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What is Kava? The Ultimate Guide to Kava Kava (Benefits, Side Effects, Etc.)

By December 25, 2019 January 23rd, 2020 No Comments

Kava kava is experiencing a surge of popularity. You’ve certainly heard of the calming beverage, and it’s likely you’ve seen one of the many kava tea bars that have cropped up in recent years. 

Perhaps you’ve even tried the incredibly earthy beverage. Still, you might have questions:

  • What *is* kava kava? 
  • Where does kava come from? 
  • What are the benefits of kava? 
  • What are the effects of kava?
  • How should you (or could you) use kava?

We’ll give you the low down here, and after this article, you’ll be a true kava expert.

What is Kava? A Krystal Klear Kava Definition

There are several phrases you may have heard, such as “kava kava,” “kava tea,” “kava drink,” “kava root,” “kava powder,” or simply, “kava.” In most cases, no matter what the phrase, we’re talking about the same thing – an earthy drink designed to relax.

However, to get crystal clear, let’s define each term and make sure we’re clear on the differences.

What is kava (or kava kava)?

Kava, otherwise known as Piper methysticum, is the crop used to make kava products and drinks. It comes from the Pacific Islands, and has a long history in the Pacific Islands, used traditionally for several purposes, including medical, religious, recreational. Etc.

According to The lexicon of Proto Oceanic, the name loosely translates to “bitter root” or “potent root.” It has several historic cognates as well, such as ʻawa, ʻava, yaqona, sakau, seka, and malok or malogu. Some of these translate to “bitter”, “sour”, or “acrid” to the taste.

So kava, also known as kava kava, is simply the Pacific Island crop used to make kava-based products. 

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What is kava root?

Kava root is the part of the kava plant used to create kava drinks and tea. You grind up the kava root, which contains the active ingredient, kavalactones (in fact, kavalactones represent 3-20% of the weight of the root).

If you want to make your own kava drinks, you can buy kava root in bulk

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What is kava drink (or kava tea)?

Kava drink, typically referred to as kava tea, is a beverage made from the ground up kava plant root. It is known for its bitter and earthy flavor, but also for its calming and anti-anxiety effects. Some use the drink to treat sleeplessness or restlessness, some use it as an alternative to alcohol, and some drink it for religious, cultural, or social purposes.

It originated in the Pacific Islands, but kava drink is becoming incredibly popular in the United States. Technically, it is banned in European and Canadian markets. 

This is due to health concerns around liver toxicity, though the studies on that are quite old and flawed in many ways. We’ll discuss side effects and possible safety concerns with kava later in the article. Suffice to say, many cultures use the plant and drink and health issues are exceedingly rare.

First, let’s talk about the more interesting matter: what does kava do, what are its effects, and why do so many people drink it?

What Does Kava Do?

As I’ve already alluded to, drinking kava has many effects and benefits that drive various cultures to consume it. 

There are well-studied benefits to the beverage, but then there are also anecdotal reports as to what the drink makes you feel like. To start, let’s summarize some anecdotal reports, starting with yours truly.

My Kava Experience

I first went to a kava bar in Austin, Texas on a date night with a girl I was seeing. She had been before and tried the drink once; I had literally never heard of it. 

We went on a weeknight, and while you’ll have to take my word for it, I’m generally overly energetic and a bit over-caffeinated, especially mid-week (as I work a lot). This night wasn’t much different. I typically have a difficult time settling down and relaxing and sleeping deeply. According to my date, this ‘kava tea’ could help with all of this. It was supposed to produce an effect not unlike the euphoria of a few drinks of alcohol.

While I don’t think it was as strong or pronounced as alcohol or being drunk, it was definitely placating and soothing. It also leaves a strange numbness to your mouth and tastes quite badly (though I’m sure it’s an acquired taste thing, like beer or coffee). 

I didn’t track my sleep back then (though I do now with the Oura ring), but I felt like after we left, I had a much deeper night of sleep than normal. 

So to summarize:

  • The taste was bitter and numbed the mouth
  • I felt relaxed and like my monkey brain turned off for a bit
  • I slept better, at least anecdotally

Now let’s see if this experience lines up with others’ on the internet. 

Other Reports of Kava Effects

These mostly come from Reddit and various forums (cited appropriately), but they represent a diverse but also representative sample of how people explain kava’s effects.

Keep in mind, also, that these are individual experiences. It’s difficult to know the background, tolerance, experience level, weight, etc. of these people, so you shouldn’t expect your experience would be exactly the same. I also find that people who share their experiences online tend to be a very open and not necessarily a random sample 🙂 

“My experiences with Kava have been interesting, to say the least. I’ll make this short: Kava is best used as a meditative/reflective aid. If you try to go about your day on it, you’ll have a hard time focusing (unless it’s a tiny, useless dose). If you take too much, all the anxiety and bad memories you don’t even know you’re holding on to will hit you like a freight train, and you’ll break down. Essentially, Kava forces you to stop burying your pain. In moderate doses, it will start skimming of the most minor/recent issues first, and present them to you to come to terms with. And it’s easy to do like that. Being someone who (strongly) tends to bury pain rather than deal with it, Kava has turned my life around. It’s not something you need to use every day, because stress doesn’t build up that fast. For me, 2-3 times a week is great.” – Reddit user

“Had a bunch while in Fiji, tasted like muddy water, but felt very mellow and relaxed, though that could have just been the holiday.” – Reddit user

“I felt very relaxed and at ease mentally and physically. I wouldnt quite describe the feeling as “buzzed” but it was very pleasant. I would recommend this combo if youre looking to unwind after a stressful day or if youre wanting to add a little bliss to a bedtime smoke sesh. I find smoking weed with this drink enhances the effects of the tea significantly.” – Reddit user

So let’s review:

  • Mellow and relaxed
  • Not quite ‘buzzed’ but very pleasant
  • Best used as a meditative/reflective aid.

