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Kava: The Miraculous Plant from the South Pacific

I’m Ben McQueen, proprietor of Karuna Kava Bar and Beverage Company. Around 7 years ago, I became aware of the power of plants when I started to overcome alcoholism with the help of a traditional beverage produced from the roots of the kava plant and water. I had been hopelessly struggling with alcohol addiction, and had no idea that there were safe, enjoyable, and beneficial alternatives. Destiny placed kava in my path, and my life was changed forever. I now know a freedom, a happiness, and purpose that I never could have imagined. At the heart of it all was the kava plant, and the wonderful cultures and people who cultivate it.

Throughout the South Pacific Islands, for thousands of years, humans have been cultivating, harvesting, and enjoying kava. Kava (Piper Methysticum) is a member of the Piperaceae family of plants. “Kava” or “Kava-Kava” also refers to the beverage produced from the roots of the kava plant. The roots of the kava plant contain kavalactones, six of which are responsible for the most noticeable benefits. Let’s take a look at those compounds. Kavain: Kavain is one of the most abundant and well-studied kavalactones. It is primarily responsible for the anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects of kava.

Dihydrokavain: Dihydrokavain is structurally similar to kavain and also contributes to the calming and relaxing properties of kava.

Yangonin: Yangonin is another significant kavalactone with muscle relaxant properties. It is believed to contribute to the overall sedative effects of kava.

Desmethoxyyangonin: This kavalactone also has muscle relaxant and anxiolytic effects, similar to yangonin.

Methysticin: Methysticin is one of the potent kavalactones, and it is involved in the sedative and analgesic effects of kava.

Dihydromethysticin: Dihydromethysticin is structurally related to methysticin and contributes to the overall pharmacological effects of kava.

These compounds join together to create an entourage effect that is both socially enjoyable and medicinally beneficial. Together, when consumed, they leave the mind and body relaxed, free from stress and anxiety, socially comfortable, and mindfully joyful. Drinking kava does not diminish your decision making skills, cause drunkenness, or take away your self-control. Kava does not destroy your moral compass, or create cycles of physical addiction and withdrawal. I have never had to apologize for something that I said or did while drinking kava. I have never woken up in a jail cell after drinking kava. These were occurrences that happened often when I drank alcohol. As they say in Hawaii, “The man who drinks ‘Awa (kava) remains a man. The man who drinks liquor can become a beast”. This was certainly true for me. I discovered kava as an alternative to alcohol. For years I struggled with booze, which created massive suffering in my life, and more importantly and tragically, in the lives of those who loved me. While living at a sober living home in Colorado, I was introduced to kava by some of the other residents who were benefitting from the traditional South Pacific practice. I was at a turning point in my sobriety journey and was on the brink of relapsing on liquor when I decided to try kava instead. I was, admittedly, skeptical. But once I felt the relief of anxiety, the joyful and uplifted mindset, and clear-headed mindfulness that kava provided, I was enraptured in interest. Not just with the plant or the sensation, but with the culture, community, and movement behind kava. I met other alcoholics who were benefitting from the practice of drinking kava. I became involved in the kava community in Colorado where I was living, as there was a kava bar in our area. I found friendship, togetherness, and a safe place to hang-out where there wasn’t alcohol. I discovered a tradition that genuinely helped me to improve my physical and mental health. Kava helped me find my way home to my true self. In 2019 we set out to create Karuna Kava. Karuna is a sanskrit word for compassion, or loving kindness. This is what I found within kava, and within the kava community. I specifically wanted to share traditional water extracted kava with others, as many products on the market were tinctures which contain alcohol, or harshly extracted concentrates that can have unpleasant side effects, which go against traditional kava practices and traditions. We wanted to share the joy of kava with the world the right way, the way that South Pacific cultures do. We started where we could; at the Capital City Public Market. Now we ship nation-wide, and offer our products in several local shops, including Vervain! In 2022 we opened Karuna Kava Bar, which is the Boise area's first kava bar and nonalcoholic tea-lounge. Karuna Kava Bar is part social space, part night-life hang out, and part community center. We carry a wide variety of delicious, fun, and effective social beverages that can be enjoyed with friends and family alike, but we don’t serve any alcohol. Our bar is a refuge from stress, a safe haven from harmful substances, and a place where all are welcome regardless of sex, gender, orientation or identity. I feel an intense gratitude for the community that has come together within Karuna Kava Bar, and for the broader Karuna Kava Tribe that orders online throughout the United States. We regularly receive feedback from folks that kava is actively saving their life. I feel that it saved mine, as it helped me escape a hopeless place without purpose. Not everyone who drinks kava does so out of a desire to escape alcoholism. Many use kava for natural stress relief, or for help with sleep and rest. Others use kava to achieve flow state or reduce performance anxiety. I am constantly amazed by how many different people benefit in so many different ways from one plant.

I am humbled by the experience of sharing kava with others, and feel incredibly privileged to be able to work with kava as a career. Drinking kava has truly made me a better person. A better father, a better husband, and a better member of my community. I thank the many people in my life who helped me along the way, including my wife, my mother and sister, and of course the Boise kava community (and shops like Vervain!). We hope to see you at the bar sometime soon, and you can always grab some great water extracted kava at Vervain while you are in! "A'ohe hana nui ke alu 'ia"

Hawaiian Proverb "No task is too big when done together."

-Ben McQueen

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