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The term "kava" is the name of the plant as well as the beverage made from it. In some books and articles you may find kava described as a drug, an intoxicant, or a narcotic, although it is a legal, approved supplement. The reason kava is given these other descriptions is most likely due to the intoxicating effect more potent forms of kava--specifically the freshly ground root served in the South Pacific--has on the body. Raw root is unavailable in the United States or Europe. Instead, products are made from processed, dry root powder, which is much weaker, so it's quite unlikely that you would obtain the kava "high" experienced by South Pacific islanders.
The Gift of Tranquillity from the Pacific
Today kava is found in three distinct cultural regions of the world collectively referred to as Oceania: Melanesia, which includes the island countries of Fiji, Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), New Guinea, and Papua New Guinea; Polynesia, which includes Hawaii, Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, Wallis, Futuna, Western and American Samoa, and Tonga; and Micronesia, which includes Pohnpei and Australia. These areas are scattered over nearly a third of the earth's surface and include some ten thousand islands. As then president George Bush told a summit of Pacific island leaders in 1990: "Like a string of pearls spread out across the sea, each nation is unique, each is precious, and each has something to contribute to the value of the whole."
One of Oceania's many contributions is, of course, kava--a true gift of tranquillity. Kava is woven into the very fabric of Oceanian life--religiously, socially, and politically--and is thought to be one of the reasonsbehind the islanders' laid-back way of life. Kava, with its ritual procedure for preparation and use, is one custom that is common to all peoples of Oceania. Consequently, it has attracted a great deal of attention from anthropologists, botanists, chemists, pharmacologists, doctors, and even archaeologists.
Kava is best understood when it is recognized that every culture in the world has some type of special plant customarily used to induce mind-altering and mood-altering effects. Betel nut, one of the world's most popular plants, is chewed, mashed, or pulverized by the peoples of India, Malaysia, and Polynesia and used as a stimulant. In southeast Mexico, Oaxacan tribes consume the psilocybe mushroom for its hallucinogenic and muscle-relaxing effects. African pygmies smoke their psychoactive cannabis, derived from the hemp plant, and Andean natives chew their coca leaf, the source of the illegal drug cocaine. From 1891 until about 1908, the Coca-Cola Company formulated its popular cola drink with cocaine from coca leaves and caffeine from kola nuts, a plant whose seeds are high in the stimulant caffeine. Today Coke's products are made with caffeine and natural flavorings.
More familiarly, tobacco leaves contain a powerfully addictive substance known as nicotine. From the beans of the coffee tree and the leaves of the tea bush come caffeine, the most widely used drug in the world. Thus, a huge array of various plants yields various natural chemicals, ranging from the benign to the very dangerous. In moderate doses, kava is on the benign end of the spectrum.
Why Kava Works
For centuries kava has been used as a folk medicine to treat a vast number of ailments. These have included headaches, joint pain, bladder problems, gonorrhea, stomach problems, leprosy, skin diseases, weight loss, sleeping problems, and tuberculosis.
Since the 1800s much research has been devoted to identifying why kava provides such amazing therapeutic benefits. In fact, kava is one of the most extensively studied herbs, with hundreds of scientific studies backing up its healing properties and verifying its power as a therapeutic agent capable of conferring remarkable benefits. For example, kava: