Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is a shrub of the Piperaceae Family (Pepper Family), which can be found on some South Pacific islands, where the root has been used medicinally and ceremonially for centuries to prepare a hypnotic and narcotic psychoactive beverage known as kava (the Polynesia Islanders of the Pacific referred to Piper methysticum as awa or kava, meaning “bitter,” “sour,” or “pungent”). The following article provides all the information one needs to know regarding the usage of kava for sleep.
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Another name for Piper methysticum is Piper inebrians (the inebriating pepper). And the word methysticum itself comes from the Greek word for “intoxicant.”
Kava is the most important psychoactive agent in Oceania and is used on most of the islands of Polynesia (e.g., Vanuatu and Samoa), Melanesia (Fiji and Papua New Guinea), and even Hawaii.
Piper methysticum is also used in herbal medicine for treating sleep disorders, anxiety, and mild depression. According to the World Health Organization, it is clinically proven for short-term symptomatic treatment of mild states of anxiety or insomnia, due to nervousness, stress, or tension.
But before we look more deeply into these uses, let us go over some general information regarding the Pepper Family and the history of the Intoxciating Pepper.
Piper nigrum (Black & White Pepper) & Other Peppers (Piper spp.)
The genus Piper includes more than 1,000 species of tropical herbs, shrubs, lianas, and small trees, some of which may have medicinal, psychoactive, and/or aphrodisiac effects.
The most well known of them is probably Piper nigrum, from which we harvest green or red peppercorns, which are usually dried to make the common spices, black and white pepper. Even this apparently innocuous spice may be capable of inducing hallucinogenic effects. Historically, “slumber drinks” used in ancient Rome contained opium as well as Piper nigrum among their ingredients, and in the Middle Ages, it was used in witches’ (flying) ointments.
In the East, Piper nigrum is still used in Chai spice mixtures, as an ingredient in Bhang, a sweet and milky cannabis drink, and it has magical uses as well. For example, during one tantric ritual, cannabis is rubbed with black pepper as a step in its transformation to amrita, “the drink of the gods,” and it is used as incense along with camphor and other herbs as a blessing for newly married couples.
Besides Piper methysticum and Piper nigrum, other interesting members of the Piperaceae Family, include:
- Piper amalago – Contains an essential oil with the active substance safrole. May be psychoactive.
- Piper aduncum (matico) – This pepper, which contains essential oil with the active substances apiol and asarone, maticin, and resins as active constituents, is said to have aphrodisiac and mild stimulant effects. It was used to flavor the traditional Aztec cacao.
- Piper auritum (yerba santa / root beer plant) – An ancient traditional Mayan remedy, this golden pepper contains an essential oil with the active substance safrole (70%) and the diterpene trans-phytol. When eaten, a mild numbness is produced in the mouth like that caused by Piper methysticum. It has stimulant effects and in Belize the leaves are allegedly smoked as a cannabis substitute.
- Piper betle (betel pepper) – the use of betel leaves is mentioned in early Sanskrit texts. With the active substances eugenol and isoeugenol, Piper betle has a stimulating and awakening effect and it is said to “open the perception.” It is used in betel quids (along with betel nuts from Areca catechu), in oriental joy pills, and in related preparations. Piper methysticum is sometimes also used as an ingredient in betel quids for its kavain content.
- Piper callosum (huayusa; a Peruvian pepper plant)
- Piper cubeba (cubeb) – With cubebin as an active ingredient, Piper cubeba is an aphrodisiac which has been used in oriental joy pills and related preparations as well as a psychoactive additive to wine.
- Piper excelsum (kawakawa) – Contains an essential oil with the active substances myristicin and elemicine. Since Piper methysticum does not grow in New Zealand, the Māori people used it as a substitute when they settled the islands.
- Piper guineense (ashanti pepper) – The Kusase people of Ghana makes a psychoactive snuff using this type of pepper.
- Piper interitum – thanks to its essential oil and other active constituents, it has been used as a psychoactive substitute for sniffing tobacco.
