Kava is surprisingly a relative of the pepper plant, and is a shrub that originates in Polynesia or better known as the South Pacific region. Since written history is a recent addition to the islands of that area, documentation of its use is more in the anthropological arena, and we tend to only have passing mentions in history. Captain Cook who did much exploring in that region gave it the name we know it by, and he chose it since it meant intoxicating pepper.
Kava has been used by island people for many thousands of years and it has little connection with health issues, but Kava drinking is a group activity and it is usually done in moderation. A good history of Kava is here, and they are one of a few good sites to purchase through, along with this one that also sells and blogs about Kava. There are some cultures that use Kava daily but it is generally a social setting. If you are interested in the island Kava cultures you may want to check out Wikipedia.
Western cultures have a poor understanding of moderation, and in most cases of too much of a good thing, good things quickly become bad. I say this because there has been some “addiction” to it in western areas. And I don’t mean addiction like you can get addicted to opiates, but there has been issues, from what I have read, of being addicted to the euphoria and feelings of relaxation it brings. So I would compare it’s addictive nature to possibly a cannabis or caffeine, not physically addictive but can be mentally addictive and could impact daily life. As long as you use it respectfully, like any herb or medication, and in moderation, you should have no issues.
This is another herbal medicine that has received some negative media attention, and the main issue listed for this herb is that it may cause severe liver damage. It was later found that this was due to the inclusion of the plant with the root in some preparations, and the plant itself should never be ingested. If you are interested in using Kava please purchase from reputable dealers, ones that sell the root only and do not contaminate with stems or leaves of the plant. In 2001 Duke did a study and they were able to prove that Kava is save for the liver causing no noticeable problems. The culprit of this consistent belief that it causes liver toxicity is from a German study that was soundly proven to be to have been as a study “shoddy and baseless” one. So it seems the contaminates were the issue and there are quite a few other studies that you can look up. And some Kava sites include further information.
So! On to the good stuff!
There are a few strains of Kava (kinda like Kratom) and each one has a different effect and potency so you may need to try a few strains to find which one is your most preferred. It seems to be a consensus that the Vanuatu, though some say Hawaii, is the most potent with other strains varying in strength from there. Age is a factor here though, older it is after harvesting, the less potent the brew!
Kava is great for relaxation, it really helps reduce anxiety and stress. It also is a good muscle relaxer and helps induce sleep. It will promote the relaxation of muscles like a muscle relaxer, and just generally reduces anxiety and stress levels and promotes a sense of well being. Often described as a feeling of the spirit being at rest.
The thing that makes Kava so relaxing is the kavalactones. So if you are purchasing an extract the larger the listed amount of kavalactones, the more potent that extract will be. At present, I have had the most experience with the extracts, but have just obtained some kava roots and am enjoying the potent brew thoroughly. It definitely has an immediate numbing effect to the throat, and its use for easing sore throat pain is pretty obvious.
So lets do some chemistry! (Or Kava-stry possibly?)
Kavalactones are hydrophobic and lipid-soluble, therefore to be more easily emulsified in aqueous (water only) solutions you will need to add a chemical in this case the addition of lecithin. Traditionally this was done by pounding yellow hibiscus, and adding it to the soaking liquid. This addition will allow the kavalactones to “like” dissolving in water, instead of “fearing” it, thus creating a more potent brew. You can purchase soy lecithin for those vegans out there, and there are others that are animal based available for sale too. But it seems the overall online favorite is the soy lecithin.
Another way is fat, milk is a favorite here, as milk contains a significant amount of fat in general and kavalactones are lipid soluble. Any milk or milk substitute would do as long as it has some fat content. If you want to reduce the amount of milk used you can use a 1 to 2 part ratio of milk to water respectively.
Lastly you can add fruit with enzymes or high acidity to break things down, just add to the water (or water and milk) some pineapple juice (fresher is better) which its high acid content helps to break things down. Or papaya which has the infamous papain, a well known enzyme for aiding digestion, and it can really help break things down to release the most kavalactones.
