caused by leprosy.17
Although this plant has been widely used for years in these tropical islands, some people have doubts about its benefits because of various reports about kava’s potentially addictive nature.18 While published studies and books that examined kava’s qualities highlighted a lack of evidence,19 it would still be wise to regulate your kava intake since major side effects have been linked to it.20
Watch Out for Kava’s Side Effects
Although kava is still available in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a consumer advisory in March 2002 that highlights the rare but potential risk of liver failure from kava-containing products.21 In Europe, kava has already been linked to around 30 cases of people experiencing liver-related damage, including liver failure.22 It’s vital to monitor your intake of kava to prevent the complications linked to this herb, such as:23,24
Dizziness or drowsiness25
Allergic reactions like contact dermatitis and skin lesions26
Loss of appetite
Partial loss of hearing
Hair loss or alopecia
Flaky, dry and yellowish skin discoloration
Avoid drinking alcohol with kava, as it may cause side effects like a higher risk of impaired reflexes and liver damage.27 Refrain from drinking kava with anti-anxiety medicines, sedatives, diuretics, phenothiazine drugs, levodopa and liver-metabolized medicines. These medicines’ effects will be enhanced and may cause complications when ingested alongside kava kava.28
Kava shouldn’t be taken before doing tasks that demand a high level of attention and alertness, such as driving or operating machinery, because it may trigger drowsiness.29 If you’re thinking about adding kava to your diet, consult your physician first, and take this herb under close supervision. Do not take kava for more than four weeks. Lastly, if you fall under any of these groups, avoid kava in general:30,31
People with liver disease like cirrhosis or hepatitis
People suffering from depression or bipolar disorder
Parkinson’s disease patients
Pregnant or breastfeeding women
People who will undergo surgery (kava prolongs the anesthesia’s effect)
Growing Kava at Home
To grow kava at home, you need kava cuttings from mature plants, as they propagate easily. Ideally, kava plants should be grown in an area with partial shade32 and without exposure to direct sunlight because it causes leaf dryness.
You can grow your kava cuttings either in potting bags or homemade containers, woven coconut leaf baskets or nursery beds. The Pacific Agriculture Policy Project suggests the following tips when planting kava at home:33
- Pick cuttings from plants with healthy and vigorous stems, and avoid getting cuttings from plants with noticeably older, lame and unhealthy stems.
- Kava cuttings ideally must be one to two nodes long. You can propagate cuttings that have four nodes, too, if the stems are thinner and shorter, or if you took the kava cutting from an area near the stem’s growing tip.
- Always cut the stems near the plant’s nodes and not near the growing tip of the stems.
- Ensure that the kava stems are not showing signs of disease, insects or other pests, or rot.
These plants must be planted in fertile and loose soil to allow the roots to stretch their “legs” and maximize the area. As a rule of thumb do not plant kava in a hard-packed growing medium or in too-loose soil that’ll cause it to dry out.34 When growing kava in a container, ensure that it drains well and constantly water it to add moisture.
Once these plants have grown at least 20 to 30 centimeters (cm) tall (7.8 to 11.8 inches) and 2 to 6 months old, you can move them into their new home. Prior to this, ensure that your plant has already been hardened by decreasing the amount of water you provide it.
If you’re transplanting cuttings grown in a potting bag, first make a 30-cm deep hole (just under 12 inches) in the soil and make the hole wide to provide enough space for both seedlings and soil. Do this quickly so they won’t dry out. It’s recommended that you transplant the kava cuttings during wet or rainy days to assist the plant in establishing roots and promote speedy recovery from the hardening process.
Should the plant seem dry, add more soil and mulch around it to boost moisture. Now that this is done, you can watch your kava plants flourish. However, don’t forget to regularly water the plants, and check and remove weeds that may hinder growth.35
Must-Try Kava Recipes
You can make kava tea by simmering kava roots in water, but you can also use kava powder that you can buy from online stores.36 Just make sure the powder contains kava root extract, to ensure that it’s effective. To determine if you’re using an instant mix, check if the powder completely dissolves in water without leaving any residue. If it’s clear, it’s instant.37
Traditionally, kava tea is prepared by straining 1 to 2 ounces of dried kava powder (2 to 4 tablespoons per person) in water using a nylon stocking, cheesecloth, a 1-gallon paint strainer or muslin bag. Once the powder is placed inside the strainer, hold the edges together at the top to prevent the powder from falling out. Afterward, immerse the bag in a bowl of cool water. Per 2 ounces of powder, make sure there’s a quart of water.
Here comes the unique part: Knead the kava powder using your hands. It feels oily because of kava’s kavalactone levels, but the oiliness will decrease after constant kneading. Once the powder doesn’t feel oily and the water is mud-like, stop kneading. However, if you don’t feel like kneading, you can just repetitively bring the strainer bag out, squeeze it and place it back in the water.
The good news is you can still make traditional kava tea even if you’re pressed for time. All you need is kava powder, water and a blender.38
Traditional Kava Tea
- 2 to 4 tablespoons of dried kava powder
- 1 cup water
- Combine the kava powder and water.
- Blend together for four minutes.
- Pour mixture through a nylon sieve or cheese cloth. Squeeze excess liquid into a bowl. Discard the pulp afterwards and enjoy.
This makes one serving.