Chewing Kava Root

When many people think of kava kava, they don’t necessarily think of chewing kava root. After all, although kava can be pleasant and relaxing to consume, it is naturally rather bitter. It isn’t something that most people would want to put in their mouths and chew. It may surprise you, then, to learn that some Oceanic cultures have long traditions, both of use and preparation of kava, that involve chewing kava root.

Now, if you were to ask most modern Americans or Europeans about chewing kava root, they’d look at you as if you’d suddenly gone mad. But, truth be told, chewing kava is an integral part of some of the oldest and most sacred kava kava rituals in the world. The traditional method of preparing a refreshing kava drink is the same on almost all of the Oceanic islands. In this ritual, fresh kava roots are peeled and then chewed by young men (or young women) for about ten minutes and insalivated. This process can increase the volume of the root pieces considerably. The chewed pieces are then mixed with water in special sacred vessels (kava bowls, usually made of hardwood) and “fermented” before use. The resulting mix was then filtered through a sieve made of natural bark or coconut fibers, and then consumed while fresh.

It was once thought that the relaxing experience of drinking kava depended entirely upon whether or not it was insalivated, but this has been proven false (meaning, dear reader, that you do not have to engage in chewing kava root unless it is truly your heart’s desire). However, it is widely believed that this traditional method of preparation produces the strongest drinks, because chewing produces the most finely-ground kava particles. Also, scientists now believe that something present in human saliva, perhaps an enzyme, enables kavapyrones -- a component of kavalactones, the active constitiuents in kava kava -- to release more fully into the emulsion than into water alone, thus increasing the strength of the drink.

Most Westerners will likely show little interest in this traditional method of preparation. However, for you minimalists, or those who simply prefer things to be as unprocessed and unrefined as possible, there is a way that kava can be consumed with the chewing, and without the insalivation process. A piece of the fresh rootstock, about as long and as thick as a finger, can be chewed well and then swallowed (with the aid of a little water or juice) for a pleasant experience.

Perhaps an even simpler alternative to chewing kava root is to take kava sublingually. Instead of making a drink out of kava, a small amount of powdered kava root or kava tincture can be held under the tongue and absorbed through the mucus membranes of the mouth. The feel of powdered kava can be a bit dry and granular at first, but the powder will gradually soften as it mixes with saliva. Also, the numbing of the mucus membranes experienced with kavalactone-rich kava may help counteract the bitter taste of kava powder taken sublingually. The kava powder or tincture used may then be washed down with water.

If you would like a kava drink that is very close to the efficacy of one made from insalivated, chewed kava root, we recommend using a blender. This will produce the finest possible particles, and most completely blend the powder with water. Soy lethicin may be added to the blended brew to give a smoother texture and allow greater extraction of kavalactones -- some of the active constituents in kava kava -- into the solution. As a result, your drink will contain a higher concentration of active constituents.

Most Pacific cultures have traditions that involve chewing kava root. It is the traditional way of preparing the root for formal kava drinking ceremonies in the South Pacific, although in modern times a blender is often used to speed up the process of preparing kava at informal gatherings. In Papua New Guinea, kava root may be chewed prior to ceremonial tattooing procedures. And there is no doubt that there are other uses, both traditional and nontraditional, that have not been sufficiently documented.

The next time you are thinking of making a kava drink, or using kava in any form, remember: chewing kava root isn’t necessary, but we won’t tell you not to do it! Whether you chew kava or not, we wish you much enjoyment, relaxation and peace with this benevolent root!*

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to cure, treat, diagnose or prevent any disease.