Report on Local Kava Consumption

Research findings reveal that the water-based extractions of kava traditionally consumed in the Pacific have been found to contain a much smaller amount of kavalactones per serving than than what is present in kava pills. Concentrated forms of kava supplements consumed in excessive amounts were implicated in cases of liver toxicity in Western countries, primarily Switzerland and Germany, which led to a ban on kava imports from the Pacific Islands in the early 2000s. This ban has since been lifted in most parts of the Western world, after the original ruling was found to be based on case studies in which supplements made with inferior raw kava material may have been consumed, in combination with alcohol and other depressants in many cases.


"The kava resin from the alcohol extraction of kava contains, amongst many chemicals, several kavalactones and is mainly composed of water-insoluble organic compounds," said Dr. Mani Naiker, organic chemistry lecturer at University of the South Pacific (USP).


"Kavalactones are highly biologically active compounds, which are responsible for the calming effect one feels after its consumption."


Dr Naiker presented findings of research on 'Major Chemical Differences between Water extracts of Kava and Kava Pills' at the two-day 'Pacific Kava Research Symposium' held recently at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (FORSEC), Suva, Fiji. The Symposium was jointly organized by USP, Fiji School of Medicine (FSM), Fiji's Ministry of Health, FORSEC and the World Health Organization (WHO). "The water extracts of kava contain mainly water-soluble products such as carbohydrates, proteins and amino acids," Dr Naiker said. "Very small amounts of water-insoluble kava resins containing kavalactones get filtered through."


"High concentrations of kavalactones on their own may cause stress on the liver, but the presence of glutathione from root-only kava extracts would be highly beneficial to avoiding undue stress on the liver," Dr Naiker said. Glutathione, a liver-protective enzyme that occurs naturally in the body, is also present in water-based extracts of kava root.


Tests conducted by the department has revealed that alcohol extraction of kava roots yield 10-15 per cent of kava resins, 50-60 per cent of which contain kavalactones. Water extracts of the same kava roots yield only 6-8 per cent of kava resins. "Therefore, the water-extracted 'grog' consumed in the South Pacific, will contain only 3-4 per cent kavalactones," Dr Naiker said.


"It is quite clear that the water extract consumed in the South Pacific contain far lesser kavalactones than the concentrated standardized kava extracts sold in Europe and USA," Dr Naiker said. Kava preparations that contain the full range of kavalactones and other active compounds in the kava root are pharmacologically active at small doses due to the synergy that is present between the organic compounds in kava. In lay terms, this means it is not necessary to take a large amount of kava to experience a beneficial effect.


The presence of glutathione in the kava water extracts may help explain why traditional water-based kava extracts have been consumed in the South Pacific with no reports of adverse effects, unlike the synthetic and solvent-extracted forms of kava that were once widely marketed in the West.