What You Should Know About Kava, “Nature’s Xanax”

kava powder in an aluminum scoop

In the late 2000s, Tracy and Scott Pingel had a baby. Unsurprisingly, they later told Rolling Stone, life with a newborn sent their stress levels soaring. The Pingels wanted an all-natural way to help them navigate this hectic life phase, and after some searching, they found the herbal remedy kava.

The kava plant has been used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes in several Pacific Islander cultures for centuries. When the Pingels tried kava tea, they immediately fell in love with its calming, tension-relieving effects. “It shuts down what I like to call that ‘mental talking in your head,’” Tracy said. She and Scott liked kava so much, in fact, that they opened their own kava bar—SquareRüt, in Austin, Texas.

As more and more people living in the United States have embraced the benefits of drinking kava tea, more and more kava bars have opened. Though they’re most concentrated on the coasts and in Hawaii, you can find them in less-expected places too, like Michigan, Kansas, and North Carolina, according to this interactive map.

If you’re curious about kava, read on to learn its history, top uses, and potential side effects. Plus, we go over the basics of how to make your own kava tea.

What Is Kava?

The Latin name for Kava, Piper methysticum, comes from the Latin word for “pepper” and the Latinized Greek word for “intoxicating.” The name kava, or kava kava, comes from the Tongan and Marquesan word for “bitter.” Other names for kava include kawa kawa, ‘awa (Hawaii, ‘ava (Samoa), yaqona (Fiji), sakau (Pohnpei), and malok or malogu (parts of Vanuatu).

The kava plant, which reaches an average height of 6 feet and has 10-inch-wide heart-shaped leaves, grows on several South Pacific islands. Kava has been a ceremonial drink in Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia for over 2,000 years. Pacific Islanders have also used kava root for medicinal purposes for centuries to treat issues ranging from headaches to insomnia to infections to rheumatism.

The active ingredients in kava, called kavalactones, are sticky, insoluble substances. There are six major kavalactones: methysticin, dihydromethysticin, kavain, dihydrokavain, yangonin, and desmethoxyyangonin. According to leading kava expert Dr. Vincent Lebot, who resides on Vanuatu, “the most interesting” is kavain, which is concentrated in the kava root and produces feelings of relaxation. The euphoric feeling many kava drinkers report comes from one of the other six, desmethoxyyangonin.

Once absorbed, kavalactones pass through your bloodstream but do not directly affect your brain. That means that although they have sedative properties, they won’t actually sedate you. “This is why, when you drink kava, there is no alteration of your perception of the reality,” Lebot told Rolling Stone. “It doesn’t affect directly the central nervous system.”

After you drink kava, you may notice that your lips feel slightly numb. Don’t worry, that’s a totally safe, normal reaction. It typically takes around 20 minutes for the full effects of kava to set in, and they usually last for around three hours. Kava doesn’t get you high or leave you feeling out of it; instead, you’ll feel both relaxed and alert.

The Top 3 Uses for Kava

As you may have gathered, many people try, and love, kava for its powerful calming effects. Studies have found that kava has sedative, anesthetic, euphoriant, and psychotropic properties. This makes it a wonderful treatment option for anxiety, stress, nervous tension, sleep problems, and muscle pain, among other conditions.

Use #1: Anxiety Reliever

Part of what makes kava so appealing to people with anxiety is that it can decrease tension without dulling your focus and mental edge. Kava’s anti-anxiety benefits have been quite thoroughly researched.

A groundbreaking set of findings on the use of kava to treat generalized anxiety disorder were published in 2013.

Researchers from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia published a world-first clinical study in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology that showed kava outperformed a placebo, making it a viable alternative to pharmaceutical anxiety treatments like Prozac, Xanax, and Valium.

Over the course of the 8-week study, 75 participants with clinically-diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder took either kava or a placebo. Regular assessments of anxiety levels showed a clear and significant drop in anxiety for the kava group in comparison to the placebo group. Participants with moderate to severe anxiety experienced even greater benefits than those with more mild anxiety.

Follow-up findings validating the use of kava for the treatment of anxiety from the same group of researchers were published in Phytotherapy Research, a peer-reviewed journal. The 6-week, double-blind, randomized controlled clinical trial also found that kava led to significant reductions in anxiety with no adverse reactions. In fact, the researchers found that kava noticeably improved sex drive, function, and performance. Less stress and better sex? Talk about a win-win!

A Cochrane Review of 11 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies that enrolled a total of 645 participants also found that kava significantly reduces anxiety with either no side effects or very mild ones. And kava doesn’t leave you feeling out of it, as other anxiety-reducers can. You’ll feel pleasantly relaxed, but still sharp. Studies show that even people who use kava heavily for long periods of time show no decreases in cognitive function.

Use #2: Sleep Facilitator

Move over valerian. There’s good evidence to support the use of kava as a sleep aid. A Swiss research team published findings in Planta Medica showing that kava binds to key neurotransmitters, namely, GABA, dopamine, and histamine. This can help your brain enter the state of calmness and tranquility most conducive to sleep.

A separate inquiry conducted by a research team based in Berlin found that kava caused a decrease in 5-HT concentrations, which they think could explain the sleepiness brought on by higher doses.

