Sakau: Pacific Wonder Drug

      “California cracks down on kava-drinking drivers” read the title of a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News.  The story was about the kava drinking-and-driving risks of Tongans living in the San Francisco Bay area.  In Germany a psychiatrist recommends kava extract capsules to a patient who is too nervous; an American herbal health store promotes kava as a natural way to relax; and here in Pohnpei an evening at the sakau bar is certainly a popular way to unwind.  Sakau, kava, yangona –  it’s getting around.

      Sakau extract is doing a bristling business in Europe as an anti-anxiety drug and in America as an herbal supplement that promotes relaxation. It may have a promising future: the world market for sakau extract is currently close to $100 million a year, and there is room for market expansion and export opportunities for Pohnpei.   Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu are the Pacific island nations that currently dominate the sale of sakau and its extract for the American and European markets.

      The sakau plant species is about three thousand years old.  The first research on it might have begun two thousand years ago in the area between Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and southern Indonesia where the plant originated.  The people living there first discovered the intoxicating effects of the Piper methysticum plant.  Micronesians, Melanesians and Polynesians came into contact with the piper plant and adopted its use.  It has been a part of Pacific island life for centuries.  Europeans found it being used when they first came to the south Pacific with Captain Cook in the 1770’s and they have had a formal research interest in it for 141 years since 1860.

      Most of the scientific research on sakau has been and continues to be done by German scientists, but the first researchers, Gobley (1860) and Cuzent (1861), were French chemists who began isolating the plant’s compounds.  The German chemist Louis Lewin then published an influential monograph on methysticin and yangonin in 1886.  Since then, chemists and neuroscientists have been experimenting with and writing about sakau.  The laboratory and clinical research has shown that the active ingredients of sakau (called kavalactones) are effective for treating anxiety, insomnia, menstrual cramps and the adverse symptoms of menopause.  It is a natural tranquilizer and muscle relaxer, and has even been said to possess aphrodisiac qualities.

    The neuropsychological effects of sakau come from the kavalactones that consist of six major compounds named kawain, methysticin, dihydrokawain, dihydromethysticin, demethoxy-yangonin and yangonin.  A typical commercial dosage might be 80 to 150 milligrams of kavalactones three times a day.  A typical cup of kava from Fiji, Samoa or Tonga probably contains about 250 mg., while a cup from Pohnpei or Vanuatu may contain up to 500 mg. of kavalactones.  When used in moderation, the pepper drink does not have major regular side-effects or health drawbacks other than occasional dry scaly skin.  However, commercial products sold in America and Europe have warnings against use by pregnant and breastfeeding women, by people suffering from depression, and by people driving or operating machinery. The reasons for the warnings are that it could cause health problems in the baby, could deepen an existing depression, or could cause a car or machinery accident.

      A study of the effects of kava on an Australian Aborigine community showed that kava use can have negative effects on health when combined with alcohol and tobacco use, poor diet and lack of exercise.  Research has also determined that kavalactones do interact positively with alcohol in the brain, meaning that when kava and alcohol meet in our brain cells they make each other stronger.

    Sakau in the form of extract, and even plant parts, is becoming increasingly available at health stores in America, Europe, Asia and Australia and can be purchased at many online internet websites.  It is being promoted as an herbal stress reliever, a legal mild narcotic that gives a mild euphoric state and leaves the mind clear, an effective pain-reliever that can be used instead of aspirin or acetaminophen, and as a Pacific island tradition that leads to friendship and non-violence.  One kava selling website says: “Kava Takes You Where You Want To Go.”

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