Kava (Piper Methysticum)

KavaKava, a word that may be derived from the Hawaiian name for the plant, ‘awa, which means, “bitter”, was known from the Native islanders, as a thick, bitter brew made from the pounded rhizome of a robust tropical plant.

As It is a greatly branched out plant,  the stems are somewhat succulent, hairless, with distinct swollen nodes. The alternate leaves range from broadly heart shaped to nearly circular in outline, with prominent veins beneath. The deep green leaves are mostly smooth above, with lighter coloration and fine hairs beneath. They are typically 4 to 10 inches wide and 4 to 8 inches long. The leaf stalk is up to 2 inches long, and is winged for about half its length. The flowers are often terminal, either solitary or in small groups. It is not known to produce viable seed. The most important part of the plant is the strongly aromatic root, which has many rootlets. It is typically harvested when it is 6 to 8 feet in height, but if left to grow, it can reach ups to 20 ft.

Kava Kava – Native Range

Kava is believed to have originated in Melanesia, and spread from there to other South Pacific islands.

Historical Facts

  • Kava was originally a drink reserved for royalty or served to honored guests. Kava also had great religious significance. By drinking it, the islanders believed they could gain access to the spirit realm of both ancestors and gods. The ritual/ceremonial use of kava continues on a number of Pacific islands to this day.
  • On almost every island where kava grew, islanders have used  this sacred plant medicinally and ceremonially for centuries. Its primary use was for relieving nervous tension and elevating mood. Islanders also chewed the rhizomes to relieve headache pain. Taken in larger quantities, kava induced sleep and so was taken as a cure for insomnia. People also drank kava as a health-promoting tonic and to combat fatigue, alleviate weakness, and treat chills and colds.
  • During the second voyage across the Pacific Ocean in the 1770s, Capt. James Cook encountered the inhabitants of several Pacific Islands drinking this thick brew. He then went on to introduce kava to Europe. However, It wasn’t until the 1990s that the herb became popular in the West.
  •  Today it is used in herbal medicine as an alternative to prescription medications in treating symptoms associated with anxiety, nervous tension, and depression without disrupting mental clarity. it may help reduce symptoms of anxiety associated with menopause and premenstrual syndrome. Herbal practitioners also recommend kava for insomnia and certain types of sleep disorders.

Clinical Studies/Therapeutic Uses

  • A few strips of kava left a person’s mouth slightly numb and entire body infused with a feeling of calm contentment. Drunk in large quantities, it produced a state of euphoria.
  • Kava has been subjected to rigors human clinical trials and shown to be as powerful as prescription anti-anxiety drugs. There have been at least 11 published studies confirming its effectiveness.
  • Two smaller studies showed that kava reduced anxiety and irritability, while improving sleep in women going through menopause and well as soothing menstrual cramps
  • Kava has been used in social gatherings to lower inhibitions and make everyone more relaxed and amiable.
  • Some research has shown promise for the use of the herb in ovarian cancer and leukemia treatment.
  • Kava may also be used in place of aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen as an herbal pain reliever.
  • This herb also acts as a diuretic and anti-inflammatory agent, thereby making it useful in treating gout , bronchial congestions, cystitis, and prostatitis.

Overal Benefit

  • Anxiety
  • Menopause
  • Herbal sleep aid
  • Pain reliever
  • Depression
  • Anti-inflammatory agent
  • Diuretic


  • See a doctor if symptoms develop that may signal liver problems, such as fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting, dark urine, pale stools, or yellow eyes or skin.
  • It is not recommended during pregnancy, lactation or by those under 18 years of age.


“Rebecca L. Johnson, Steven Foster, Tirana Low Dog, David Kiefer. (2010) National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs. Washington DC: National Geographic Society.”

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