- Piper longum (long pepper) – According to Celsus, the 2nd-century Greek philosopher, mithridate, an antidote for poisoning created by Mithridates VI Eupator of Pontus in the 1st century BC, contained long pepper among its 65 ingredients. In the East it has been used as an aphrodisiac.
- Piper plantagineum – this Caribbean pepper may have been used as a narcotic like kava-kava.
- Piper sanctum – The plant contains an essential oil with the active substance safrole.
- Several Piper species are employed in Chinese medicine, including black pepper (Hu Jíao), long pepper (Bí Ba), Piper cubeba (Bi Cheng Qie), and:
- Piper futokadsura (Haí Feng Teng)
- Piper wallichii (Shí Nan Teng)
- Many other Piper species contain safrole and other primary constituents in their essential oil and may exhibit narcotic, stimulant, and/or aphrodisiac effects. They also have magical uses and some Piper species are smoked or chewed by Amazonian shamans to track down cases of witchcraft.
History of Piper Methysticum & Kava Kava
Kava has been cultivated by Pacific islanders for at least 3,000 years. Wild kava plants are unknown. Kava plants are sterile and can spread only through human activity.
According to one theory, the original plant was Piper wichmannii, which is native to the island of Vanuatu, where the greatest diversity of kava varieties is currently found.
Robert Wood Williamson, a British anthropologist, argued in his book Essays in Polynesian Ethnology that the Vedic soma ritual may have been the prototype for the Polynesian kava ceremonies of the South Pacific. According to his hypothesis, this ritual spread from India to Oceania, but because the original Indian soma plant was not available there, the kava pepper was used as a substitute.
The West had become acquainted with kava only during the 18th century when the British explorer James Cook and his fellow travelers reached the islands. In 1777 Georg Forster a German naturalist who accompanied Cook describes for the first time how kava is prepared and consumed along with a botanical description of Piper methysticum.
In Australia, kava has acquired great significance among the Aborigines.
Religious / Ceremonial Uses of Kava
Originally, the drink made from Piper methysticum was reserved for royalty or served to honored guests. Kava had a great religious significance (and is still used ritualistically on some Pacific islands). By drinking it, the islanders believe they can gain access to the spirit realm of both ancestors and gods.
On some South Pacific islands, kava is used in magic, especially black magic.
Today, however, many islanders use kava as an everyday beverage, just like many people use tea or coffee. There are even kava bars in Fiji and on other islands.
Traditional Medicinal Uses
Kava is used to relieve nervous tension and to elevate the mood. In larger doses, it induces sleep and taken as a cure for insomnia.
Kava is also used as a general health-promoting tonic and to combat fatigue, alleviate weakness, and treat chills and colds. Chewing the rhizomes is said to relieve headache pain.
Other traditional uses of kava include
- to induce a state of relaxation
- to reduce weight
- as a treatment for headaches, asthma, and the common cold
- an aphrodisiac
- a stimulant
- to treat gonorrhea, cystitis, and elephantiasis
- as an internal and external analgesic (e.g., to induce a kind of numbness for painful tattooing procedures and even as a sedative in cases of accidents.)
- a calmative for restless, feverish, and crying children
- for urinary infections and warts
- for menstrual irregularities
Today, Piper methysticum, also known as Rhizoma Piperis Methystici, can be found in many Western herbalism books, including the World Health Organization’s Monographs on Selected Medicinal Plants.
At first, in the early 19th century, it was employed for STDs. At the close of the 19th century, the first scientific studies were carried out.
Indications – Uses of Piper methysticum
Kava possesses the following medicinal actions:
- Strong nevine relaxant (Hypnotic) – can be beneficial for mild insomnia as well as in times of stress, confusion, or psychological tension.
- Mild antidepressant – making it suitable for treatment of anxiety associated with minor forms of depression, especially with Hypericum perforatum (St. John’s wort).
- Strong antispasmodic – can prevent or ease spasms or cramps in the muscles, with an affinity to the musculoskeletal system. It is a primary muscle relaxant and thus reduces muscular tension in the body. Appropriate for conditions associated with skeletal muscle spasm and tension (for example, headaches due to neck tension).
