The kava plant is a member of the pepper family.4 Large, green and heart-shaped leaves grow thickly on its branches, while long and slender flowers develop where the branches meet the stems. The kava plant's roots, which are used to make kava kava, resemble bunches of woody and hairy branches.5
Kava's Health Benefits
Kava is known for its relaxing capabilities, which may help elevate mood, well-being and contentment. These benefits are attributed to kavalactones, the main active ingredients in kava root.6 Kawain, dihydrokawain and methysticum are examples of kavalactones, which were examined in animal and laboratory studies. Other studies also highlighted that kava was able to reduce convulsions, promote better sleep and relax muscles in animals.
Kava was also used by Pacific Islanders to treat various illnesses. In particular, kava possesses diuretic and anti-inflammatory capabilities that can be useful to help relieve pain caused by gout, bronchial congestions, cystitis and prostatis.7 People may also use kava powder, which can be added to water or purchased in capsule or tablet form. You can also find kava tinctures, standardized extracts or liquid drops.8
Fancy a Cup of Kava Kava?
As mentioned earlier, kava roots are ground to make kava kava, a thick brew used as a "welcome drink" that's given to guests and dignitaries visiting Pacific islands like Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Micronesia and Vanuatu. Kava kava is consumed during social gatherings and ceremonies to reduce inhibitions and induce relaxation and amiability.9
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 towards the person who served you the beverage.10 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 for 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 showed that the kava plant itself can be ideal for alleviating anxiety, insomnia and other nervous disorders, and in promoting relaxation.11,12
Kava's Common Uses
✓ Menstrual discomfort
✓ Venereal disease
✓ Urinary problems
✓ Chronic fatigue syndrome
✓ Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
✓ Sleep-related disorders
Kava was also 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.15
Although this plant has been widely used for years in these tropical islands, some people have doubts about its benefits because various reports have made mention of kava's potentially addictive nature.16 While published studies and books that examined kava's qualities highlighted a lack of evidence17,18 it would still be wise to regulate your kava intake since major side effects have been linked to it.19
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 back in March 2002 that highlights the rare but potential risk of liver failure from kava-containing products.20
As mentioned, liver damage can be a major side effect of kava, with more than 30 cases having been reported in Europe. However, it's unclear if kava itself or kava and a combination of other drugs causes this, and if kava is dangerous at recommended doses or at higher amounts.
✓ Dizziness and/or drowsiness
✓ Stomach upsets
✓ Allergic reactions like contact dermatitis, skin lesions and ulcers
✓ Loss of appetite
✓ Partial loss of hearing
✓ Hair loss or alopecia
✓ Flakey, dry and yellowish skin discoloration
✓ Worsened depression
Avoid drinking alcohol with kava kava, as it may cause side effects like a higher risk of impairment and liver damage. Refrain from drinking kava kava with anti-anxiety agents, sedatives, diuretics, phenothiazine drugs, levodopa (used for Parkinson's disease) and/or liver-metabolized medicines. These medicines' effects will be enhanced and may cause complications when ingested alongside kava kava.
Kava shouldn't be taken prior to doing tasks that demand a high level of attention and alertness, such as driving or operating machinery. 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:23
✓ People with liver disease like cirrhosis or hepatitis
✓ People suffering from depression
✓ 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, as they propagate easily in this manner. This is the only way to grow kava plants, since kava seeds are sterile.24
Ideally, kava plants should be grown in an area with partial shade and without exposure to direct sunlight. Young kava cuttings have a tendency to easily burn, while the leaves could dry out. It's best to move the plants under full sun when these are at least 3 years old to encourage maximum growth. The kava cutting should come from a mother plant that is:
- About 2 years old
- Around 12 inches tall
- Preferably with multiple shoots
- Containing at least two to five nodes on the stem that's as thick as two or three pencils or pens that have been stuck together (thicker stems are less likely to rot)
Use a sterile and sharp knife to cut the mother plant and to prevent mold or fungus contamination. Place the cutting horizontally on the soil, with the eye at the knuckle pointing up — this is where new shoots are most likely to emerge. Cover this cutting to ensure that no portion is sticking above the soil.
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. Try mixing the soil with 15 percent coconut husks and 10 percent garden-grain sand.
Make sure the plant is in a well-draining container, and constantly water the plant to add moisture. Avoid overwatering, since young roots are finicky and can drown easily. As they grow, continue watering the plant because the liquid might easily drain. Once these plants have grown at least 12 inches tall, move them into their new home. Prior to this, ensure that the area is completely weed-free, as kava plants often lose against weeds. Water the holes in the new area before placing the plants.
Kava plants grow vigorously in one to three months after the transfer. During this period, the roots usually establish themselves in their new environments. In some cases, plants lose their leaves because the soil is different from where you grew the cuttings in. This is normal, however, so just be patient and consistently check if new shoots and leaves appear.
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.25 Just make sure that 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.26
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, 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. Afterwards, immerse the bag in a bowl of cool water. Per 2 ounces of powder, make sure there's a quart of water.27
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 powder, 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.
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 into a nylon sieve or cheese cloth. Squeeze excess liquid into a bowl. Discard the pulp afterwards and enjoy.