Kava: Unlocking the secrets of the Pacific's intoxicating drink

Kava: Unlocking the secrets of the Pacific’s intoxicating drink

Travel through many nations in the Pacific, and you will most likely be asked to try the local drink, kava.

The muddy concoction – made by grinding the kava plant’s roots and mixing it with water to create a dark, earthy liquid – holds a deep cultural significance throughout the region, and the drink is often shared between friends, guests, and colleagues.

At times, kava’s effects can be sublime. A swig (or two) taken from a bowl or shell – sometimes quite literally a coconut shell cut in half – can lead to profound relaxation, a sort of numbness that trickles down from your mouth through your shoulders and spine. Regular kava drinkers often describe this blissful state as a sort of peace, a way for the body and mind to uncoil from itself.

But, if you happen to drink a bad batch of kava, expect the opposite. Tummy aches. A pulsing headache. Nausea that can keep you awake for hours. 

Determining good kava from bad is almost impossible – the roots often look and taste the same, particularly when dried, powdered, or mixed into a drink. This has been a constant frustration to kava sellers like Deepti Darshani Devi, a chemistry graduate student at Fiji National University (FNU) who also runs a kava shop in Fiji’s capital Suva with her husband. 

“At the beginning we were getting a very good quality of kava in terms of the kava drinkers’ perception,” Devi explains.

“And then the middleman who was sending the kava was not consistent enough, he was sending all sorts of kava and the customers started to complain, saying that ‘You are doing adulteration.’”

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Chemistry graduate Deepti Darshani Devi has been visiting islands around Fiji to analyse different strains of kava around the country and analyse their kavalactone profile / Supplied.

The commercial setback served as academic inspiration for Devi, who was due to submit her master’s thesis proposal. She became determined to find a scientific way to better analyse this ancient plant – and help modern-day drinkers “get what they paid for”. 

Called yaqona in Fiji, ‘ava in Samoa and sakau in Micronesia, kava has occupied a sacred role in Pacific countries for centuries. Its sedative and anti-anxiety effects are often attributed to a set of unique compounds called kavalactones, believed to suppress neurotransmitters in the brain in a similar way to alcohol or benzodiazepines, but its exact mechanism is still being understood.

Regular kava drinkers often describe this blissful state as a sort of peace, a way for the body and mind to uncoil from itself

Despite its long history of use in the Pacific, there is relatively little scientific literature on the kava plant. Bans on kava imports by Australia, Germany, and Japan due to reported cases of liver toxicity – which were only recently overturned – could be to blame, along with a general lack of scientific investment in the region.

“As a traditional drink of the Pacific, there are not a lot of papers published in the field,” Professor Tibor Pasinszki, Dean of Science at FNU and Devi’s supervisor, says – adding that the end of the kava ban in Australia and Europe is “definitely opening opportunities” for Pacific scientists to research the plant.

That includes opportunities for research at FNU. For example already Devi and Pasinszki have received funding from The Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access Program, a scheme supported by Australian, New Zealand and other regional governments, to investigate the kavalactone content of different varieties of the kava plant in Fiji and to develop a new system to categorise the quality of kava roots.

Key to their research is documenting the composition of kavalactones. There are 20 different kavalactones found in kava – but not all are created equal. The kavalactone kavain, for example, is responsible for kava’s pleasant, relaxing feeling, while the kavalactones dihydrokavain and dihydromethysticin are likely to make your stomach turn and head throb. Kava with high amounts of kavain, and low amounts of the other kavalactones are therefore best for drinking.

Determining good kava from bad is almost impossible – the roots often look and taste the same

By canvassing the islands of Fiji for kava and measuring the type and quantity of kavalactones in a given root and rhizome, Pasinszki and his Devi team hope to develop a numerical “fingerprint” or code for every kava strain, that can be written on packaging. Consumers will then be able to know exactly what they’re drinking, helping them choose kava with higher quantities of the “good” anxiety-fighting kavalactones, and steer clear of those “bad” nausea-inducing ones.

“We hope that we will call attention to quality assurance and quality control, and some kinds of standardisation might come out [of our research],” Pasinszki says.

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The roots of the kava plants are the most potent and safest to drink, but poor-quality kava can sometimes mix in other parts of the plant / Supplied.

Their work promises to change the way kava is marketed and consumed, not only on Pacific islands, but internationally as well. 

Climate, soil nutrition and geography all have a role in influencing the levels of kavalactones in kava roots. Like wine labels, these new kava fingerprints could help farmers develop regional signatures for their kava, in a way never done before. 

“We are trying to help our own people, our own farmers, because they’re doing the hard work on their farm and they should get the returns for whatever they are doing,” says Devi.

While researchers like Deepti and Pasinszki are looking at how to improve the quality of kava available, other Pacific scientists are looking at how to best harness the therapeutic potential of the drink.

Dr Apo Aporosa, a senior lecturer in Pacific health from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, is studying the use and ritual of kava drinking in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The former policeman’s research is inspired by his own mental health journey, after a traumatic event at work left him with deep psychological scars.

“I just needed to find an escape really, and that was going back home to the village in Fiji and then sitting and drinking kava with family and friends,” Aporosa says.

After a couple of weeks, noticed small positive changes to his health. He was sleeping better and was less triggered by his PTSD. He now says he is PTSD free.

“We now believe that when people sit around and drink kava, and talanoa or talk … in relation to stressful situations, this reduces the impacts of trauma including PTSD symptoms.”

Now as an academic, Aporosa will put science behind this common Pacific Islander experience. He has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship and an almost million-dollar grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand, Aporosa and his team will undertake clinical trials they believe will validate the use of kava as a treatment for PTSD.

For Pacific people, kava is arguably our most dominant icon of identity

Dr Apo Aporosa

His research is pioneering. Unlike other clinical trials which have looked at kava extracts or pills as an anti-anxiety treatment, Aporosa’s research participants will consume kava as it’s done traditionally and take part in Fijian rituals around the drink. 

“99% of the published research and the understanding of kava psychopharmacology, like how the substance works in the brain and body, used tablets containing kava,” Aporosa says.

“We argue that unless it’s sitting on a mat with at least one other person, serving from a kava bowl, and observing traditionally influenced protocols, it is not technically kava.”

Like Devi and Pasinszki in Fiji, Aporosa is keen to empower Pacific Islanders through his research into kava, using modern scientific methods to further support the drink’s long and enduring use in the region.

“For Pacific people, kava is arguably our most dominant icon of identity, one driven by relational connection which is linked to healing” he says.

“Now to be able to share that and to heal others, it’s fascinating and I’m just so privileged to be able to do this.”

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A farmer on the Fijian island of Rotuma pulls out a kava plant for analysis / Supplied.

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