If you want to read more of this type of experience, you can check out the /r/kava subreddit

Kava Benefits

Kava contains substances called kavapyrones which have well-known psychotropic properties, similar in feeling to low doses of alcohol. According to an old research paper, the most common effects “are relaxation and euphoria, depending on the circumstances of ingestion, whereas higher doses cause sleepiness and skeletal muscle relaxation.” The paper also reports “anticonvulsant properties, neuroprotection and analgesia.” The same paper found dopaminergic effects in rats. 

While kava doesn’t have a large base of long term studies, there have been some empirical findings with regard to kava benefits. These are typically attributed to the active ingredient, kavalactones:

Some benefits may also come from the therapeutic and communal context in which the beverage is consumed as well. It is commonly consumed among friends and family to relax, which may have its own beneficial effects.

Kava Side Effects and Safety

When you start researching kava, the big question that comes up is on its potential effects on the liver. In general, when you consume anything new, it helps to do your research and make a safe and balanced decision on whether or not to try it out. That’s no different with kava side effects, so let’s run down what the research says here.

Here are the side effects of kava (according to RXList):

  • Allergic skin reactions
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Enlarged pupils
  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • Headache
  • Hepatitis (acute)
  • Liver damage
  • Liver failure
  • Motor reflex impairment
  • Oculomotor equilibrium disturbances
  • Parkinsonism
  • Visual accommodation disturbances
  • Body weight decreases (chronic use)
  • Facial puffiness (chronic use)
  • Blood in the urine (chronic use)
  • Kava dermopathy (chronic use)
  • Lymphocytopenia (chronic use)
  • Movement disorders (chronic use)
  • Protein levels decrease (chronic use)
  • Pulmonary hypertension (chronic use)
  • Rash (chronic use)
  • Red blood cell volume increases (chronic use)
  • Low blood platelet count (thrombocytopenia) (chronic use)

For what it’s worth, that list looks incredibly scary. I’m guessing that this list includes hypothetical/theoretical side effects as well as extreme fringe cases, because the vast majority of experiences don’t include any of these. But alas, it wouldn’t feel right not to at least list those, considering the source is legitimate. 

Back to the big question, what are kava’s effects on the liver?

Kava is indeed banned in a few countries because of its effects on the liver (notably, there seem to be a few cases of liver failure). However, there is some controversy around that decision and the conclusions. 

Here’s how a 2008 paper put it:


“In Europe, there have been more than 30 cases of liver damage possibly associated with kava intake, although this remains controversial. The types of liver damage include hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver failure, and death (31,46–51). It is not clear what doses were used and the period of use associated with the risk of liver damage. Both chronic and heavy use has been associated with cases of neurotoxicity, pulmonary hypertension, and dermatologic changes.”

There are several theories as to why the connection between kava kava and liver damage exists. From a poison.org article:

“First, kava kava is metabolized by a group of liver enzymes that are involved in metabolizing many drugs. Kava kava can tie up these enzymes so that they cannot readily metabolize the other drugs, causing those drugs to accumulate and damage the liver. Second, the kava kava itself might be metabolized into substances that directly cause damage to the liver cells. Other researchers believe that the liver toxicity comes from kava kava often being taken with alcohol and that the liver damage is due to alcohol. Yet another theory is that inflammation and depletion of important substances in the liver are to blame for toxicity.”

As far as my research has gone, I’m still not certain on any conclusions here. It seems, though, that it is generally safe for those without previous liver conditions and as long as you don’t consume too much, too often, or in conjunction with other substances. Caveat emptor, and obviously do your due diligence. 

Kava Kava Usage (How to Use Kava)

Okay, so you’ve weighed the benefits with the potential side effects, and you’re still thinking, “I want to try kava kava!” What’s the next step? 

Well, first off, there are several different ways to use kava. It can come in all of these forms:

  • Kava tea
  • Kava capsules
  • Kava powder
  • Kava liquid

All of these, with the exception of kava tea, are made from kava concentrate, which you can buy online. Kava tea is made with the kava root itself, a strainer, and some warm water (of course, you can also buy kava root and make your own kava tea at home – my favorite way to prepare the plant). 

Additionally, you need to consider the dosage. As with anything new, start low and work your way up. There are no official recommendations for kava dosage, but the American Botanical Council advises 60 to 120 mg of kavapyrones (or kavalactones) as a safe dosage for no longer than three months.

It can be difficult to weigh the dosage if you’re drinking tea, so if you want to really measure the quantity, it can help to take the extract, a capsule, powder, or liquid. In these cases, you can get quite specific and granular on your dosage. 

Some studies have found effects with as little as 50mg of kavalactones, and some studies have pushed that number up to 250mg. 

This is one of those things – like alcohol, CBD, cannabis, or whatever else you’re taking – where you want to start low and get to know your specific tolerance and desired dose. There’s no one size fits all kava dosage.

Where to buy kava?

There are several places to buy kava, possibly the best one being your local kava bar if it exists. Outside of that, you can buy kava root, kava powder, kava capsules, kava extract, and even fully finished kava drinks online. 

Here are some of my favorite products to get started with:

Conclusion 

Kava kava may be a new trend in the United States, but it has a long history, particularly in cultures in the Pacific Islands. 

People love kava for its antianxiolytic and calming effects. Some love it for its ability to help them sleep. Some like it as an alcohol alternative. 

There are many ways to consume and enjoy kava, just make sure you thoroughly research the plant and make sure you know the risks as well. 

All that said, I’ve really enjoyed drinking kava tea every now and again! 

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