Sunday, October 28, 2012

Kava: The Intoxicating Pepper (A Beginner’s Guide)

Typically, I stock my apothecary with plants I can either wildcraft or grow myself. But Kava, native to the South Pacific, is an exception to this rule. Its Latin name, Piper methysticum, means “intoxicating pepper.” Sure enough, this plant can evoke wonderful feelings of relaxation and well-being. But Kava’s healing qualities go far beyond recreation. As a powerful pain reliever, anti-spasmodic, antiseptic and anti-anxiety medicine, Kava is a must-have in my book. Read on to discover why, when and how to use this most beneficial plant medicine.

By, via Wikimedia Commons
What does it feel like?

The Kava feeling seems to vary from person to person. I have known a couple of people who “zone out” with Kava, and for this reason avoid it. To me, the feeling is comparable to a prescription-level pain pill, minus the mental fogginess and drugged feeling. There is a distinct numbness that creeps over you as soon as you imbibe good-quality Kava. It begins with the lips, and moves down through your digestive tract and throughout the body. Interestingly, one of its uses is for a lack of appetite. I can affirm this—Kava munchies, if you will.

For me, the main center of the Kava feeling is the chest. It’s a palpable feeling of painlessness, and it comes with the sensation of a very pleasant weight, as if a warm, loving hand is placed over your heart. This goes along with a general feeling of relaxed well-being.

By Lauren Raine (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I find that a moderate amount of Kava does not impair my senses. Granted, my constitution is mostly of the Vata dosha, meaning that I have an active mind and tend towards an excess of nervous energy. Herbs affect everyone differently because of the way they interact with our personal constitution, chemistry and energy system. Those who are more naturally relaxed may find Kava to be more deeply sedative than I do. But for this admittedly high-strung hummingbird, taking Kava during the day does not cause me to feel tired or fall asleep prematurely—it merely promotes relaxation and clarity. It is also a wonderful meditation aid, especially for deep work as in shamanic journeys.

Conventional Downers and the Energy System

Most sedatives such as alcohol and prescription pain pills dull our senses; in serious episodes of drunken debauchery, people can black out altogether. When this happens, I theorize that the upper chakras shut down—especially the crown chakra that connects us to the divine and our higher selves, the third eye that serves as intuition, and the heart chakra that connects us to feelings of true love. The throat chakra, which governs communication, can still function to an extent, but people in the black-out state would be better off not talking!
By Tom Varco, via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, the lower-vibration chakras that govern our ego, sex drives, and basic survival take over, so we can still eat, drink, have sex, and get into fights while completely unconscious. Our reptilian brains take over, and in the worst cases, most vestiges of humanity are lost. The same thing happens to a lesser extent when we drink any amount of alcohol, or take a synthetic muscle-relaxer or pain reliever. Our senses are dulled, and we are less likely to make healthy choices.

Kava and the Chakras

Unlike synthetic pain relievers or alcohol, Kava actually improves memory and mental clarity. Rather than shutting down the upper chakras unlike conventional downers, Kava simply eases them. While it can calm an over-active mind or soothe an aching heart, it does not obliterate the functions of the mind or heart in the process. In fact, Kava helps still the mind for meditation, so that the typical monkey-brain thoughts invoking worry, fear or stress are easier to manage. You do not forget or ignore your troubles, but truly transcend them into a place of peace. Therein lies the unique glory of the so-called Intoxicating Pepper. I have found that with Kava on hand, I drink less alcohol and as a result feel healthier and more energetic.

Multi-faceted Medicine

There are myriad modes of application for Kava root. For one, it is great to calm the nerves. Those under stress or people prone to anxiety attacks benefit greatly from its use. Once prepared, its effects are fast-acting and last for many hours.

Kava is even used in cases of depression, as it can promote feelings of well-being and acceptance. Improving our mood even for a little while creates space to bring about happier thoughts. Because we tend to draw what we think about into our lives via the Law of Attraction, this in turn brings about a happier and healthier reality. Kava can also be used to treat anorexia, due to its positive effects on the mood and appetite.

