What do you know about kava?
Kava is the root of a large tropical shrub in the black-pepper family called Piper methysticum. In the South Pacific, it's cultivated and used as a traditional psychoactive drug. Kava is deeply embedded in the cultures of many South Pacific countries, where it has religious and mythical significance and, in some cases, a new role as a political icon. In Vanuatu, kava is an important cash crop and is promoted by the government as a national symbol.
The effects of kava vary according to the method of preparation. Formerly, Polynesians chewed the fresh root, mixed it with coconut milk, then strained and drank the mixture for an alcohol-like intoxication and feeling of well-being. Today, they are more likely to grind fresh or dried roots with machines and mix them with water.
Preparations made from the fresh root are much more powerful. The dried-root preparations are more relaxing than intoxicating. Kava relaxes muscles and causes tingling or numbness in the body and slowed reflexes, without any loss of mental clarity.
In the South Pacific, large groups of people come together at night for kava ceremonies, the island equivalent of cocktail parties. At these, the drink may be consumed in a very ritualized manner. It may also be used on purely social occasions without much ritual.
High-quality kava products are sold in Germany as natural relaxants and sleep aids. They're different from valerian because they produce a pleasant high and relaxing body sensations. In this country, you can generally only buy dried kava as a coarse powder or as large chips of root. The quality is fairly uneven. Some people make it into a tea, which acts as a mild downer. Chewed dried kava numbs the mouth and may be relaxing.
The only harmful effect or toxicity I'm aware of from kava is a yellowing and thinning of the skin with long-term heavy use. These changes are reversible if you stop drinking kava.
Kava could turn out to be very useful as a natural alternative to Valium and other addictive depressants. I imagine it may become a major pharmaceutical product in the Western world as drug companies start adapting natural medicines to the market here.