Piperaceae (Pepper Family)
Forms and Subspecies
There are numerous cultivars that can be distinguished
on the basis of morphological and chemical
differences. Botanically, however, few of these
have been described as varieties (Halzl et al. 1993,
In contrast, the Polynesians differentiate
among a large number of varieties. In Fiji, six are
counted; they differ from one another in the
height, length, and thickness of the knots on their
stems and the color (from green to purple). Yagana
leka, which is stocky but develops the best aroma,
is particularly esteemed. On the island of Tahiti,
fourteen varieties were once recognized and
differed from one another solely in their inebriating
qualities (Lewin 1886, 6). In Hawaii, a
particular distinction is made with regard to the
variety known by the name black awa, the stems of
which are nearly black; in addition, the following
forms are also named: apu, kau la'au, ke'ake'a,
kuaea (= nene), kumakua, liwa, makea, mamaka,
mamienie, ma'i, makilana, papa, papa ele'ele, and
papa kea (Singh 1992, 20). Twenty-one varieties
are recognized on the Marquesas Islands and five
in Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu has been
reported to have seventy-two different cultivars
(Lebot and Cabalion 1988). The existence of such
variety may be the reason for the rather different
experiences with kava drinks in the different
regions. Recently, completely new and previously
unknown varieties are said to have been
discovered on Vanuatu (Kilham 1996).
Macropiper latifalium Miq.
Macropiper methysticum (G. Forst.) Hook. et
Macropiper methysticum Miq.
Piper decumanum Opitz
Piper inebrians Bertero
Piper inebrians Soland.
Agona, angona, angooner, ava, ava-ava, awa, 'awa
(Hawaiian), awa-awa, cava, gea, gi, intoxicating
pepper, kava, kava-kava, kawa, kawa-kawa, kawa
pepper, kawapfeffer, malohu, maluk, meruk, milik,
poivre enivrant, rauschpfeffer, sakau, wati, yagona,
yakona,yangona,yaona, yaqona, yaquona
The Polynesian word awa or kava means
"bitter;' "pungent;' "sour;' or "sourish"; yangana
(and its derivatives) means "drink" as well as
"bitter" and, thus, "bitter drink" (Singh 1992, 15).
In most cases, the names given to the plant and to
the drink prepared from it are identical. Piper
methysticum does not grow on Rennel Island
(southern Solomon Islands), and no drink made
from the plant is used there. However, a drink
made there from coconuts (Cocos nucifera) is
called, strangely enough, kava kava ngangi (Singh
Kava is the most important psychoactive agent in
Oceania (Lebot et al. 1992). On most of the islands
of Polynesia, the use and cultivation of the plant
appears to have spread along with the settlement
of the islands. Both the plant and kava drinking
have also spread into many of the islands of
Melanesia (Singh 1992, 15). It has been conjectured
that Polynesians colonized Easter Island
(Rapa Nui) in the third or fourth century because
a chief was "led" there by a kava-induced vision
The ethnologist R. W. Williamson has worked
out strong resemblances between the Vedic soma
ritual and the Polynesian kava ceremonies and has
conjectured that at least the ritual of kava spread
from India to Oceania. There, the kava pepper was
used as a substitute for the Indian soma plant
(Williamson 1939). Another ethnologist has argued that Polynesia was originally settled by two
cultures, which on the basis of their "drug" consumption
he called the betel people and the kava
people. Even today, the areas in which betel is
chewed and those in which kava is preferred can
be geographically clearly distinguished (Churchill
1916). The custom of chewing betel quids only
rarely overlaps with that of drinking kava.
The first Europeans to become acquainted with
kava were Captain James Cook (1727-1779) and
his fellow travelers. In 1777, Johann Georg Forster
(1754-1794), who accompanied Cook, provided
the first botanical description of the plant and the
associated ceremony (Vonarburg 1996, 57). The
report of Cook's journey (1784) noted that "when
several of the members of the ship's crew partook
of the drink, it was observed that it induced an
effect like that of a strong dose of an alcoholic
drink or even more a stupefaction such as
produced by opium [cf. Papaver somniferum].
The effects of kava have also been compared to
those of wild lettuce [cf. Lactuca virosa] and those
of hashish [cf. Cannabis indica]" (Lewin 1886,44).