- Local anesthetic, including on mucous membranes, making it helpful for control of pain related to oral conditions.
Today, we use Piper methysticum mainly
- as a “natural tranquilizer,” to relieve nervous tension, irritability, restlessness, depression, and anxiety – kava is as effective as prescription antianxiety drugs, such as benzodiazepines, but without the side effects commonly seen with these drugs, such as a disruption of mental clarity and alertness. Kava does not impair reaction time and appears to improve concentration.
- for women – improving sleep in menopausal women and for PMS (premenstrual syndrome).
In homeopathy, it is used for such conditions as states of excitation and exhaustion.
Piper methysticum contains kava lactones, also known as kava pyrones, which exhibit various psychoactive effects, including anxiolytic and sedative/hypnotic activities, specifically:
- kavain has significant analgesic effects in animal studies, apparently via non-opiate pathways. Subcutaneous injections provide anesthesia for several hours to several days. It is also an anticonvulsive and antiepileptic, inhibits the reuptake of noradrenalin (enhancement of attention and focus), can reversibly inhibit both monoamine oxidase (MAO) A and MAO-B, and has mood stabilizing properties similar to the anticonvulsant lamotrigine.
- desmethoxyyangonin – a reversible MAO-B inhibitor and is able to increase dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens (euphoria; enhancement of attention).
- yangonin – binds with the cannabinoid receptors, where it behaves as an agonist.
- dihydrokawain – anxiolytic.
- dihydromethysticin – Affecting the GABA-A receptor and reversibly inhibiting MAO-B, this substance is analgesic, anticonvulsant, and anxiolytic effects.
In addition to kavapyrones, Piper methysticum also contains:
- chalcones (flavokavains A-C) – Flavokavain B may be a glutathione-depleting hepatotoxin, which is said to occur at higher concentrations in “tudei” kava strains.
- free aromatic acids
Kava for Sleep – how does it work?
We don’t know yet. Kava pyrones may exert their effects by activating several neurotransmitter systems, such as the adrenergic, mesolimbic dopaminergic, gabaminergic, glutamatergic, and serotonergic systems.
Specifically, various kava pyrones appears to exhibit the following actions:
- Potentiation of GABA receptor activity – may be responsible for the anxiolytic effects of kava.
- Inhibition of the reuptake of norepinephrine and possibly also of dopamine – elevation of dopamine levels in the area of the brain responsible for mediating reward behavior may explain some of the psychoactive effects of the plant.
- Binding to the CB1 receptor (a major player in the euphoric effects of cannabis).
- Inhibition of voltage-gated sodium channels (like lidocaine) and voltage-gated calcium channels.
- Monoamine oxidase (MAO-B) reversible inhibition (euphoria).
- Changes in the activity of 5-HT neurons could explain the sleep-inducing action.
One theory is that kavapyrones bind to the GABA receptor and as such are GABA analogs, like benzodiazepines and muscimol, the active ingredient in the sleep mushroom, Amanita muscaria.
Kavapyrones also have a similar anesthetic effect to cocaine, which used to serve as local anesthesia in ophthalmology and dentistry, and they can be used as antidotes for strychnine poisoning (like diazepam).
Like benzodiazepines, kavapyrones are capable of lowering the excitability of the emotional part of the brain, causing a suppression of emotional excitability and an improvement in mood.
Kavapyrones produce strong sedative effects in mice.
This is a list of actions which have been pharmacologically demonstrated:
- Muscle-relaxing (antispasmodic).
- Pain-relieving (analgesic and local anesthetic) – the local anesthetic effects are very similar to those of cocaine, procaine, and lidocaine, and the duration of effects is similar.
- Prolonging/deepening sedation/anesthesia induced by alcohol, chloroform, ether, laughing gas, and barbiturates.
Without affecting reaction times, 210-600 mg of kavapyrones per day improves
- the quality of sleep (increase in deep sleep as well as in sleep spindle density with no REM suppression)
- anxiety states
- information processing in the brain
The Psychoactive Effects of Kava
While Piper methysticum is not an hallucinogen, in some cultures only shamans drink kava for the purpose of obtaining visions.