Ok, chemistry is cool and all but how much do I use, and how do I make this stuff?
Great question! The amount seems to vary for users, but a good starting point is a tablespoon of powdered root, or root solids, per 8oz of liquid. You can upgrade to a heaping teaspoon afterwards and increase slowly if you need more, or decrease if you feel you need less. If you have an instant kava drink, best to prepare it according to package and if you have powdered kava extract you want to take into account the amount of kavalactones. You should immediately notice a numbing effect in the mouth and throat, if you don’t the kava was probably too old as the root does degrade with time. Later you will notice a relaxed feeling, some describe as mellow or even sleepy. This is relaxed state generally helps stress reduce, and can be used as a sleep aid for those who suffer from sleeping issues. Or just moments of strong anxiety, such as I use it before I receive cortisone injections since I tend to faint from pain and anxiety. It works great for migraines too, for some people the behind the eye pressure is alleviated better with kava than with skullcap.
So on to the recipe! It is in 3 easy steps, you do want to gather your supplies, your kava, your liquid, your strainer and a soaking bowl.
First – Soak it!
When you soak your roots (which are generally sold pre-chopped and dried, and a prefered method of making Kava) or powder you want to use a fine muslin bag, cheesecloth and use it like a tea bag. Or strain the liquid through muslin or cheesecloth after soaking. I have read that any fine weave fabric will do, and nylon stockings are even used by some for straining. While it is soaking you will want to gently kneed the kava once to help with extraction.
You will also notice a color change, the liquid should take on a brownish color, sort of coffee with cream colored if you used only milk. If it was water with a small amount of milk, juice, or lecithin the liquid will be a bit darker colored like coffee with only a splash of cream.
Second – Strain and squeeze!
When extraction is over, make sure to squeeze out as much moisture as possible from the remaining mass, and this is fine to compost or discard. You can determine if you have extracted all the kavalactones from the roots by feeling them. If they are slippery feeling, think soap slippery or oily feeling, there is still more to extract, if they squeeze dry and don’t feel oily you have gotten all you will get from them. You do want to retain some of the finer solids in the liquid, so the straining is not to remove all particles. So don’t overdo it.
Third – Slam it.
That’s it, drink it down, its pretty awful tasting but the numbing helps and so does a strongly flavored food “chaser.” You can also hide the taste in a smoothie and all you have to do is add the cup of liquid to your favorite smoothie mix.
Temperature is key in all of this!
This is a chemical reaction, so it is really important here to use cool temperatures, heat kills everything with Kava so room temperature is best but can use cool water from a fridge. I wouldn’t suggest water colder than 60 F, since if it is too cold the process slows down. If you want to add it to a blended drink, blend in pulses so the friction does not create too much heat, or at the end and mix with one quick pulse.
ProTip: The ideal soak time seems to be about 1.5 to 2 hours, and longer doesn’t always mean stronger. If you increase the liquid from 8 to 16oz it will decrease the potency.
PartyTip: If you are brewing for a large group of people you want to use about a cup a gallon and do the same soaking times and process.
WARNING! This can cause extremely quick sedation in some cases and you should not drink kava when you are going to be driving, swashbuckling, minding a child playing with a balloon on a cliff, or anything where falling asleep suddenly will cause you or others instant horrible death. It is best to stay in and in a party situation have friends stay over. There have been driving under the influence tickets issued in Hawaii for driving on kava so be smart. Be smart, and use kava responsibly.
Remember, do your research and purchase only from reputable dealers of Kava, you want to avoid those leaves and stems and get pure roots only.
If after all this, you are worried about interactions please talk to your doctor, or other professional, prior to using Kava. If you have liver issues, since most liver issues that were claimed to be associated with Kava were with people with pre-existing liver issues, you may want to discuss it with your doctor more thoroughly prior to use.
Always do your homework, no one will do it for you, and make sure you do your own testing to ensure you find the strain that is right for you, check for reactions on WebMD. And I can’t say this enough, when in doubt, ask a professional!