Many islanders used or use kava as an everyday
beverage, just as tea (Camellia sinensis) or coffee
(Coffea arabica) is consumed in other parts of the
world (Gajdusek 1967; Lewin 1886, 18). There are
official kava bars in Fiji and on other islands.
On many South Sea islands, the alcohol that
was introduced by missionaries has supplanted
the use of kava and caused substantial devastation
to the indigenous cultures. Fortunately, this
situation has seen some reversal in recent decades,
as an increase in ethnic identity has given new life
to traditional values. As a result, large amounts of
kava are once again being consumed in many
places, and this has helped to successfully counteract
the growth of alcoholism.
Of all of the psychoactive plants that have been
introduced into Australia, kava appears to have
acquired the greatest significance among the
Aborigines. Since 1980, kava drinking has been
part of the culture of the Northern Territory
(Lebot et al. 1992, 72, 199-202). Some Aborigines
use it to treat alcoholism, while others drink such
high overdoses of kava that new problems have
arisen (Prescott and McCall 1988; Singh 1992, 17).
Kava was first used therapeutically in Europe
around 1820. It was initially used primarily in the
treatment of venereal diseases (Lewin 1886, 17).
The first pharmacognostic and pharmacological
studies were carried out at the close of the
nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth
centuries (Lewin 1886; Penaud 1908). Today, kava
is a popular "natural tranquilizer" (Vonarburg
The original home of kava is unknown; it is
occasionally found in New Guinea and on the New Hebrides. Wild plants are unknown, although
stands of plants that have become wild are
encountered from place to place. Since all of the
cultivars are sterile, the plant can have spread only
through human activity. It may have developed
from Piper wichmannii C. DC.
Prehistoric Polynesians brought the plant to
Hawaii (= Sandwich Islands) at a very early date.
Once there, it spread quickly (Krauss 1981,2*).
The plant does not occur in New Zealand (cf.
Macropiper excelsum) or on Easter Island
(Whistler 1992a, 185).
The plant is propagated from cuttings
(approximately 15 to 20 cm long) taken from the
lower stems or from young stems separated from
the rootstock (also called a stump) when the root
is harvested. The new plant develops shoots after a
short growth period. The plant grows into a
substantial shrub and is ready to be harvested after
five to six years at the most. Kava plantations are
fertilized almost exclusively with ash from wood
and are well tended:
The cultivation of kava requires great care,
skill, and diligence. The soil is often subjected
to treatment with the rake for this purpose,
freed of weeds and fertilized with lime from
shells and coral. ... In areas where the plant is
still cultivated, it is a question of honor for
every family to grow good kava. Before the
arrival of the missionaries, the kava fields were
divided into three parts. The best was given to
the gods that can cause harm-it was taboo,
i.e., sacrosanct, the second to the atuas, the
gods of sleep, and the third was the family's
portion. . . . It was preferred to locate the
plantations in places that were raised, on
cliffs, and dry. But when there was no other
way, one could also find the plants in lower
and wetter valleys at the margins of rivers. The
plants that develop here do not taste as well
and are less aromatic than the former. The
plantations are reminiscent of young fig
plantations. (Lewin 1886, 13)
The most important commercial areas for
growing kava are now found in Samoa, Fiji, and
This bushy, evergreen shrub usually grows to a
height of about 2 meters, although it can grow to a
height of more than 5 meters. The light green,
alternate, heart-shaped leaves can grow as long as
30 cm. The greenish white male inflorescences can
attain a length of up to 6 cm and form in spikes
attached at the leafaxils; female flowers are
unknown (Whistler 1992a, 185). The fruits are said to form one-seeded berries (Lewin 1886). The
juicy root (stump) can grow very large, develop
multiple branches, and weigh from 2 to 10 kilos.
Piper methysticum is easily confused with
similar Piper species (e.g., Piper tutuilae C. DC.),
which are also called kava or ava (Uhe 1974,23*).
The closely related species Piper puberulum
(Benth.) Benth. var. glabrum (C. DC.) A.C. Sm.
[syn. Macropiper puberulum Benth., Piper macgillivrayi
C. DC. ex Seem.], which is very common in
Tonga, is similar in appearance (although it has
red inflorescences) and is known as kavakava'uli
or kavakava'ulie, and on Niue even as kavakava,
but it is not used for psychoactive purposes
(Weiner 1971, 443; Whistler 1992b, 73 f.; Whistler
1992a, 169). Another quite similar species is Piper
latifolium Forst. (also known as bastard kava;
Lewin 1886, 8), which grows on the Marquesas.