Instead, it is a narcotic psychoactive plant, meaning it induces a state of euphoria. It also has mild stimulating and invigorating (tonic) effects that revitalize the body after strenuous exertion, clear the head, and stimulate the appetite.
Drinking kava may leave your mouth slightly numb (kavain and dihydrokavain cause the contraction of blood vessels, acting as a local topical anesthetic) and the entire body calm and content. A sensation of happy lightheartedness, comfort, and satisfaction appears without no physical/mental excitation, nor cognitive impairment. Sense perception may be enhanced and there may be an increase in sociability and talkativeness.
Onset of effects: ~10-20 minutes
Duration of effects: 2-3 hours. (Though some effects may be felt for up to 8 hours, and some report an afterglow with mental clarity and patience.)
It has frequently been reported that kava can induce very subtle marijuana-like effects, including sociability, mood elevation, and talkativeness, which are only perceived following repeated ingestion.
Kava is also sometimes compared to alcohol, but without mental clouding or incoordination.
The anti-spasmodic effects become more pronounced after ingestion of somewhat larger quantities. The limbs become limp and the muscles in the whole body becomes relaxed. This is conductive for entering into the trance state of consciousness. Trying to stand or walk, one may appear to be drunk.
Finally, the kava partakers have to give in to sleep as an overpowering tiredness appears. Pleasant and vivid dreams are sometimes reported, which may be erotic, though so people report dreamless sleep.
The earliest Western report we have of a kava inebriation was that of Cook’s ship crew. They observed that it induced an effect similar to that of a strong alcoholic beverage or even a stupefaction like that produced by opium.
Kava’s psychoactive effects have also been compared to those of wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa).
Datura metel seeds and Cannabis may potentiate the effects of Piper methysticum.
Piper methysticum may potentiate the effects of other psychoactive substances, such as alcohol, barbiturates, and some psychopharmacological agents.
How to Use Piper methysticum? Methods of Preparation & Dosage
Piper methysticum is a plant recognizable by its heart-shaped leaves, growing from gnarled, aromatic roots. The strongly aromatic root (rhizome) is the part of the plant used. Usually the stump is peeled and freed of small roots. (While the fresh leaves and fresh/dried stems are also sometimes used, it may be safer to only consume the root.)
The dried plant material must be stored in a tightly closed container and away from light.
Traditionally, Piper methysticum rhizomes were chewed, spat out into a container, and then mixed with water or coconut milk (100 ml of liquid for 100 g of dried plant material, corresponding to about 70 mg of kavapyrones or more) until the proper consistency was achieved. (The insalivation enables the kavapyrones, which do not easily dissolve in water, to release in the emulsion and thus be absorbed when the fresh beverage is consumed.) The resulting mixture was strained before being drunk. Typically, a ceremonial dosage was 0.5-2 liters of kava though many Polynesians drink freshly prepared kava every day, even more than once. In general, it is recommended to not exceed a daily dose of 4 liters.
An easier way to prepare kava though is to grind the root, put it in a cotton cloth, steep in water (or coconut water), kneading and straining.
Kava can also be used without any preparation. Chewing well and then swallowing a piece of the fresh rootstock about as long and as thick as a finger is effective.
To make a kava tea,
- Simmer 1-2 teaspoons of powdered root in 1 cup water for 10 minutes. Adding fat (e.g., milk or cream) and/or lecithin may increase the concentration of kavalactones in the tea.
- Drink 1 cup daily.
There is also a product called micronized kava, a fine, instant kava powder, and kava liquid concentrate. Just add them to your drink of choice and your kava is ready.
If using an extract, the dose is 100-200 mg of root extract (standardized to 70% kavalactones, corresponding to 70-140 mg kavalactones) taken 3 times per day.
The important measure is the amount of kavalactones the preparation is standardized to contain. The German Commission E recommends taking 60-120 mg kavalactones up to 3 times per day. The WHO recommends not exceeding a daily dosage of 210 mg.
Take kava on an empty stomach in order to maximize the effects.
It may take several days of regular consumption before the effects become apparent.
Other methods of preparation:
- Emulsify equal parts of ground kava root and lecithin in a blender.
