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A member of the pepper family, kava kava is a perennial shrub native to many Pacific islands. Growing up to 20 feet in height, kava kava has thin, heart-shaped leaves, which are 4 to 10 inches long and roughly equal in width. The plant has a thick, knotty root, which is used for health purposes.
Pacific islanders' use of kava kava in traditional ceremonies dates back several centuries, predating all written historical records of the region. Europeans were introduced to the herb when British explorer Captain James Cook visited the region on his 1768-1771 voyage aboard the Endeavor. Traditionally, kava root was chewed thoroughly and spat into a bowl, where it was mixed with coconut milk, then strained. For most modern kava kava ceremonies, the herb is pounded or grated (for obvious, sanitary reasons). The kava kava beverage is poured into a cup by a designated person who then serves it to the honored guest. The guest drinks the beverage straight down without stopping, whereupon the audience claps three times and shouts "maca," which means "it is empty." The rest of the ceremony participants are then served.
The active components in kava kava root are unique, fat-soluble compounds called kavalactones (also known as kava pyrones).
Germany's Commission E recommends a daily dose providing 60 to 120 mg of kavalactones, but some herbalists recommend doses up to 210 mg per day. A cup of traditionally prepared kava drink contains approximately 250 mg of kavalactones, and several cups are often consumed in one sitting. Kava appears to be safe and free of side effects at the recommended dosage range. Heavy consumption over an extended period can cause drying and yellowing of the skin, lesions, intense itching, redness of the eyes, and loss of appetite. Because kava kava may potentiate the effects of some drugs such Zanax® and some barbituates, it should not be used with these substances. People on prescription medications should consult their doctor before taking kava kava.