A Brief History of What is Kava Kava?

Humans have a long history of using plants for everything from clothing to building materials to food. Long before we started creating drugs in laboratories, we were looking to plants to provide us relief from our ailments. Even today, many of our most powerful drugs – from opiates for pain to taxol for cancer – started as plant medicines. 

Kava Kava – Piper methysticum – is part of the pepper family of plants. This group of the plants, that number in the thousands of varieties worldwide, include some like black pepper (Piper nigrum) that you may have at home in your kitchen. Kava is native to parts of the South Pacific where it tends to grow on damp, shady mountainsides.

While the precise origins of its use are not known and predate recorded history of the area, kava has been used for centuries on various islands of the South Pacific. The traditional use has been as a social beverage for practically all phases of life - as an integral part of formal gatherings, ratification of important agreements, celebrations of achievements, births, weddings and deaths, offerings to the gods, or simply as a means to benefit the enjoyment of daily life.1

The head is affected pleasantly; you feel friendly, not overly sentimental; you cannot hate with kava in you. Kava quiets the mind; the world gains no new color or rose tint; it fits in its place and in one easily understandable whole.

~ Edwin Lemert describing Kava in Human Deviance, Social Problems, & Social Control, 19672

 

The Kava experience is described as a relaxed state of mind without the marked euphoria, impaired decision making, or disinhibition as often seen with similar therapeutics such as alcohol and benzodiazepines.  Such a uniquely mild yet noticeable shift without cognitive impairment or tolerance factors is the key reason Kava stands out as offering great therapeutic potential.

Modern research on Kava has largely centered on anxiety and related disorders. A meta-analysis of 113 studies of kava for Generalized Anxiety Disorder concluded significant anxiolysis compared to placebo in all but one of them. Also of note, is data from both traditional and modern use suggesting that kava could be useful in treating addiction, including nicotine/tobacco4, alcohol, cocaine, and heroin.5

Given the long history of human use for a varied range of purposes, there is certainly room for a spectrum of products from recreational use to refined therapeutics. While extracts of kava are widely available as herbal tinctures, capsules, and teas, some of the therapeutic value of the active components might be best optimized as a drug that can focus on narrowing the target mechanism and delivering the therapy in a way that avoids challenges of oral deliver such as dose frequency and liver metabolism.

 

 

References

  1. Kava: An Overview. - American Botanical Council. Accessed March 30, 2022. https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/39/table-of-contents/article126/
  2. Lemert EM. Human Deviance, Social Problems, and Social Control. Prentice-Hall; 1967.
  3. Pittler MH, Ernst E. Kava extract versus placebo for treating anxiety. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2003;2003(1):CD003383. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD003383
  4. Wang Y, Narayanapillai SC, Tessier KM, et al. The Impact of One-week Dietary Supplementation with Kava on Biomarkers of Tobacco Use and Nitrosamine-based Carcinogenesis Risk among Active Smokers. Cancer Prev Res Phila Pa. 2020;13(5):483-492. doi:10.1158/1940-6207.CAPR-19-0501
  5. Steiner GG. Kava as an anticraving agent: preliminary data. Pac Health Dialog. 2001;8(2):335-339.