On the Society Islands, P. latifolium is known as
avavahai. Any psychoactive use of this plant is
unknown (Steinmetz 1973,6).
The kava plant is so similar to the American
species Piper auritum that almost the only way to
distinguish the two species is by the scent of their
leaves. Steinmetz reported a Caribbean species
that is also very similar (Piper plantagineum
Schlecht.) and that the natives of the West Indies
or Mexico allegedly once used in a similar manner
to kava (Steinmetz 1973,6).
- Root (rhizome, kava-kava rhizome, kava-kava
rootstock, kava pepper root, piperis methystici
rhizoma, radix kava-kava, rhizoma kava-kava,
rhizoma kavae, waka); usually the peeled
stump that has been freed of small roots
The dried plant material must be stored
away from light. The stump loses some 600/0 of
its moisture as it dries. The kava from Vanuatu
is especially high in quality.
- Fresh leaves
- Fresh or dried stems (lewana)
Preparation and Dosage
The freshly dug root is freed of its small secondary
roots, peeled and chopped, and then prepared
while either fresh or dried. Kavains (kavapyrones)
are not easily soluble in water but do dissolve well
in alcohol. For this reason, it is best to prepare an alcohol tincture of the stump. In the
pharmaceutical industry, the dried root is used to
obtain alcohol/water or acetone extracts with 94%
ethanol and 1% ethylmethylketone. The yield, or
kavapyrone content, is greatest in a pure alcohol
extract (31.6 to 35.40/0) and makes up some 30%
in alcohol/water mixtures (cf. Holzi et al. 1993,
203). Sixty to 120 mg of kavapyrones is listed as a
medicinal dosage (the amount can vary considerably
depending upon the preparation); in clinical
studies, 200 to 300 mg were administered daily for
a period of several days. In spite of the daily use by
countless numbers of PolYnesians, the pharmaceuticalliterature
warns against using the plant for
a period exceeding three months. Pregnant
women and people with endogenous psychoses
should also avoid kava (Holzi et al. 1993,210).
The traditional production of the refreshing
and inebriating kava drink (also known as ava,
kavakava, sakau, wati, viti grog, and fiji grog) is
identical on almost all of the islands. Normally,
the fresh roots are peeled and then chewed by
young men (less frequently by girls or young
women) for about ten minutes and insalivated.
This process can increase the volume of the root
pieces considerably. The chewed material is then
mixed with water in special sacred vessels (kava
bowls, tanoo, kanoa) made from the hard wood of
vesi (Intsia bijuga [Colebr.] O. Ktze. [syn. Afzelia
bijuga A. Gray]; Leguminosae [Caesalpiniaceae])
and "fermented" shortly before use. (In the early
literature, one could occasionally read that the
drink was allowed to "ferment"; this information,
however, appears to be based on an error; Lewin
1886, 24.) The resulting milky drink is filtered
through a sieve made from the inner bark of
Hibiscus tiliaceus L. (vau, fau) or from coconut
fibers (Cocos nucifera) and poured into drinking
bowls. The drink is consumed only while fresh, as
it becomes flat and unappetizing if allowed to
stand for too long (Steinmetz 1973, 13 ff.).
The finished kava drink has a dark, sometimes
brown, yellow, or gray cloudy color and a characteristic
taste that can differ in aroma but may also
be soaplike, very bitter, or astringent. The drink
induces an anesthesia on the surface of the mouth
similar to that produced by coca (cf. Erythroxylum
In Fiji, the kava drink was once prepared not by chewing (mama) the root but by grating it with
large mushroom corals (a practice that presumably
was also found in other places) (Ford 1967,
165). In Hawaii, kava was made using coconut
milk (cf. Cocos nucifera) instead of water (Krauss
1981, 2*). In addition, Hawaiian Huna sorcerers
(kahunas) would boil a poisonous drink from
roots collected on days of heavy rain together with
the leaves of Tephrosia piscatoria [syn. Theophrosia
purpurea] Daphne indica, and a Lagenaria species
(Kepler 1983; McBride 1988; cf. also Singh 1992,
Typically, each person drinks one to four coconut
shells' worth of kava drink (= 0.5 to 2.0 liters)
at the kava ceremonies. Many Polynesians drink a
couple of bowls of freshly prepared kava every day.
Some "enthusiastic kava drinkers consume the
drink 6 to 8 times a day" (Lewin 1886, 19).
The old notion that kava acquires its inebriating
or psychoactive effects only after it has been
"fermented" (insalivated) has been clearly refuted
(Schmidt 1994, 376 f.). However, the insalivation
does appear to enable the kavapyrones (which do
not easily dissolve in water) to release in the
emulsion and thus be absorbed when the fresh
beverage is consumed.
The inebriating (psychoactive) effects become
apparent only after the consumption of several
liters: "A certain numbness appears only after the
ingestion of some 9 liters of the kava drink"
(Vonarburg 1996, 58). Chronic consumption of
very high doses (13 liters per day, corresponding
to approximately 310 to 440 g of dried rootstock)
can lead to toxic effects (rash, hair loss, yellow
coloration of the skin, reddening of the eyes, loss
of appetite, et cetera) (Halzl et al. 1993,211). Daily
dosages of 4 liters or less will not induce these
symptoms or will do so only extremely rarely.
The traditional methods of preparation use
some 100 g of dried plant material per 100 ml of
water, corresponding to about 70 mg of kavapyrones,
oftentimes more (Halzl et al. 1993, 203).
The lethal dosage for humans is unknown. In
mice, the LDso is 1,500 mg of kavapyrones per
kilogram of body weight (Halzl et al. 1993,212).
The inebriating effects of kava can also result
from or be potentiated by various additives:
But kava can also be used alone and without
any preparation. A piece of the fresh rootstock
about as long and as thick as a finger is a good
dosage for inducing psychoactive effects. It should
be chewed well and then swallowed. The effects of
kava appear to be potentiated by the addition of
A tonic can be prepared by emulsifying equal
parts of ground kava root and lecithin in a
blender. Kava roots are sometimes used as an
ingredient in betel quids. It is possible that kava
roots and honey may be used to brew a mead
whose effects are more inebriating than those of a
cold-water extract of chewed roots. Whether the
inebriating beverage known as keu was indeed
made from Piper methysticum, as has been
suggested, is unknown.
In the Society Islands, juice from the root of
Piper tristachyon was formerly used to "ferment"
an inebriating beverage known as ava ava (von
Reis Altschul 1975, 45*).
Other substances are occasionally added to the kava drink
(Holmes 1967, 107; Lewin 1886,23; Singh 1992,23):
The traditional ritual uses of kava include the kava
ceremonies as well as the use of the plant for
magical purposes. The more original kava
ceremonies are especially well documented in the
ethnographic literature and still exist, in the same
or at least a similar form, in Fiji, Samoa, and
Vanuatu (Lebot et al. 1992; Singh 1992).
Kava ceremonies range from formal to
informal in nature. They can function as a
greeting for guests, as a part of tribal deliberations,
and as a part of the relaxing, social drinking
rounds that take place in the evenings. The basic
pattern of the ceremonies is always the same. First,
the drink is prepared, accompanied by prayers and
songs. Then the participants sit either in two
groups, one facing the other, or in a circle. The
priest, chief, politician, or host distributes equal
portions of the drink to all of the participants. The
ceremony, which is usually accompanied by
collective singing, ends after a number of rounds.
At the conclusion, the location at which the
ceremony has taken place, the temple, and the
ceremonial objects are all cleansed. Sometimes
dancing accompanies the ceremony (Singh 1992).
In some places, only men are allowed to take
part in the kava ceremonies, while on other islands
everyone can drink. The women of Tonga once
had their own drinking societies (Lewin 1886,20).
Some initiation ceremonies, such as the initiation
of girls into the sacred hula dances, also involve
kava. On Niue, it was once only the priests who
drank kava, which they did to obtain visions
(Singh 1992, 16).
Any person who saw the shark-shaped sea god
Sekatoa in the water would have to ceremonially
purify himself with a kava drink (Singh 1992, 28).