Since kava also relaxes your muscles and brings on a mild euphoria, it makes an ideal addition to your bedtime routine. It can help send you off to sleep, and it’s non-addictive and won’t leave you groggy the next morning.

Use #3: Pain Killer

As we mentioned early, drinking kava can leave your lips and mouth feeling numb. That’s because two of the major kavalactones—dihydromethysticin and dihydrokavain—are natural pain killers.

Drinking kava can decrease pain as well as muscle spasms. You can also buy kava paste and use it topically. Experts say the best method is to mix it into a carrier oil, then rub it onto sore muscles, aching joints, or anywhere else you need pain relief.

Here is what you should know about kava.

Worried About Kava Side Effects?

Drinking kava typically causes no noticeable side effects, and kava extracts and tinctures have been deemed safe for use for up to 6 months when under medical supervision. If you drink a very concentrated dose, Lebot told Rolling Stone, then “it is recommended to stay home and not drive.”

A study published in Drug and Alcohol Review, a peer-reviewed journalfound that long-term use of kava can lead to problems such as loss of appetite, indigestion, weight loss, and a scaly skin rash called kava demostatis. As Lebot points out, many substances we treat as benign, like coffee, can also cause side effects, especially when consumed frequently or at high doses.

As of 2018, kava is legal in the United States as well as in most countries, though it’s often regulated as a food or dietary supplement. Based on research that has since been challenged, namely, a 2002 German study that linked kava to liver toxicity, some regions passed laws restricting the use of kava and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a consumer advisory that kava could increase your risk of liver damage.

Since that time, however, the conclusions drawn by the German study have been widely disputed. A Human Health Risk Assessment published by the New Zealand government in 2004 found that kava use was safe for both long- and short-term use. And the results of a National Science Foundation project in Hawaii that ran from 2010 to 2015 found that people who showed symptoms of liver toxicity after taking kava were also using other drugs and medications known to cause liver problems. After researchers concluded that the liver toxicity, and its link to liver disease and potential liver failure, found by the original German study was the result of a kava allergy that affects roughly 1 in 100 million people, the regulatory ban on kava products was lifted.

Kava is a potent herbal medicine, however, and it is not advised for pregnant or nursing women to drink kava or take kava supplements. Adverse drug interactions have occurred with anxiolytics such as benzodiazepines and anti-depressants. Taking kava kava with alcohol or other psychoactive drugs will increase your risk for liver injury.

How to Make Kava Tea

The most traditional way to consume kava is to prepare kava tea. To do so, you steep kava—fresh, or dried and ground into a powder or paste—in cold water to extract the kavalactones, its active components. Be sure to shake or stir your beverage prior to drinking it, since the kava molecules don’t dissolve in water but rather separate into an unstable emulsion, like oil and vinegar.

The flavor of kava is typically described as “muddy” or “earthy.” One first-time kava drinker described it as “bitter in a way that makes your throat clench, and otherwise it’s like watery clay: dirty-tasting, chalky, heavy on minerals.” Long-time kava drinkers often develop an affinity for it, but it’s undoubtedly an acquired taste. Very fresh, still green kava, Lebot said, has a spicy, licorice-like flavor, but it’s nearly impossible to get unless you’re in an area where kava is harvested. “Kava is not consumed for its taste, but for its effects,” Lebot said. “Drinkers don’t sip the beverage, they absorb it in one shot.”

Here's a quick and easy recipe for kava tea.

It’s also possible to buy pre-made kava teas, which disguise its flavor with varying levels of success, but they typically contain only small doses of kavalactones. You could use kava extract, a convenient option researchers often turn to, but you should know that, depending on the formulation, it may not contain the full range of kavalactones found in the whole kava root or kava paste. The same holds true for kava powders and capsules. If you do opt for capsules, powder, or extracts, be sure to read the label closely to determine the kavalactone content.

Recommended doses range between 70 and 250 kavalactones milligrams per day. What you hope to gain from kava will influence both how much you take and when you take it. For instance, if you’re using kava to help you get good, restful sleep, you’ll want to take a large dose about an hour before bed. If you’re using it for anxiety relief, though, you’ll want to take smaller doses and divided them up throughout the day.

While the taste and consistency of kava root and kava paste may take some getting used to, experts tend to agree that’s the best way to get the most kavalactones per serving. Some people chew or swallow them straight or add them to smoothies, rather than going the traditional kava tea route.

Lebot is critical of the way non-beverage products get labeled as kava. “If you put caffeine in a pill, you cannot call it coffee, just like dried raisins in a capsule are not wine,” he said. If you want a simple way to try traditional kava tea, this recipe serves as a good entry point.

Quick and Easy Kava Tea Recipe

  • Add 2-4 tablespoons of kava root powder and 8 ounces of hot water to your blender. The water should be hot but not boiling, ideally, right around 120 degrees. If it’s too hot, it can cause the kava to turn sludgy, making it difficult to strain.
  • Blend on high for around four minutes.
  • Pour the contents of the blender through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth.
  • Discard the pulp.
  • Since the remaining liquid has such a strong flavor, you may want to chase it with a piece of pineapple or dark chocolate.

If you’re interested in trying more experimental kava preparations, check out this list of kava drink recipes.

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