Relief from pain is a huge benefit of Kava. When prepared properly (see directions below), it is the best herbal pain-reliever I have tried. Because of its antispasmodic nature, it’s great for muscle cramps and spasms. Back pain can be treated with Kava. Urinary tract infections are another good reason to drink Kava. Not only will your pain be reduced, but the diuretic and antiseptic qualities of the plant will actually help heal the infection. Toothaches, earaches, neuralgia, and even Parkinson’s disease are benefited by Kava. It can also be used topically as an antifungal for ringworm or athlete’s foot. Truly, Kava is a multi-faceted medicine!

By Oliver Stein via Wikimedia Commons

Moon-time Maladies 
and the Phone Bill

One of my all-time favorite moments to drink Kava is during PMS and my menstrual cycle. It eliminates cramps like no other natural substance I’ve tried. Better still, Kava goes above and beyond the call of duty to boost the mood as well. As women know, there can be something of a raw edge to the emotions during moon-time. For some ladies, anger and aggression is the result. For me, extreme cases manifest as a melt-down of tears and fears behind closed doors. “Will my life ever be how I want it? Doesn’t anybody love me? I don’t like the way my body looks!” Oh, you laugh now—but when your time comes, just take a swig of Kava. It’s not a magic eraser, but it promotes a measure of distance between you and the perceived problem. A sense of peace during menstrual maladies is priceless, especially in today’s world where women are expected to continue functioning normally during this vulnerable and sacred time.  

Ed Smith, the co-founder of Herb Pharm in Williams, Oregon, is a big Kava fan. In his Therapeutic Herb Manual, he explains that traditionally, Kava is “taken with a group to enhance sociability and evoke feelings of empathy and camaraderie, and is often used to settle disputes and facilitate reconciliation.”

Herb Pharm Family Summer 2010-Ed Smith is top right.

As an Herb Pharm intern in 2010, I took a class with “Herbal Ed” in which he told a great story about his friend who lived with a few roommates. When it came time to discuss the phone bill, they would all drink Kava together. Rather than arguing about who made which call and who owed the most money, they would soften up and start claiming calls in a generous, open-hearted manner. Clearly, there are moments in each of our lives that call for Kava!

A Word of Warning

Photo of a sign outside Yirrkala, Northern Territory, Australia, where kava is encouraged as a safer alternative to alcohol. Photo by Ray Norris via Wikimedia Commons.
It is true that the FDA has some very serious-sounding warnings about this plant. To put this in perspective, this is the same FDA that does not require labeling of GMOs, and is reportedly run by former Monsanto employees. The FDA certainly does not match my personal standards for health regulation, and I believe each of us must decide for ourselves what is healthy. There is some evidence to suggest that poor-quality Kava has been adulterated with stems and leaves (or other plants altogether!), causing the rare health issues that crop up with its use.

Thus, choosing a good-quality source for your Kava is of the utmost importance. I recommend Kona Kava, which is a family-owned organic Kava farm in Hawaii that produces potent and high-quality root, not diluted with stem or leaf. Their website is chocked full of information and recipes, and you can tell they really love what they do. I buy the powdered root by the pound for the best deal.

That being said, Kava is not for everyone. It should not be used in cases of liver damage or disease, and it should not be mixed with alcohol. As a sedative, it does lower reaction time, so driving or anything else that requires full attention and coordination should be avoided. As with anything, too much can be harmful. Treating this plant with respect and moderation will ensure a healing and uplifting experience.

Kava Preparation: Theory

There are many ways to indulge in the Kava experience, and differing schools of thought on this subject abound. Some go for high-potency, some for authenticity in relation to traditional preparation, and some go for the best taste. Here is what my studies and experiences have taught me:

Generally, herbal extracts work better than ingesting dried herbs (as in capsules), because the body doesn’t have to work as hard to assimilate the substance. Though this fact is not well-known by the general public, it is true for the vast majority of herbs. This is the reason why many people claim that herbal medicine “doesn’t work.” They have simply bought a capsule of dried herb and felt no effects. Extracting herbs in water (as in tea), alcohol (as in tincture), or in fat (as in salve) works best for potency.

