Kava (Kava-Kava, ‘Awa), or piper methysticum, is a tropical shrub that is used recreationally and traditionally for the sedative, anesthetic and relaxant effects the root produces. Also known as Waka, Grog, Yaqona and Wati, the ground, dried roots are consumed mixed in water or in capsules. The substance has a slightly bitter and aromatic taste that induces tranquility and relaxation in those who consume the tea or powder.
Kava has been used in the Pacific Islands for many years as a traditional healing medicine and in family, cultural and social ceremonies. These ceremonies were to strengthen family groups, communicate with spirits and reaffirm status and rank. Weddings, festivals, holidays and funerals are all events where kava is used with a set ritual associated with the substance. Special bowls are used in the consumption of kava which are intricately decorated and often have been passed down through generations.
Traditionally, kava was extracted for drinking through a process of chewing the roots and mixing the resulting paste into a bowl with water. Children and young women were usually given the task of performing this task. It is believed that when the saliva and kava root are mixed together in this way that a stronger form of kava is extracted than the grated and powdered form.
Kava is increasingly becoming a popular drink throughout the world for its sedative and calming properties but it is also being used in other food products and as a herbal supplement. Bottled drinks containing kava, tea bags and powdered supplements to add to drinks are being found on the shelves of supermarkets and are sales are rising.
It has only been since the early 2000’s that kava begun to be heavily promoted to those in the West. Through significant marketing and promotion, a number of herbal and therapeutic companies advertised the unique anesthetic, analgesic and anxiolytic properties of this plant.
Kava is a nervous system depressant and may cause a person to exhibit symptoms similar to being drunk on alcohol. Commonly reported effects include difficulty in speaking, numbness in throat and mouth, relaxation, sleepiness, feelings of well-being, dilated pupils, nausea and loss of appetite. Kava lactones, which are the active ingredient in the drug, are absorbed through the stomach into the bloodstream and make users feel the effects relatively quickly.
Kava is often used as a social substance to develop empathy and closeness between people. Used in the Pacific Islands as a drink to encourage story telling and reduce social anxieties/, many people report this effect when they consume it. Although it is not known to be addictive, there may be some psychological dependence on the substance if it is used to reduce social anxieties.
Kava is known to negatively impact on the health of some people, including those who have existing liver damage or are chronic alcoholics. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid taking this substance and those who have existing psychiatric conditions such as depression or schizophrenia.
Long term health problems caused by kava are relatively unknown, but research suggests that it can cause damage to the liver and kidney, impact on respiratory and immune system functioning and may cause skin conditions such as rashes or lesions. Kava may also interact with pharmaceutical or therapeutic medicines.
Although kava is a relatively safe substance, its use has been linked to severe liver damage and may contribute to accidents due to its sedative properties. It is restricted for use and sale in many countries around the world including Australia, Canada, France, Germany and United States. However, the ground powder is available to purchase online from many different online vendors and the plant can be bought from many plant stores.
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