At their ceremonies or libations, the Samoans-through their chief-ask the gods for
health, long life, a good harvest, and success in
war. In Samoa, the largest roots are called lupesina
("great respect"); they are presented as gifts to
people of respect but are not consumed (Cox and
Kava roots were or are placed as offerings in
temples and shrines or hung together with small
branches of Waltheria americana. Kava roots also
are placed on the graves of deceased family
members as a last farewell. Perhaps this should be
seen in the context of certain mythological
traditions, according to which the first kava plant
grew upon the grave of a Tongan leper. On the
Marquesas Islands, it is believed that the plant was
born as a child of the god Atea, who provides food,
sends the rain, is the lord of the farmers, and was
transformed into the inebriating plant. One story
told in Tonga describes how the cooked daughter
of the host was placed before the great chief Loua
during a feast. When he smelled the roast, he had
the well-done flesh buried. The first kava plant
grew from the grave. In Vanuatu, it is said that an
old man observed a rabbit chewing on a kava root.
After watching this on several occasions, he tried
the root himself and invented the kava drink
(Singh 1992, 18 f.).
On the islands of Vanuatu and other islands of
the South Pacific, kava is used in magic, especially
magic intended to harm others (Singh 1992, 29).
The practice is known as elioro in Vanuatu and is
used to send out disease or death to a specific
person. The sorcerer buries a "deadly object"usually
a kava root upon which incantations have
been uttered or a blood-filled bamboo tube-at a
spot where it is assumed that the intended victim
will pass by. By passing or, even better, walking
over the spot, the unsuspecting victim assimilates
the harmful magic and then becomes ill or dies
(Ludvigson 1985, 56). In contrast, in Hawaii kava
is regarded as a means for removing magic (Singh
The majority of the artifacts associated with kava
are those used in its preparation and consumption
(shells, bowls, mortars, drinking vessels).
The large, round wooden bowls used in
preparing kava frequently feature carved legs
(often depictions of people). Strings made of
coconut fiber are used to attach cowrie shells
(Cypraea moneta 1., Cypraea annulus 1.) to the
kava bowls of the chiefs for magical protection. In
Samoa, the wa ni tanoa, "king's vessel;' was sometimes
decorated with the renowned gold cowrie
(Cypraea aurantium Gmelin), the symbol of the
ruler's office (Ford 1967, 166, 167).
The drinking vessels of Fiji (m'bilo, bilo ni
yagona, ipu'ava, 'apu 'awa) are made from halves
of coconut shells (Cocos nucifera) to which strings of coconut fibers are sometimes attached. The
resinous remnants of the drink impart a glasslike
finish to these coconut shells after they have been
used enough times. This layer is sometimes
scraped off and ingested as an especially potent
form of kava (Lewin 1886, 27; Singh 1992, 26). In
Tonga, banana leaves are woven together to make
single-use kava cups. On the Hawaiian and other
Polynesian islands, ritual kava-drinking vessels are
made from calabash gourds (Lagenaria spp.)
In Fiji and Samoa, there are numerous kava
songs that are sung at ceremonies, when greeting
people, when making kava, and on other
occasions. Some of these songs have been published
in ethnomusical recordings (e.g., Unique
Fiji: The Nakamakama Villagers in Mekes and
Songs, OlYmpic Records no. OL-6159, 1979). One
psychedelic rock band from England took its
name-Kava Kava-from that of the inebriating
plant. The plant can also be seen in the paintings
of some Hawaiian and Polynesian artists.Medicinal Use
In Samoa, kava is regarded as an aphrodisiac,
tonic, and stimulant. The rootstock is used to treat
gonorrhea and elephantiasis (Uhe 1974, 23*;
Weiner 1971, 443). The plant is widely used as an
internal and external analgesic (Whistler 1992a,
In Hawaii, restless and feverish children are
given in the morning and in the evening kava
roots that their mothers have prechewed (Krauss
1981,2*). In Tonga, an infusion of crushed yellow
(semiwilted) leaves is administered to crying
children as a calmative (Weiner 1971,443). In New
Caledonia, the fresh leaves are chewed for
bronchitis (Weiner 1971, 443); in Tonga, the fresh
leaves are rubbed onto the stings of giant
centipedes, insects, and poisonous fish (Whistler
1992b, 73). In Oceania, kava is used as an antidote
for poisoning by strychnine or Strychnos nuxvomica
(Pfeiffer et a1. 1967, 155; Schmidt 1994,
474), a traditional use whose effectiveness has
been pharmacologically verified (Singh 1992,39).
