Kava, a plant from the South Pacific, has been around in the US for a long time. It’s been in Vanuatu even longer. In 1900, kava extract was listed in the Sears catalog as a “temperance wine” during a time that people were selling it as an option to rum and other alcoholic drinks. Anyone that ordered kava from Sears was also given a free tea set as a bonus to say thank you. The official listing of approved medications in the US, the Pharmacopoeia, listed kava, and kava related products, as recently as the 1950s. The Pharmacopoeia listed such ailments as gonorrhea and nervousness as just two of the afflictions for which the mixture was good to use.
Many people think that Captain Cook was the first non-islander to have been offered kava. He didn’t like it. The root of the plant is normally ground into power by the locals and then mixed with water. Squeezed and filtered into a coconut shell, the mixture is ready to drink. Ingredients in kava help relax muscles and have been shown to work on the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with anxiety. Captain Cook thought the native drink looked terrible and reports say he only tried it once.
Late afternoon is kava time and a routine part of life in the South Pacific. Going back over 3000 years, kava has been a social catalyst at the end of a long day — much like coffee is in America. Kava is non-alcoholic and the color of muddy water. Many devotees feel that kava produces a feeling of peace, tranquility and relaxation. When it’s kava time in the islands, it’s a daily routine for enjoying time with the neighbors. People get together, drink kava and talk about what has gone on in their day.
Visitors to the islands have been more generous and generally more positive about kava than Captain Cook. Even Pope John Paul downed a couple of shellfulls. Many British royals, politicians and diplomats have also enjoyed the drink along with the social atmosphere that goes with it.
In 1996, kava was featured in several news outlets. The publicity sent kava sales upward in both the US and Europe. Supported by European clinical studies which demonstrate anti-anxiety properties, kava has become a huge seller. Sales continued to grow and for the first time, many villages in the South Pacific flourished.
In 2001, Duke University Medical Center ran two studies on kava. One showed that kava is safe for the liver with no noticeable problems and the other indicated that kava is as effective for treating anxiety as Xanax and Valium, but without the downside.
Kava comes in over 100 varieties and each variety gives the consumer a slightly different effect. Large plantations of noble kava have opened and kava will be abundant as the sales continue to increase. The process of extracting the compound from the root has also advanced and there may be many more kava related products on the shelf soon.
A kava-scare in the early twenty-first century temporarily sent sales downward. But kava is making a comeback and it will gradually be restored to its place in popularity and culture.
By Jerry Nelson