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Uses of Kava

Stressed out?  Kava is like taking a vacation to Fiji in liquid form.

Surf boards and coconuts aren’t the only things that the South Pacific islands export—there is a drink the islanders have used for over three thousand years that takes the edge off anxiety and insomnia and can be found in special bars all over America. Is it some strange alcoholic brew the islanders have kept a secret?  No—it is kava, and it won’t get you drunk.  But it just might help you relax without a Xanax prescription.

What is Kava?

Kava the drink comes from the kava plant, a tropical shrub that grows virtually everywhere in the South Pacific from Fiji to the Solomon Islands.  Kava is a member of the pepper family, so if you are drinking kava at a bar and your mouth and lips become numb, it isn’t because your bartender has spiked it with cocaine.

The secret to kava’s appeal is its relaxing and sedating effects.  Kava contains chemicals known as kavalactones.  There are 18 of these kavalactones, but six of them are responsible for 96 percent of the plant’s pharmacological activity.  For example, there is kavain, which is recommended for daytime use because of its heady and euphoric effects.  And then there is dihydrokavain, which is known to be heavily sedating.  Kava aficionados will talk about the chemotype, or the chemical profile of a particular kava strain.  Each kavalactone is assigned a number.  Strains that begin with a 4 or 6 are recommended for daytime use; strains that begin with a 2 or 5, on the other hand, are considered nighttime strains because of their heavily sedating effects.

Noble vs Tudei Kava

Most kava that is sold today is so-called “noble” kava.  Noble kava strains are better for health than tudei kava, as tudei can cause lethargy and nausea—plus a pretty nasty hangover.  And Tudei kavas contain a kavalactone known as flavokawain B, which can be toxic to the liver.  Tudei kava is rarely cultivated for this reason. The Republic of Vanuatu recently passed a law prohibiting the sale of anything other than noble varieties.

There are over 100 varieties of kava, 80 of which grow in kava’s traditional homeland, Vanuatu. Due to their unique chemotypes, effects can vary from one strain to the next.  For example, Solomon Island kava strains have a relaxing effect on the body, whereas kava from Fiji tends to induce euphoria.  Stoners will recognize this as equivalent to the difference between indica and sativa marijuana strains.

Traditional Use

Pacific Islanders have used kava for over three thousand years, for medicinal, religious and recreational purposes.  The use of kava will vary from one group of islands to the next.

Samoa

Samoans drink kava in traditional religious ceremonies.  A group of people called aumaga prepare the kava beforehand.  Each participant in the ceremony is served by a person called a tatua’ava in the order prescribed by the tufa’ava, the kava distributor.  For example, the visiting party’s chief gets his kava first, followed by the host party’s chief.  Samoan kava ceremonies are like a long ritual, which specific hand gestures and phrases used throughout.

Vanuatu

In Vanuatu, the islanders consume kava at night in clubs called nakamal.  However, at these clubs, you’ll never see a “ladies’ night” event because women are barred from entering.  (In the less traditional areas of Vanuatu, some kava establishments allow women to attend.)  Preparation varies in different parts of the Vanuatu islands.  In northern and central Vanuatu the kava is ground up, whereas in southern Vanuatu it is chewed up and spit into a container.

Hawaii

Hawaiians drink kava for medicinal, spiritual and recreational purposes and its use is open to both men and women.

Tonga

Tongans drink kava in clubs called kalapu.  Women are not allowed to consume.  The men are served by a young unmarried woman called a “tou’a” who is given a lot of respect. The tou’a cannot be related to any of the men, and if she is, the man has to go home.  If no female tou’a can be found, then a man will take her place.

Everyone gathered sits on the floor cross legged as the kava is served in two rounds.  The men will talk about everything ranging from politics to sports over coconut shells filled with kava.  They will then sing love songs accompanied by guitar.

Medicinal Use

Kava has been used to treat a wide range of conditions, including obesity, asthma, fungal infections, and anxiety.  It also has pain relieving properties and the more sedating strains are good for insomnia. In fact, a study done by the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology found that kava produces a significant reduction in anxiety versus placebo.

Kava Bars

North America’s first kava bar, Nakava, opened in 2000 in south Florida.  There are now dozens of kava bars across the country.  If you are in Colorado Springs, come visit the Ohana Kava Bar.  Ohana means “family” in the Hawaiian language and if you come often enough, it feels as though you are joining a small community.  Ohana features multiple varieties of high quality noble kava strains, kombucha tea, and noni juice.  It is a viable alternative to the Colorado Springs’ downtown bar scene.  There is now a new location on North Academy Boulevard as well. Come join us and drink your anxieties away.