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Sakau: Powerful Plant From the Pacific Islands

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In the remote rainforest, a conflict between two villages developed, with warriors on both sides plotting their grand battle. One village would prevail, the other would be decimated. But then a chief from one village walked to the hostile territory with outstretched arms, holding a leafy green plant for all to see. Squeezing its clear sap into a gourd, he offered it to the warriors readying their weapons; they drank from the vessel. He then sat down with them -- and within a short time, thoughts that needed to be spoken were expressed, the tension dissolved, and young lives were spared. The movie ended, the audience walked out of the theater, with some commenting about the lessons of this fantasy. As an ethnobotanist specializing in the study of traditional uses of plants, I knew that in one remote part of the world, the script writer's fantasy was my reality.

I first traveled to Micronesia in the tropical Pacific during the late 1990's, to develop a project that would seek to understand the relationship between indigenous people, plants and local culture. My research--my laboratory--is currently found in the native and cultivated forests of this vast region, some 2000 tiny islands situated in an area of ocean the size of the Continental United States. Each year our team--local and international researchers--spends months collecting the native flora on these islands, evaluating its rarity and learning of how these botanical treasures have made life possible for past and present generations living in this rugged and remote environment. Native plants have long been sources of food, construction material, fiber, and medicine for Micronesians--it is a fascinating place to explore and learn.

On the island of Pohnpei, the most powerful and important plant is known locally as Sakau. It is a shrub distantly related to the vine that produces black pepper, but its qualities are far more complex and profound. Bite on the root and it tastes somewhat peppery, with a numbing quality; people place the leaves of the plant on an area stung by a stingray to dull the pain. The plant contains chemical compounds called kavalactones, some of which have powerful physiological properties. Of the 18 kavalactones identified in Sakau (botanically known as Piper methysticum G. Forst) six are thought to be responsible for its impact on humans.

Traditionally, the roots are pounded, releasing a kavalactone-containing liquid, which is mixed with other substances, and consumed. Drinking the bitter root extract is an acquired taste, but the effects are quite pleasant--mild euphoria, amicability and greatly reduced anxiety. It is also a muscle relaxant, with larger quantities resulting in a lack of motor coordination--so moving around is not suggested, but the mind remains crystal clear. Clinicians have studied the ability of Sakau (or kava as it is more commonly known in the Pacific and the rest of the world) to reduce anxiety in humans--a condition that affects tens of millions of people in this country annually--and found it to be successful and comparable in efficacy to more conventional therapies. Adverse events such as liver damage have been reported, particularly when the kavalactones are consumed in a very highly concentrated form, or when mixed with pharmaceuticals or alcohol. However, when used traditionally as the pure extract derived from fresh roots, mixed with water and consumed, we have not been able to identify this problem.

Overconsumption of the beverage does bring a change in the skin, producing a scaly texture, which disappears when drinking is suspended. In Germany, where physicians are trained to prescribe both pharmaceutical and herbal medications, Sakau is recommended for the treatment of anxiety, stress and restlessness. One clinical study compared the use of a daily Sakau supplement containing 210 mg of kavalactones with a control group, and found significant improvement in anxiety in the people taking this herb after 8 weeks. I recommend that a person interested in investigating the use of this plant for their own health conditions do so only under the supervision of a trained health care professional, such as an integrative physician who combines conventional approaches to healing with evidence-based complementary therapies, including well studied herbal remedies. Sakau (kava) tinctures and teas can usually be found in your local health food store under various brand names. Note that the tea should not be made with extremely hot water, as the kavalactones are thought to degrade with high heat.

On Pohnpei, people come together regularly to drink Sakau, to discuss the day's issues, exchange stories and gossip. The beverage promotes social interaction, in the same way as that first glass of wine at a dinner party. Sitting around the Sakau root-pounding stone, one is impressed by how this plant brings the community together, with people reporting that it is hard to be angry at anyone while drinking this beverage. Thus, when there is a quarrel to be resolved, the chiefs are notified, presented with the plant, and they must mediate a ceremony in which people discuss their conflict and the offending party asks to be pardoned for their transgression. The plant used in the reconciliation ritual even carries a special name--Sakau en tomw--and is used to ask forgiveness for any insult or problem between individuals, families or clans. The plant used in a second round of drinking is called Sakau en kasohralap--to erase the problem from memory, stating "what is forgiven is forgotten now." It is also used to mark festive occasions, a celebration, or to mark the union of two families when a man comes to ask for a women's hand in marriage.

Sakau, understandably, occupies the most sacred and respected position in the traditional life of this tropical Micronesian island. It is the botanical and cultural bond that holds the people together, ensuring respect for each other, their traditional leaders, their environment and their ancient lifestyle. We are currently studying its effects on laboratory animals, hoping to understand how the herb can influence social behavior and perhaps eventually shed light on related human health conditions that are so problematic in modern society today.

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Michael J. Balick, Ph.D. is Director and Philecology Curator of The Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. He is the lead author and editor of the recent book ETHNOBOTANY OF POHNPEI: Plants, People and Island Culture (2009: University of Hawaii Press/The New York Botanical Garden), a volume reporting on a decade of botanical research on that island.

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