For most people the name "kava" refers to both the plant known by botanists as piper methysticum ("intoxicating pepper") and the relaxing beverage made from its rootstock. We also use this word synonymously to refer to both. In this section you can learn some basic facts about both the plant - its main characteristics, types and key issues that should be of concern to anyone who wants to consume kava. If you need more information or have any questions, check out our Frequently Asked Questions or Contact Us.
Piper methysticum belongs to the pepper family Piperaceae (just like the black pepper you use in your kitchen). It is a shrub that is propagated vegetatively (just like many other South Pacific crops). According to Dr Vincent Lebot, the most reliable available evidence suggests that kava originates from the islands of Melanesia (most likely modern-day Vanuatu) from where it has spread around the Pacific. There are hundreds of different kava cultivars with not only different requirements for growing, but also with distinct appearances, psychoactive properties and even flavours.
Kava Beverage and Its Effects
As noted by V. Lebot and J. Lèvesque:
The remarkable medicinal properties and soothing effects of kava have been part of the wisdom of Pacific islanders for centuries. Melanesians, Polynesians and Micronesian people alike grind the fresh or dry roots of this plant to prepare their traditional beverage, which is the centerpiece for much solemn ritual as well as being the daily social drink for many appreciative Oceanians.
The specific effects of kava depend on the cultivar, plant's potency and method of consumption. But generally speaking, drinking kava can offer relaxation and induce a sense of sociability, as well as feelings of peace and harmony without diminishing mental awareness or clarity. For many users, kava is a pleasant, refreshing and mentally uplifting drink that relieves fatigue, relaxes the body after hard work or effort, clears the mind and brings a sense of well-being.
Robert J. Gregory, a Massey University professor of psychology, offered the following description of kava's effects:
Kava makes you quiet and able to think and listen to your thoughts. Your mind opens to what has been and should be done. The subjective feeling after kava is to be slowed down, for it almost forces one to become quiet. Sometimes it is like entering a light relaxed dream. (...) The altered state of consciousness is subtle and mild. Noise, interference with thought processes, bright lights, movement, all hinder the effect, the mildly altered stream of thought. The subtle effect is maintained only if there is peace and quiet.
Kava is also consumed by those seeking a healthier alternative to alcohol or a safe and non-stuporous remedy for insomnia, pain, anxiety and even addictions. Scientists observe that despite its mild psychoactive effects, "by pharmacological standards, kava is not classified as a drug, as its consumption never leads to addiction or dependency." Some people like to compare drinking kava to the opposite of drinking coffee. Both are used as social drinks. While the latter can give a mild buzz and "kick" of energy, the former is known for its calming and relaxing effects.
The main active ingredients in kava responsible for its psychoactive and medicinal qualities are known as kavalactones and are concentrated in the plant's rootstock and roots.
Different kava cultivars naturally display different compositions and concentrations of kavalactones (the latter can be increased with proper cultivation methods). The kavalactone composition can be expressed through the so-called kava chemotype. As each of the major kavalactone is responsible for different types of effects, it is quite important to pay attention to the kava chemotype.
Kava chemotype is a six digit number that lists in decreasing order the relative amounts of kavalactones found in a particular cultivar of kava. For example, the chemotype "465213" means that 4 (Kavain) is the most prominent kavalactone found in this plant. The next one 6 (Methysticin) is found in this plant but to a lesser degree than 4 (Kavain). By only knowing the chemotype (as opposed to the actual concentration of specific kavalactones) you can't tell how much less, but less than the number that precedes it.
While chemotype alone is not a perfect indicator of the effects (as noted by Garry Stoner: "a proper effects descriptor would take into account the interaction of kavalactones as wells as their relative percentages, and much more research must be done before this will be possible") knowing the chemotype can nevertheless help people to make a better informed decision about the kind of kava they buy and drink.
For instance, kavas with higher proportions of kavain (i.e. those with chemotypes starting with 4) tend produce more "heady", uplifting and cerebral effects. Such kavas are good for day-time drinking as they are thought to keep the mind both relaxed and alert, energized and relieved of mental fatigue. They are known to promote a gentle sense of well-being, contentment and happy unconcern. Such kavas are also good for social gatherings and parties as they encourage conversations and camaraderie. While chemotype is not the only factor affecting kava's taste, many heady kavas are known to have a relatively mild taste.
Kavas with higher concentrations of the double-bonded kavalactones (chemotypes starting with 2 or 5, with 5 being far less desirable) are considered "heavier" kavas. Many people consider them to have deeper and "body-melting effects" and much less of the heady kavas' cheerfulness. In general, they are seen as much more sedating than kavain-rich kavas and as such they are not ideal for longer social interactions or day-time drinking. Heavy kavas are also known for having a noticeably more bitter or peppery taste and longer-lasting effects than the heady varieties.
Kavas are not only different when it comes to their chemotype and taste. Different kava products can also exhibit varying degrees of potency that is expressed by the measures of their kavalactone content. Generally, harvested kava roots should have between 5 and 15% of kavalactones. Anything below 5% suggests a bad or poorly stored kava. At the same time, a high concentration of kavalactones alone doesn't guarantee a pleasant kava experience (kava's chemotype, strain, purity and nobility are equally or even more important), but it can serve as a good indication of how much of a given powder to use per session. While certain varieties are naturally likely to be stronger than others, to a larger extent kava's strength is determined by the following factors:
concentration of lateral roots
conditions of storage
Generally speaking, kava reaches its maximum kavalactone content within 18-36 months of planting. Beyond this age it doesn't increase in potency, but many good farmers like to keep it in the ground for longer to increase its mass. Some farmers, eager to make quick money or following a natural disaster, harvest their plants prematurely which means that their kava is likely to be very weak (and likely cheap). Lateral roots are the most potent part of the plant and hence kava powders containing higher ratios of these roots tend to be in higher demand (and more expensive). Note that with extra strength comes extra bitterness as the stump has a much milder taste than these lateral roots. It is also important to store your kava properly (ideally vacuum-sealed or at the very least in an air-tight container) as kava can lose its potency fairly rapidly when it's exposed to air and moisture. Other things being equal, the fresher the kava the stronger it is. This, in addition to such factors as the loss of kavalactones due to drying, explains why freshly harvested (green) kava consumed in Vanuatu is famous for its strength.
While knowing kava's chemotype and concentration of kavalactones is both useful and important, kava drinkers should pay even more attention to their products' purity and nobility. Read our article about Kava's Purity, the Tudei Kava Controversy and Kava Testing to learn more!
Disclaimer: We are not medical professionals. The information provided on this website is not meant to be used to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. What we present here is the literature we are familiar with and our own experiences related to the consumption of kava as a traditional beverage. If you do suffer from an illness, take any medications, require treatment, or have any other concerns, we advise that you consult your GP whether you can safely use kava.