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Kava Kava

  • Definition

    Kava-Kava is also known as piper methysticum. It is a Polynesian herb root, and the parts used for medicinal purposes are the dried rhizome and roots.

    Chemicals contained in the herb are demethoxyyangonin, dihydrokawin, dihydromethysticin, flavorawin A, kawain, methysticin, starch, and yangonin.

    The herb's root is used by herbalists as a remedy for insomnia and nervousness. A compound of kava is marketed in Europe as a mild sedative for the elderly. Other agents in kava have been shown in the laboratory to have antiseptic qualities. It is also a reputedly potent analgesic and antiseptic that may be taken internally or applied directly to a painful wound.


    As though giving a clue to one of its dangerous effects on the human body, the kava shrub that grows wild on many of the South Pacific islands sports broad, heart-shaped leaves webbed with a network of prominent veins. In large enough doses, the narcotic drugs that the plant contains can increase the force of heart action while decreasing the pulse rate, induce a hypnotic state, and paralyze large skeletal muscles such as those of the leg.

    The storehouse of drugs lies in the erect, 8 to 10 foot-tall shrub's roots and large, woody rhizomes (underground stems). Islanders have long used those rootstocks to make a potent beverage called kava-kava, which has played a role in virtually all their ceremonies. Its effect is not intoxicating, in that it does not dull mental processes, but narcotic. It induces a euphoric state of tranquil well-being that eventually leads to a deep, dreamless sleep.

    The time-honored way of activating the drugs is still the most effective - pieces of the dried woodstock are chewed until they are reduced to a soft, pulpy mass. This is spit into a wooden bowl, mixed with water or coconut milk, and kneaded by hand. After a few hours of fermentation, the solids are strained out and the liquid is drunk.

    The rootstocks are seldom chewed nowadays. They are simply pulverized, mixed with water or coconut milk, and filtered out. The result is a popular beverage, drunk by men and women alike, that has a stimulating, tonic effect but lacks the narcotic power of the chewed product. Due the local-anesthetic properties of kawain, food eaten after drinking kava cannot be tasted.

    Research has shown that it is not the chewer's saliva that sets the drug's narcotic constituents free, as had been speculated, but the vigorous emulsification caused by the chewing. To approximate the chewing process, modern pharmacy can emulsify the crude drug in a suitable oil.

    Several constituents of the rootstock, including methysticin, yangonin, and kawain, have been isolated and harnessed for use in sedatives, tranquilizers, and appetite stimulants. Early in the 20th century, some extracts of the rootstock were found to have antiseptic properties, which led to their use in treating infections, especially those of the urinary tract.


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