Friday, November 15, 2013

Bula! Bula! Kava! Kava!

Now, I am not a kava gourmand by any means. But as a recovering alcoholic with social anxiety disorder looking for an occasional way to relax after work without resorting to addictive substances such as benzodiazepenes, kava fits the bill. Kava has a long history of use in religious ceremonies and is seen as a sacred plant.

For a time, kava had a bad reputation as being hard on the liver, but more recent and better studies show that really it's not the extracted root that you grind up, mix with liquid, and drink that is the problem. It's the cheaper pills or teas or certain kava brands that aren't careful about supplying you with ground root only that are the problem. Stems and leaves from the rest of the plant are not good. It's solely the root that should be used. So you have to get your kava from a trustworthy vendor.

The next important thing is that you stay away from "wash and toss" methods of kava consumption. Really this just means mixing the root powder directly with water, giving it a good shake, waiting a little, then straining the kava directly into a glass and pounding it. Or some people just throw it in a blender, blend it with water, and strain that directly into a glass. No, people, there is a reason Pacific Islanders extract the root powder and strain, then strain again before they drink it. "Wash and toss" can work in a pinch, but in general, take the time to strain your kava once, then strain the strained kava a second time. Not only will you get a smoother drink, but it's much easier on your digestive system and is much less likely to cause kava dermopathy (also known as "scale").  Kava dermopathy won't kill you, but it is a pain to develop. Suddenly your hands start getting all wrinkly, like you just took a shower or you've just aged twenty years. If you keep using kava by washing and tossing, the seemingly benign but just ugly dermatitis can spread to your neck, your back... just about anywhere. And in the sun, it burns and stings. Otherwise, it just plain itches. Treatment? Stop drinking kava for a while until your skin clears up. Topical ointments for rashes, like cortisone cream, can help the itching. Keep your skin moisturized and stay well hydrated. And learn from your lesson. "Wash and toss" is generally only for people who really want to get their krunk on.

Here is a short and rather unprofessional video I made of how to prepare kava:

Now, what is a kava "buzz" like? Well, unlike alcohol, kava doesn't make your mind irrational or mess with your ability to think clearly. It doesn't make you less inhibited or argumentative or overemotional. What it does is just slow you down a little and relaxes you. If you're really tense, it can help with stress-related aches and pains and headaches. Don't expect to feel high or stoned, except in the mildest of ways. If you do consume a lot of it, it can slow you down enough that you probably shouldn't drive--for the sole reason that your reaction time will be slower. Basically I just think of the feeling as akin to taking a benzo (Ativan, Xanax, Valium, etc) without actually taking a benzo--which is good, because benzos are truly addictive, whereas kava is not. You could drink kava every day for a year, then suddenly stop, and your body will suffer no withdrawals at all. Perhaps you might develop a psychological addiction, but then again I can't imagine anyone in his or her right mind drinking kava every day anyway... unless, perhaps, they do live in the islands. 

Other benefits to kava: it doesn't give you a hangover. (It is a diuretic, though, so be sure to stay hydrated. Usually I'll drink some Vitamin Water or Gatorade or take a magnesium and potassium tab when I've been drinking kava.) It also doesn't take long for its effects to wear off. Usually I'll have some, then eat a meal, and within the half hour I feel perfectly normal again, not that I felt "abnormal" to begin with... just relaxed and slowed down. For athletes with sore muscles, kava also acts as a muscle relaxant and can relieve spasms. Finally, kava is calorie-free, unless you add a little fat or sugar to your drink. So drinking it won't make you gain weight, and actually, if you're bloated, you will shed some water weight due to its being a diuretic.

Some drawbacks: yeah, you can get "krunk" on kava. This involves drinking quickly a LOT of a very potent strain, like some of the ones from Vanuatu. I don't see the purpose in this. I'm told you basically melt into your chair and sit like a zombie until it wears off. Whatever, to each his own, I suppose. Zombie is not for me. I like the sensation of being relaxed but I also like being clear-headed. Also, there's the taste. Kava doesn't have much of a flavor, but it's not unpleasant unless you've purchased some nasty variety from a bad vendor. Those can taste muddy. Otherwise, the good strains may have a slightly piney taste or a mild peppery taste. But, kava is not a drink intended to be sipped. Your pour some into your shell (or glass) and knock it back. Many people will mix kava with something else to give it a more pleasant flavor. Once, when I was in Kona, Hawaii, at a kava bar, "Mama" offered to make me a smoothie with kava! I declined since I didn't want the extra calories, but really the possibilities are endless.

So, who are the good vendors and the bad vendors? I'd say stay away from Kona Kava Company. Ugh. Nasty. Kauai Kava is a good company. If you're on the mainland, I recommend Bula Kava House in Portland, Oregon. It's a kava bar, but they package and ship kava, too. There's even a decent Fiji waka kava that you can buy from You'll need a cheesecloth for straining all kava (or pantyhose will do).

Bula! Bula! 


Erin Gavin said...

Are you certain kava kava powder has 0 calories? I'm on a highly restricted diet and just had my kava - hoping I didn't throw it off!

Joyce said...

Well, it depends on how you count your carbs and what you mix the powder with. If you mix kava with juice or whatnot, then obviously you'd count those calories. But if you prepare with plain old water, the only thing you'd be counting in kava would be that which is digestible. The root is highly fibrous and not at all "sugary" like a carrot, so it can't have THAT many calories/carbs.

I'm no nutritionist but everything I've ever read has pretty much said that, prepared with water and straining several times to get rid of the pulp pretty much will make a no-calorie or very low calorie beverage.

I've purchased a prepared kava drink before that had been analyzed for nutritional values. It had a little bit of guava juice added with artificial sweetener and one serving was 12 calories. So..... if prepared with plain water, etc, you can't be getting many calories if any at all.

The scenario could change if you're having a highly ground kava (an "instant kava") that you're not preparing, squeezing, draining. You just stir it into your water. You may be getting slightly more calories that way, but again since a lot of that isn't even digestible, I wouldn't be too concerned. (This is also why kava can also cause intestinal distress.... you're putting a lot of fiber into your gut.)

Like anything, moderation is key.