What Is Kava? Meet the “Alcohol Replacement” Drink.
Kava is often advertised as “like alcohol.”
When I drink kava, though, it’s only somewhat like alcohol. First, kava tastes like dirt. Also Kava’s version of drunkenness is milder. When I chug a lot of kava, I don’t rearrange my consciousness like a true bender. I never pass out from kava, and I never get mumbly or sloppy.
Kava and beer do have a few things in common: they both facilitate conversation, and create a warm, cozy feeling. On kava, the world brightens and waves a little bit. The bar lights dance a little hula. I want to hug people.
Kava and alcohol have one other thing in common: both kava and alcohol, in big doses, leave me hungover. Groggy, slow, achy. Yet even here, the kava hangover is gentler.
Kava is simply lighter than alcohol for me. Kava could be called Diet Alcohol, in a way.
What is Kava?
Kava drink is any beverage the comes from kava. This is a crop of the Pacific Islands, which has the scientific name Piper methysticum (from the Latin term for ‘pepper’ and the Latinized Greek for ‘intoxicating’).
The name kava is from Tongan and Marquesan (both Polynesian languages), meaning ‘bitter’. Other names for the plant include ‘awa (Hawai’i), ‘ava (Samoa), yaqona or yagona (Fiji), sakau (Pohnpei), seka (Kosrae), and malok or malogu (parts of Vanuatu).
Kava produces sedating effects. Its popularity exists throughout the Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia, including Hawaii, Vanuatu, Melanesia, some parts of Micronesia (such as Pohnpei and Kosrae), and the Philippines.
The root of kava is used to produce a drink with sedative, anesthetic, and euphoric effects. Its active ingredients are called kavalactones. Many people consume kava drink in order to alleviate anxiety.
There is some research available showing that kava has real benefits, meaning that it is more effective than a placebo. A market is also growing for kava-based drinks in light of the plant’s effects and benefits.
However, just because kava drink has widespread traditional use and is growing in popularity, this doesn’t mean consuming it entails no risks. Before deciding to consume kava drink, especially on a regular basis, you need to be aware of possible dangers and complications.
In this guide, we are going to do a deep dive into the different aspects of kava drink, including:
- The history of kava drink
- The pharmacology of kava
- How to prepare kava drink
- How to drink kava
- Kava drink effects
- Kava drink side effects
- Benefits of kava drink
- Risks of kava
- The legality of kava
- The growing kava market
What Is Kava Drink?
Kava is a tropical evergreen shrub with heart-shaped leaves and woody stems. Pacific cultures traditionally use kava in the form of a drink during rituals and social gatherings.
To make kava drink, people first grind its roots into a paste. Traditionally, this grinding was performed by chewing the roots and spitting them out. Now, however, the grinding typically comes from hands. The paste then mixes with water, is strained, and then consumed.
Kava drink is a slightly peppery, earth-flavored drink that produces subtle relaxant and soporific effects without substantial euphoria or intoxication. For example, the effects are mild enough that teachers in rural Fiji will drink kava during meetings. It often facilitates discussion and socialization.
Beyond traditional usage, kava drink can come in many different forms. People use the plant to make tea, milkshakes, smoothies, chai, and various carbonated beverages.
The History Of Kava Drink
Piper methysticum is a synonym of Piper wichmanii, indicating that kava was domesticated from Piper wichmanii, which is also a synonym of Piper subulatum. Kava originated in either New Guinea or Vanuatu by seafarers.
Kava was spread by the Austronesian Lapita culture after contact eastward into the rest of Polynesia. The plant is endemic to Oceania but is not found in all Austronesian groups of people. Kava reached Hawaii but it is absent in New Zealand (where it cannot grow).
Dr. Vincent Lebot, a leading researcher and expert in kava, and author of the book Kava: The Pacific Elixir, has detailed the history of the plant.
While no one knows for the sure the origins of the kava plant, most believe it originates from Vanuatu. More specifically, some theorize that kava originated in Northern Vanuatu on the island of Maweo. Supporting this theory is the fact that Vanuatu hosts the most kava varieties of any nation.
Nevertheless, what is known for sure, is that Pacific Islanders cherish kava. Over many centuries, the unique properties of the plant guides this belief and trust.
Kava’s Discovery by the West
The voyages of Captain James Cook to the South Pacific included the discovery of kava. A botanical drawing of kava in the Natural History Museum in London, England, dates to 1769. In 1777, George Foster, a naturalist who joined the second Pacific voyage led by Captain James Cook, provided a description of kava drink:
“the kava juice is extracted from the roots of a kind of pepper-tree. The roots are first made into pieces and then are chewed by people who later spew out the pulp into a bowl containing coconut or cold water. After this, the mix is filtered through the coconut fibers and then emptied into a separate bowl for consumption.”
As kava was spread and propagated locally, new kava varieties emerged on each island. Today, there are over 100 kava cultivars.
From Hawaii, kava made its way to the continental United States. During the early part of the 20th century, kava was used in capsules and concoctions sold in pharmacies. An advertisement for kava can even be found in a Sears catalog from 1915.
Since then, drinking kava has grown substantially in popularity, as evidenced by the number of kava bars in the U.S.
The Pharmacology Of Kava Drink
A total of 18 different kavalactones (kavapyrones) are in the kava plant — 15 of which are active. However, six of them (kavain, dihydrokavain, methysticin, dihydromethysticin, yangonin, and desmethoxyyangonin) are responsible for about 96 percent of the plant’s pharmacological activity.
These kavalactones, which are present in the roots and leaves of kava, reach a large number of different receptors that influence central nervous system activity. They interact with dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and glutamate receptors. They also inhibit monoamine oxidase (MAO) B and exert multiple effects on ion channels.
These combined effects are believed to explain kava’s significant anti-anxiety and relaxant properties, which have been observed with both kava extract and kavalactones.
How To Prepare Kava Drink
Many people throughout Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia, Vanuatu, Melanesia, and some parts of Micronesia and Australia consume kava in a variety of ways.
Traditionally, kava drink is prepared by first either chewing, grinding, or pounding the roots of the plant. Grinding is done by hand against a cone-shaped block of dead coral. The hand forms the mortar while the coral acts as the pestle.
Next, the ground root/bark is combined with only a little water, as the fresh root releases moisture during the grinding process. Pounding is done in a large stone with a small log. The product is then added to cold water and consumed as quickly as possible. You want to drink it quickly to prevent the sediments from settling down.
Fijians commonly share a drink called grog, which is made by pounding sun-dried kava root into a fine powder, straining it, and mixing it with cold water. Traditionally, people drink grog from the shorn half-shell of a coconut, called a bilo.
Grog is a popular drink in Fiji, especially among young men. It often brings people together for storytelling and socializing. Drinking grog for a few hours can cause a numbing and relaxing effect.
Place the desired amount of kava into a blender. Add cold water at 1:10-15 ratio (1 g of kava powder to 10-15 ml of water, depending on your preference).
Blend on high for 3-4 minutes. You may add a teaspoon of coconut oil or a bit of lecithin, which might help to extract fat-soluble kavalactones.
Once you finish blending it, pour the mixture into a strainer bag and strain/squeeze the kava into a clean bowl.
For this recipe, you want to add 15 g (approximately 3 tsp) of instant kava to two cups of cold water (ideally purified and chlorine-free) or any soft drink, fruit juice, or smoothie you like. Make sure to stir well.
How To Drink Kava
Drinking Kava Made With Traditional Powder
You should drink kava servings quickly in order to prevent the sediments from settling down and also because it’s not very pleasant to sip it slowly.
Drink one shell of kava (half a cup or 100-150 ml) at a time. It’s a good idea to use a chaser (e.g. fresh fruit, coconut milk, caffeine-free tea, or ginger beer) to wash away the earthy taste of the kava.
Take at least 15-20 minute long breaks between servings as it may take a while for the kavalactones to start acting and for you to feel the effects. Remember that kava works best on an empty stomach, so try not to eat anything for at least 3-4 hours before drinking kava.
Drinking Instant Kava
You can drink instant kava in one go or slowly. If you drink it slowly, remember to stir occasionally. If you mix it with nothing but water, drink half a cup of kava (or one coconut shell) at a time and use a chaser (e.g. fresh fruit) to mask the earthy taste.
Take at least 10-15 minute long breaks between shells as it may take 10-20 minutes to feel the effects. Also, note that some people experience so-called “reverse tolerance” and they need to try kava a couple of times before they can enjoy its effects.
The Effects Of Kava Drink
The effects of kava drink will largely depend on the variety of the plant used (as this can involve differing compositions of kavalactones). The method of consumption and age of the plant can have an influence on the effects, too.
In general, noble kava (a popular variety of the plant) produces a state of calmness, relaxation, and well-being without diminishing cognitive performance. Kava drink may produce an initial talkative period, followed by muscle relaxation and eventual sleepiness.
One of the earliest Western publications on kava, from 1996, offers the following description of the effects:
“A well prepared Kava potion drunk in small quantities produces only pleasant changes in behavior. It is therefore a slightly stimulating drink which helps relieve great fatigue. It relaxes the body after strenuous efforts, clarifies the mind and sharpens the mental faculties.”
Contemporary users of kava drink also describe the following effects:
- Sharpened senses
- Enhanced memory
- Easy flow of conversation
- Reduced agitation
Kava can also affect everyone differently, based on the following.
- Size, weight, and health
- Whether the person is familiar with taking it
- Whether consuming other drugs — including alcohol — occur around the same time
- The amount taken
- Strength of the drink
- The environment (this includes where you take the drug, if you take the drug alone or with others, and the kind of people you’re with)
The Side Effects Of Kava Drink
Drinking kava can lead to some physical side effects, including a numb mouth and throat, and reduced appetite. If you consume a large quantity of kava drink, you may also experience:
- Loss of muscle control
- Mild fever
- Pupil dilation and red eyes
These are obviously unpleasant side effects, so to reduce your chances of experiencing them, you want to start with a low dosage of kava drink. Make sure to wait 15-20 minutes after consuming your beverage before drinking more. If you’re impatient and continue to up your dosage, you may experience physical discomfort.
The Benefits Of Kava Drink
Most of the research so far has focused on kava’s potential to reduce anxiety. It is largely unknown how kavalactones produce this effect.
However, they appear to work by affecting different neurotransmitters in the brain. One of these neurotransmitters is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which decreases the activity of nerves.
Reductions In Anxiety
Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions that exist. Common treatments include talk therapy, medication, or both.
Many types of anti-anxiety medications are available, but they may come with unwanted side effects and can be habit-forming. This has increased the demand for safer, natural remedies, such as kava.
The first long-term study investigating the effects of kava extract in people with anxiety was published in 1995. Compared to a placebo, the extract significantly decreased the severity of participants’ perceived anxiety.
The researchers also noted no side effects related to withdrawal or dependency. In contrast, these effects can be common with benzodiazepines, a common anxiety treatment.
Since the publication of this study, several other studies have illustrated the benefits of kava on anxiety levels. A review of 11 of these studies concluded that kava extract is an effective treatment for anxiety.
Moreover, another review of a specific extract came to a similar conclusion. The authors reported that it could even be used as an alternative to certain anxiety drugs and antidepressants.
More recent research has also revealed that kava is effective in the treatment of anxiety.
Many medical and mental health issues may occur due to lack of sleep, including high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, obesity, and cancer. In light of this, many people turn to sleep medications to help them sleep better.
However, as with drugs used to treat anxiety, some sleep medications may become habit-forming, resulting in physical dependence. Indeed, prescriptions for benzodiazepines to help with sleep disorders like insomnia are common.
Many people use kava as an alternative to these sleep medications due to its calming effects. And now research is supporting this use. In one study of 24 people, researchers found that kava reduced stress and insomnia.
A subsequent study found that kava was more effective than a placebo at improving sleep quality and reducing anxiety. Interestingly, kava’s ability to improve insomnia may stem from its effects on anxiety. Indeed, people struggling with anxiety often experience troubling, repetitive thoughts at night, along with accompanying alertness and physical symptoms.
It’s unknown how kava affects sleep in those without anxiety or stress-induced insomnia. You should be aware that kava drink may make you drowsy, although the plant doesn’t seem to affect your driving ability.
The Risks Of Kava Drink
A 2016 comprehensive review of kava safety conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded:
“On balance, the weight-of-evidence from both a long history of use of kava beverage and from the more recent research findings indicates that it is possible for kava beverage to be consumed with an acceptably low level of health risk.”
On the other hand, a 2013 overview of 50 systematic reviews listed kava as among only four of the 50 monitored herbal medicines that showed serious adverse effects on human health.
The 2016 review from WHO and FAO did also point to some of these adverse effects. While the review notes “little documented evidence of adverse health effects associated with traditional moderate levels of consumption of kava beverage,” the authors add that:
“there is strong evidence that high levels of consumption of kava beverage can result in scaly skin rash, weight loss, nausea, loss of appetite and indigestion. These adverse health effects, while significant, may be reversible upon cessation of kava use. Other possible effects include sore red eyes, laziness, loss of sex drive and general poor health.”
Long-Term Use Of Kava Drink
Problems arising from long-term use of kava drink may include:
- Breathing difficulties
- Visual changes, including sensitivity to light (photophobia)
- Slight alterations to blood cells, including white and red blood cells, and platelets
- Liver damage
- Compromised immune function
- Kidney damage
- Contact dermatitis — causing scaly, flaky rash on the skin
- Appetite loss, leading to malnutrition and weight loss
- Loss of drive and motivation
It’s important to emphasize, however, that moderate consumption of kava in its traditional form (a water-based suspension of kava roots) has an “acceptably low level of risk”, according to WHO.
Risks Vary Depending On The Type Of Product
Many of the dangers of kava extracts relate to the organic solvents or excessive amounts of poor-quality kava products. Kava extracts made this way risk adverse health outcomes, including potential liver injury.
Kava can have several adverse interactions with drugs, both prescription and nonprescription. These include (but aren’t limited to) anticonvulsants, alcohol, anxiolytics (e.g. benzodiazepines), antipsychotics, diuretics, anti-Parkinson agents (dopamine agonists like levodopa), and drugs metabolized by CYP450 in the liver.
A few notable drug interactions include:
- Alcohol. Some reports claim that combining alcohol and kava can have additive sedative effects.
- Anxiolytics (CNS depressants such as benzodiazepines and barbituates). Kava may have potential additive CNS depressant effects with these types of drugs.
- Dopamine Agonists (e.g. levodopa). One of levodopa’s chronic side effects that Parkinson’s patients experience is the “on-off phenomenon”. These are periods of oscillations between feeling relief and therapeutic effects wearing off. When taking levodopa and kava together, there can be an increased frequency of this “on-off phenomenon”.
Kava Can Be Dangerous For Some People
There is little information on how kava interacts with medications. However, if you are taking any of the medications listed above, it may be best to avoid kava drink.
It can also be dangerous to take kava if you identify as any of the following:
- Are breastfeeding
- Driving or operating heavy machinery
- Drinking large quantities of alcohol
- Have a pre-existing heart, lung, or liver condition
Kava Withdrawal Risk Is Low
There is no evidence to suggest that people who regularly drink large doses of kava become dependent. Because of this, there doesn’t seem to be a risk of withdrawal if a person suddenly stops taking kava.
Just because kava use doesn’t result in withdrawal symptoms, this doesn’t mean that kava has no potential for abuse or addiction. It’s possible to become psychologically addicted to kava. The calming and mood-boosting effects of kava can cause some people to abuse kava in order to intensify these feelings.
Abuse of kava may involve taking high doses or mixing it with other drugs or alcohol. Some people may end up using kava as a form of self-medication, causing them to feel attached to the drug’s effects. Signs of psychological addiction to kava can include:
- Thinking about kava throughout the day
- Needing more and more of kava to elicit the same effects
- Planning around when you will consume kava
- Feeling an overwhelming need or urge to use kava, especially when in a stressful situation
- Wanting to stop taking kava but being unable to
- Continuing to use kava despite negative consequences
- Withdrawing from social situations to stay home and use kava
There is some evidence that kava can act as an anti-craving agent, helping to reduce cravings for alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and heroin. However, this doesn’t preclude the possibility of abusing and becoming addicted to it.
Is Kava Legal?
Kava remains legal in most countries. Regulations often treat it as a food or dietary supplement.
In 2002, there was a ban in most European countries on any products containing kava, due to concerns about its possible effects on the liver. That same year in Australia, all products containing kava were temporarily withdrawn, following the death of one person from liver failure.
Following a review by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in 2005, there was a lift on the restriction. As a result of that review, products with standardized amounts of kava, such as in supplements and teabags, became available in Australia.
Restrictions also no longer exist throughout Europe. However, in the United Kingdom, it is a criminal offense to sell, supply, or import any medicinal product containing kava for human consumption. It is legal to possess kava for personal use or to import it for purposes other than human consumption (e.g. for animals).
Until August 2018, Poland was the only EU country with an outright ban on kava. Nonetheless, under new legislation, there is no longer a ban on kava — it is therefore legal to possess, import, and consume. It remains illegal, however, to sell it within Poland for the purpose of human consumption.
The Growing Kava Market
Kava’s increase in popularity has led to many bars serving the plant in the form of drinks outside of the South Pacific. Many of these bars are in the U.S.
Some bars commit to only serving the traditional forms and types of kava. However, there have been accusations of other establishments serving non-traditional, non-noble kava varieties. These varieties are cheaper, but they are far more likely to cause unpleasant effects and adverse reactions.
Some other establishments have seen accusations of serving kava with other substances, including alcohol. This may be risky. A 2010 review concluded that it’s possible that ethanol combined with kava may be the cause of kava hepatoxicity (injury to the liver).
Other companies are creating drinks that include kava as an ingredient.
One example is Psychedelic Water, which sells a psychoactive (but not psychedelic) beverage containing kava root extract, damiana, and green tea leaf extract. You won’t experience psychedelic effects from drinking the beverage, but you may feel enhanced mood and stimulation from its ingredients.
Leilo is another brand that has created flavored, carbonated drinks containing kava.
Kava drinks are increasing in popularity because they can act as a replacement for people who no longer drink alcohol. People who have struggled with alcohol abuse or alcoholism can enjoy the relaxing effects of kava without the same risk of addiction.