In Papua New Guinea, great quantities of kava
are chewed and swallowed to induce a kind of
numbness for painful tattooing procedures
In Western phytotherapy, kava preparations are
used to treat states of nervous anxiety, tension, and
restlessness (H6lzl et aL 1993, 210; Schmidt 1994)
and-according to the claims of certain pill
manufacturers-to increase concentration and
performance (Hansel and Woelck 1995).
Preparations in which kava is combined with St.
John's wort (Hypericum perforatum 1.) are used as
mild antidepressants (cf. Becker 1994, 3*). The
essence or mother tincture (Piper methysticum
hom. HAB34, Piper methysticum hom. HPUS88) is used in homeopathy for such conditions as
states of excitation and exhaustion (Holzi et al.
Kavalactones (= kava pyrones, kavapyrones, (Xpyrones,
kavains) occur in all parts of the plant,
usually totaling a concentration of over 50/0, with
1.80/0 kavain, 1.2% methysticin (= kavahine,
kavakin, kavatin, kanakin), 10/0 demethoxy-yangonin,
1% yangonin, 0.60/0 dihydrokavain, 0.50/0
dihydromethysticin, and traces of dihydrokavain5-
01, 11,12-dimethoxyhydrokavain, II-hydroxy12-
11-methoxy-yangonin, and the two ethylketones
cinnamoylacetone and methylendioxy-3,4-cinnamoylidenacetone
(Schulgin 1973; Young et al.
1966). The plant has been found to contain
amides (2-methoxy cinnamic acid pyrrolidide,
cinnamic acid pyrrolidide), chalcones (flavokavin
A and B), and free and aromatic acids (anisic acid,
benzoic acid, capronic acid, hydroxy cinnamic
acid, and derivatives) (Holzl et al. 1993, 202; Klohs
1967). A pale yellow essential oil has also been
described (Lewin 1886,30).
The leaves contain 0.71 0/0 transient pipermethysticin
(an alkaloid); this compound is found
in the stems in lower concentrations but not in the
roots (Cox and O'Rourke 1987, 454). Dihydrokavain,
dihydromethysticin, and yangonin are
present in the stems. Trace amounts of the
substance cepharadione A were discovered in the
roots (according to the DAB supplemental volume
6). This substance is also found in other Piper
species (Piper spp.) (Jaggy and Achenbach 1992).
Kavapyrones are chemically related to longistylines
(cf. Lonchocarpus violaceus, balche').
Potent psychoactive effects of the local drink have
been reported particularly for Pohnpei (Ponape)
(Hambruch 1917; Thurnwald 1908). It is said that
after several rounds, the participants in the
drinking ritual leave their bodies and are able to
glide over the tropical island world in a
disembodied state and journey to the heavens, to
the home of the kava plant. They experience
sensations of fraternization and unity with their
environment as well as erotic visions. These and
similar statements in the older literature,
according to which kava may have hallucinogenic
effects, have been cast in serious doubt by many
authors who have had numerous experiences of
their own (Cox and O'Rourke 1987, 454). The
legendary hallucinogenic effect has occasionally
been attributed to the additives that may be used
(in particular Datura metel; see above).
Frequent mention is made of euphoric effects
that 'begin shortly after the consumption of larger
amounts and subside some two to three hours later (Roth et al. 1994, 572*). There is general
agreement among both the authors and the kava
consumers alike that the drink quenches thirst
better than beer, has mild stimulating and
invigorating effects that revitalize the body after
strenuous exertion, clears the head, and stimulates
the appetite. In contrast, the aphrodisiac or
anaphrodisiac effects are the subject of debate
(Lewin 1886; Steinmetz 1973). "Too, kava is a
means of maintaining or enhancing intimacy"
(Gregory 1995,44). Louis Lewin summarized the
reported psychoactive effects in the following way:
Following not too large amounts, a sensation
of happy lightheartedness, comfort, and
satisfaction appears without any physical or
mental excitation. At first, speaking is easy and
free and the vision and hearing are more acute
for finer impressions. The agent reveals a
calming power. The drinkers never become
angry, mad, quarrelsome, or paralyzed as with
alcohol, which the Fiji Islanders also especially
esteem as an advantage of this beverage. The
natives and the whites regard it as a sedative in
cases of accidents. Both consciousness and the
rational faculties remain intact. When somewhat
larger quantities are consumed, then the
limbs become limp; the muscle power no
longer appears to be under the jurisdiction
and control of the will; walking becomes
slower and more unsteady; the people appear
as if half-drunk; one feels the need to lie
down. The eye sees objects that are present but
does not want to and cannot fix upon them on
command, just as the ear perceives without
being able or willing to give an account of that
which is being heard. An overpowering tiredness
and a need to sleep that controls every
sensation becomes apparent in the drinker; he
becomes somnolent and finally falls asleep.
