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.

Folk Names

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

1992, 16).


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

(Ripinsky-Naxon 1989,221*).

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).

Psychoactive Material

- 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*).

Kava Additives

Other substances are occasionally added to the kava drink

(Holmes 1967, 107; Lewin 1886,23; Singh 1992,23):

<tbody> </tbody>
Chili pods Capsicum spp. PolYnesia
Kava leaves Piper methysticum New Guinea
Coconut milk Cocos nucifera Hawaii
Thorn apple seeds Datura metel Fiji
Yagoyagona (extract) Piper puberulum Fiji

Ritual Use

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

O'Rourke 1987,454).

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

1992, 15).


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.)

(Dodge 1995).

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

(Steinmetz 1973,23).

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-

methoxykavain, II-methoxy-nor-yangonin,

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


Brunton, R. 1989. The abandoned narcotic: Kava and

cultural instability in Melanesia. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

Buckley, Joseph P., Angelo R. Furgiuele, and Maureen

J. O'Hara. 1967. Pharmacology of kava. In

Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs,

ed. D. Efron, 141-51. Washington, D.C.: U.S.

Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Churchill, W. 1916. Sissano: Movements ofmigration

within and through Melanesia. Washington, D.C.:

Carnegie Institution. (See pages 124-44.)

Cox, Paul Alan, and Lisa O'Rourke. 1987. Kava

(Piper methysticum, Piperaceae). Economic

Botany 41:452-54.

Dodge, Ernest 5.1995. Hawaiian and other

Polynesian gourds. Honolulu: Ku Pa'a Publishing.

Ford, Clellan S. 1967. Ethnographical aspects of

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psychoactive drugs, ed. D. Efron, 162-73.

Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health,

Education, and Welfare.

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ed. D. Efron, 119-25. Washington, D.C.: U.S.

Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Garner, Leon E, and Jeremy D. Klinger. 1985. Some

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Hansel, R. and H. U. Beiersdorff. 1959. Zur Kenntnis

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