In addition to this general extraction principle, you must also take into account the specific components of a plant that you want to extract for the desired effect. This is an art unto itself. Kava contains various active compounds, known as kavalactones, including those soluable by alcohol, water, and fat.

However, according to the Kona Kava website, the most physiologically active kavalactones are fat soluable. The website sells soy lecithin to be added to preparations for better extraction, but I have had good results by using whole milk. I have taken Kava as a tincture before, which did work to an extent, but not as well as extraction with milk. Even Herbal Ed Smith, who owns a tincture company that sells Kava extracts, admits that a tincture is not the best form. To be fair, there is value in keeping the tincture on hand for quick consumption or in case of travel.

And yet, the idea behind preparing Kava is not only to extract, but also to create an emulsion, whereby the active compounds are temporarily suspended in the liquid. In traditional times, this was achieved by virgins chewing the root. I find easier to use a blender, myself.

Kava Preparation: Practice

Here is my personal recipe for Kava—I like to call it a “Kava milkshake.” It is a conglomeration of other recipes I’ve come across, modified to be simple, yet potent. I cover the fat-soluable base with the use of whole milk, and the emulsion principle by using a blender and drinking it the same day. (For vegans, I recommend using coconut milk.)

Tightly-woven cheesecloth
Supplies Needed:

*Powdered Kava Root (two heaping tablespoons)

*Milk (6-8 ounces)


*Muslin bag or tightly-woven cheesecloth

*Tablespoon and Measuring Cup


A heaping dose of love!
-Measure 6-8 ounces of milk in measuring cup and pour into blender. (I use raw, organic whole milk.)

-Scoop two heaping tablespoons of Kava root powder into blender. (I usually heap the tablespoons very high, depending on how potent I want the blend.)

-Briefly turn on blender to mix milk with Kava, making sure all root powder is moistened.

-Let sit for up to an hour. This will aid in the extraction process.

Wrap the cloth around the cup with a rubber band to let it strain.
-Blend for 4-5 minutes. Do this in 2-minute increments if your blender motor protests.

-Pour into measuring cup through muslin bag or cheesecloth. (You can use any cup or glass, or even a coconut shell for authenticity. As a pragmatist, I like to create the fewest dishes possible). I like to let it sit and strain by itself for 10-20 minutes, but if you’re anxious to try your Kava, you can start squeezing right away. Press bag so that you get as much liquid out as possible.

-Drink promptly, as the emulsion falls out of solution with time.

Squeeze out as much liquid as you can from the cloth.
-As Kava drinkers know, the idea is to gulp down the milkshake as fast as you can. The taste is not something to savor, but to get through. It is fairly bitter and tastes earthy like soil. However, after a few nice Kava experiences, you will learn to associate the taste with the happy feelings, thus nullifying your aversion.

-Give thanks for your Kava experience.

A Healthy Alternative

There you have it—a beginner’s guide to the Intoxicating Pepper. There is a wealth of more information available at the Kona Kava website, among many other places. Of course, the best information is gleaned from personal experience, so trying Kava for yourself is a great way to find out more.

Kava is an indispensable medicine—one that treats body, mind, and soul. It is a healthy alternative to alcohol and other relaxants, uplifting the senses and spirit rather than dulling them. It is also a way around the pharmaceutical industry, and can even replace over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol. Kava is a mood-enhancer and pain reliever, and boosts one’s sense of sociability, kindheartedness, and peace. This sacred medicine has been used safely for over 3,000 years by traditional Polynesian cultures. As with all natural substances, our DNA has a long history of relationship with Kava (unlike our relative one-night stand with modern synthetic drugs). In today’s increasingly stressful world, Kava is a plant ally par excellence.


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