Some Europeans have observed this power of
kava to lame the senses and ultimately lead to
sleep, which is like magic, on their own selves.
Often, it merely produces a torpid/somnolent
state accompanied by disconnected dreams
and, according to some reports, by erotic
visions as well. (Lewin 1886,44 f.)
Numerous pharmacological studies have
demonstrated that the psychoactive effects of kava
are due to the kavapyrones; moreover, they are not
caused by one isolated substance but instead
appear to be due to the mixture (Meyer 1967,
140). In experiments with mice, extracts have
produced strong sedative effects (Holzl et al. 1993,
Like meprobamat or benzodiazepine [cf. diazepam],
the kavapyrones are capable of lowering
the excitability of the limbic system, whereby the inhibition of the activity of the
limbic system is regarded as an expression of a
suppression of emotional excitability and an
improvement in the mood. (Holzi et al. 1993,
Muscle-relaxing, antispasmodic, analgesic, local
anesthetic, and nerve-protecting effects have all
been pharmacologically demonstrated. The
kavapyrones also cause a prolongation or
deepening of anesthesia (induced, e.g., by
chloroform, ether, laughing gas, or barbiturates),
for which methysticin has the strongest synergistic
effects. Kava extracts have antagonistic effects on
dopamineA neurotransmitter associated with movement, attention, learning, and the brain’s pleasure and reward system., apomorphine, and amphetamine (cf.
ephedrine) (Holzi et al. 1993, 205; Meyer 1976).
Kava also potentiates the effects of alcohol (e.g.,
the duration of sleep following inebriation; cf.
Zubke 1997). The local anesthetic effects are very
similar to those of cocaine, procaine, and
lidocaine, and the duration of effects is similar
(Halzl et al. 1993, 206; Meyer and May 1964; Singh
1992, 40). There is some evidence suggesting that
the kavapyrones bind to the GABAGamma aminobutyric acid an amino acid that is found in the central nervous system; acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter. and/or benzodiazepine
receptors ([3H]-GABAGamma aminobutyric acid an amino acid that is found in the central nervous system; acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter. bond, [3H]diazepam
bond), thereby exhibiting an affinity
similar to that of muscimol and diazepam (Halzl
et al. 1992). Human pharmacological studies on
healthy subjects using 210 mg or even 300 to 600
mg of kavapyrones per day have demonstrated
that the quality of sleep is improved, anxiety states
are dissipated, and information processing in the
brain is improved, while reaction times are
unaffected (Halzl et al. 1993, 207; Hansel and
Kammerer 1996). Often the desired effects do not
become apparent until after several days of regular
consumption (Schmidt 1994, 376). In rare
instances, kava use may result in mild allergic
reactions. However, "there are no indications of
physical and/or psychological dependency" (Halzl
et al. 1993,210).
It has frequently been reported that kava can
induce marijuana-like effects (cf. Cannabis indica),
but that these effects are very subtle and are perceived
only following repeated ingestion of the
substance (Miller 1985,59*; Zubke 1997).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Kava, both raw and in its various preparations, is
available without restriction throughout the world
(even in herb shops, health food stores, supermarkets,
et cetera). Many South Pacific islands
have bars in which no alcohol is served but various
preparations of kava are.
Numerous preparations and products (capsules,
tablets, coated tablets, solutions, tinctures) are
available in European and Western markets,
including capsules containing kava extracts and
the oil of St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum 1.;
cf. Becker 1994*) for treating stress and capsules with extracts of kava and valerian (Valeriana
officinalis) for relaxation. Each of the Antares®
120 tablets contains 120 mg of kavapyrones; these
thus have one of the highest concentrations of all
commercial forms (Schmidt 1994, 376). Each
capsule of the psychopharmacological agent
known as Neuronika contains 200 mg of kavain
(cf. Kretschmer 1970). Many products contain only
10 mg of kavapyrones in each pill.
See also the entries for Piper auritum, Piper betle,
Piper spp., Macropiper excelsum, keu, and betel
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