- Use as an ingredient in betel quids.
- Brew a mead from kava roots and honey.
- After using coconut shells as kava drinking vessels many time, a layer forms, which can be scraped off and ingested as an especially potent form of kava.
Especially potent psychoactive effects are said to be induced by the kava in Pohnpei. After several rounds the participants reportedly leave their bodies and are able to glide over the tropical island world in a disembodied state and journey to the heavens, which they believe is the home of the kava plant. Sensations of turning people into brothers, unity with the environment, and even erotic visions are reported. However, these effects may result from kava additives, such as Datura.
Other kava additives include:
- Chili (Capsicum) pods
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) root – to produce “beautiful dreams”
- Kava leaves
- Yagoyagona extract (Piper puberulum)
A stimulating snuff can be made from kava powder along with other ingredients such as cola nut, guarana, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
Exceeding the recommended dosages may increase the likelihood of experiencing such side effects as:
- gastrointestinal complaints (e.g., diarrhea, nausea)
- allergic skin reactions
- mouth numbness
- impaired coordination / loss of motor control / paralysis
- pupil dilation / reddening of the eyes
- blurred vision and other visual disturbances
Chronic use may lead to a yellow discoloration of the skin and nails as well as to a dry, scaly, eruptive, noninflammatory skin rash (kava dermopathy), which are reversible upon discontinuation of the drug. (Some Pacific Islanders deliberately consume large quantities of kava for several weeks in order to get the peeling effect, resulting in a layer of new skin.)
Other effects of chronic abuse include:
- anorexia, malnutrition, and weight loss
- hair loss
- elevated liver enzymes (e.g., gamma-glutamyl transferase)
Is Kava Toxic to the Liver?
In 2002 a ban on imports of kava-based pharmaceutical products was imposed in Europe and Canada due to several cases of possible liver toxicity (abnormalities in liver function tests and even cases where people went into liver failure). However, the number of people who had liver problems was very small in comparison to the numbers who have been using it for so many years, even in Europe and the US, which is why the ban was eventually lifted, and currently it is legal to sell kava in most countries, though it is regulated in some.
Discontinue use of kava if symptoms develop that may signal liver problems, such as:
- abdominal pain
- dark urine
- pale stools
- yellow eyes or skin
Is Kava Addictive?
Kava is considered to be non-addictive. It is however regarded as habit-forming (as any substance that induces euphoria) and a tolerance may develop with continued use. Those using kava as an anxiolytic need to take special care to only use it symptomatically for a short time while the underlying reasons for anxiety are being treated.
Kava withdrawal symptoms are typically mild and may include:
- cravings for the substance
Piper methysticum appears to be completely safe as long as the following guidelines are kept:
- Use only “noble” kava from Piper methysticum and avoid “tudei” (“two-day”) kavas and wild kava (Piper wichmannii or other species). The kava should also be from a plant of at least 5 years of age and ideally organic.
- Ideally, purchase dried powdered root from a reputable manufacturer. Piper methysticum is easily confused with similar Piper species, which are also called kava. The most important commercial areas for growing kava are now found in Samoa, Fiji, and Vanuatu.
- Choose preparations made of roots only – the leaves and stems may contain potentially toxic compounds, so look for a statement on the product that no stem or leaf has been used.
- Choose aqueous preparations – Traditionally, kava was made into tea by adding water to the roots, while almost all cases of liver damage reported were from non-aqueous preparations, such as alcoholic or acetonic extracts.
- Avoid combining kava with other drugs/herbs which may be hard on the liver, such as St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), alcohol, and acetaminophen.
- To be on the safe side, combine kava with liver protective herbs, such as milk thistle (Silybum marianum).
- It’s recommended to not use kava for more than 3 months in a row.
- Do not use during pregnancy or lactation, if you are under 18 years of age, or if you have liver or psychiatric problems.
- Do not drive or operate heavy machinery under the influence of kava.
- Consult with your doctor before using kava, especially if you’re on prescription medications.
Kava (and sometimes even isolated kavain) is currently available in most countries (though there are some exceptions).