Chocolate is a treat, but when you add kava, chocolate is medicine.
At least that’s what Rachael Gibney, a reiki healer from Shutesbury says. She is mixing a bowl of raw cacao with ground kava at a workshop at the Bower Studio in Pelham, showing people how to make medicinal chocolate at home.
“It’s really good at releasing anxiety, especially social anxiety,” Gibney tells the crowd as she stirs the pot.
Kava is the root of a plant native to the western pacific islands, typically mixed with water and popularly served as a tea. The root is also available in stores and online in tinctures, powders or in capsules. Popular tea brands reliably have kava varieties. Naturopathic doctors prescribe it for insomnia. Kava bars in New York City sell it by the bowl promising a mind-altering experience.
Here, in Western Mass, it is sold in apothecaries like the Bower Studio, an herbal and natural gift store, or Acadia Herbals in Northampton.
Gibney, a volunteer at the Tree of Dreams healing sanctuary in Shutesbury, is making a kava-infused choco-late fudge, which she will freeze and serve cold.
“If you are drinking straight kava, it can have a numbing, tingling effect,” she says, as she sets the ingredients down on the table.
She isn’t an herbalist, but as a reiki healer, she says, she finds that kava has the power to ease tension, help tame the mind at bedtime, and soothe the muscles.
“It helps me be able to connect with people,” she says.
“It gives you a mushy, sleepy, I-just-want-to-curl-up feeling.”
The pot is warming up on hotplate when she adds one cup of coconut oil.
Then, she dumps in a whole jar of coconut manna before adding just two tablespoons of kava powder.
“If you are pregnant, please don’t eat kava,” she tells the small crowd.
Kava can give you warm, fuzzy feelings, but it does have drawbacks, too?
Director of the medicinal plant program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Lyle Craker, says that while kava can be a great resource to help ease anxiety, people should gradually test doses to prevent liver damage.
“I don’t think there is any danger in starting out with some small doses,” he said. “Try it, see if it works, just don’t over do it.”
But Kava can cause liver failure or injury if over used, so it should not be taken continuously or even daily, Craker says. Occasional doses is what he recommends. “If people had to compare it to something in modern medicine it would be Valium.”
The compound that gives the root its power, Kavalactones, inhibits specific liver enzymes needed to metabolize other herbs and medications, says Nathaniel Petley, a doctor of naturopathic medicine and the founder and previous owner of Acadia Herbals in Northampton. So, he advises that people consult with their doctors if they are taking other medications.
If used sparingly, the plant is a great nighttime anti-anxiety remedy, he says. “I generally do not prescribe kava for daytime use for my patients with anxiety because it can be too relaxing.”
As she cooks, Gibney hands out already made medicinal chocolate samples to the crowd.
“I can’t believe there is kava in here,” says one attendee, Angelique Britt, 35, of Granby. The bitter taste is masked by the raw chocolate.
Britt is an oncology nurse at Holyoke Medical Center and she said she uses kava at the end of the day a few times a month to relax.
“It really does just calm you down, but doesn’t cloud your mind,” she says.
A single mother with young children at home, she struggles with stress. The kava, she says, gives her a heavy feeling in her body. “I feel more present,” she said.
Gibney pours a cup of coconut cream in the pot. “This is going to help cool it down before we add the honey,” she says.
She dips a candy thermometer into the oil to make sure it is below 115 degrees. A cup of honey is then whisked into the bowl. For strict vegans, maple syrup can be used instead.
“You can also substitute the coconut butter with hazelnut or peanut butter and make a different kind of fudge,” she says.
Gibney grates fermented cacao until it’s a fine powder. As she works, she describes how the kava should make people feel: “You get this good euphoric feeling and then you feel sleepy because it’s also a muscle relaxant.”
When Britt uses kava at home, she lets the root soak in a cup of tea with milk or coconut oil and cools it in the refrigerator.
Then, she adds a bit of honey to mask the bitter, peppery flavor.
“It creates a numbing sensation in your mouth,” she says.
Making your own medicinal kava chocolate at home is easy.
The recipe that Gibney is cooking up makes about 24 palm-sized pieces of chocolate fudge.
The fudge mixture is poured into a shallow, about 3- inch-deep cooking dish, before it is placed in the freezer overnight.
After eating one of the dark chocolate squares it takes just a few minutes for the mild sedation to kick in.
“It makes me feel open and accepting of the world,” Gibney says. “The more people can know about this, the better. ”
Lisa Spear is a writer for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton.