Kava Kava is yet another interesting plant I’ve had the privilege of learning about recently.
It has a storied history of use as both recreational and ritual psychoactive by several island cultures throughout the southern and western Pacific. Today in countries where it isn’t banned or restricted, it’s mainly used as a sleep aid and an anxiolytic (anxiety reducer), and goes by several names:
- Piper methysticum (binomial name)
- Intoxicating Pepper
- Awa or Ava
For the purposes of this post, I’m just going to refer to it as “Kava” or “Kava Kava.”
Seeing as the liver deals with the active components of Kava Kava and that there are a half dozen substances in the whole plant, and because some individuals simply should not take it, I’m going to trot out this warning:
Caution: Kava is not to be used by people with liver damage or poor liver health, individuals taking MAO-Is, or those who have other medical conditions. It is also not to be used when operating heavy machinery or motor vehicles. Like any other substance with the potential for recreational use, it should only be used respectfully by responsible individuals.
Usually when something has a warning, it means that it’s fun. Barring chronic daily use, Kava Kava should be okay for most people to take in moderation.
Kava Kava as an anxiety reducer
Active components found in the root of the Kava Kava plant been shown to greatly reduce anxiety at sub-psychoactive levels in individuals who do not have psychotic anxiety.1
Basically, if you have unexplained anxiety that isn’t related to mental issues, Kava Kava root can help you.
It seems its mode of action, especially its effect on the mood, comes from the ability of the kavalactones (the main bioactive substances in Kava) to potentiate GABA signalling. This is different from the action of theanine, where L-theanine acts like GABA itself.
Based on my subjective use at a normal dosage of Kava Kava root tincture, I can definitely vouch for its anxiety-reducing potential in social situations and otherwise anything else with the potential to cause unwarranted stress.
Even without any pressing anxiety, I find that Kava Kava seems to help me unwind and release a lot of tensions that I was not previously aware of. It’s also mildly euphoric, which lends itself to recreational use, which I’ll explain shortly.
Kava Kava as a sleep aid
Because of Kava’s mild hypnotic sedative-like effects, it seems to be excellent to help one fall asleep faster.5
Whenever I find myself unable to fall asleep easily for one reason or another, I just take a modest dose (the one recommended on my Gaia Herbs Kava extract bottle says 1 dose = 30 drops, containing 37.5 mg kavalactones) and nod off more easily.
It also makes my dreams a lot more vivid, which isn’t bad. This aspect of Kava reminds me of blue lotus, which also brought me some interesting dreams.
Kava Kava as recreational psychoactive
Historically, Kava Kava has been prepared as a cold-brew beverage for ritual use and as a social lubricant of sorts. It would typically be consumed throughout the night over the course of hours, lending one to a sense of ease, calmness and sociability without completely disorienting the mind.
Tea made from kava roots is drunk cold but it still retains an attractive lilac aroma. A pungent and numbing aftertaste keeps users from drinking too much. The intoxication is similar to alcohol in that it produces a short euphoric state, relaxation, and some loss of social inhibitions. There is no hangover, even for seasoned kava drinkers. But it is strangely disappointing to many who find that while they are happy and content, their mental alertness remains unaffected. This would seem to be a benefit for problem drinkers but they balk at such unfamiliar sobriety and return to the dizziness of alcohol. To achieve stronger effects it is necessary to chew the kava root, a fibrous and unappetizing course that even native kava drinkers dislike. Furthermore, such high doses can be as addicting and as debilitating as alcohol.6
Kava has very limited potential for abuse, as higher doses and chronic doses will give the abuser sensations of nausea. Its bitter flavor and numbing sensation tends to keep most people from accidentally overdoing it.
Chronic overuse of Kava Kava can cause a temporary and reversible skin condition.7 It’s usually just seen in natives who drink Kava Kava frequently.
Taking Kava Kava Root and dosage
It’s possible to purchase Kava Kava for brewing if you want to try it in the traditional manner. It’s something I would like to do in the near future.
Barring that, iHerb seems to sell a few flavored powdered versions of Kava that can be taken as a drink:
- Kava King 1/2 lb Berry blend
- Kava King 1/2 lb Cocoa blend
- Kava King 1/2 lb Berry shake
- Kava King 1/2 lb Cappuccino shake
- Kava King 1/2 lb Vanilla shake
Here are liquid tinctures of Kava Kava that can be taken with water:
There are more products, including capsules and powders, on iHerb’s Kava Kava page.
Potent Kava Kava products tend to have a numbing effect on the mucus membranes. According to more experienced Kava Kava users, if you don’t get that numbing effect, you may be using an inferior product.
Dosages: Generally you will want to follow the recommended dosages usually included on the literature with whatever Kava Kava product you use. The half-life of the kavalactones seems to be 9 hours8, but the most noticeable effects diminish gently after just a few hours.
See list of studies for Kava Kava at Examine.com ↩
Erowid Experience Vaults: Kava – Good for Work ↩
Erowid Experience Vaults: Kava (paste) – Nice Downer, Eases Anxiety and Mellows ↩
Erowid Experience Vaults: Kava – Stops Anxiety and Depression ↩
Affirmed by a couple of studies at Examine.com – Look at “Sleep Quality” table ↩
from Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise by Ronald Siegel – Quote found at Erowid Psychoactive Vaults: Kava ↩
PubMed – Kava dermopathy. ↩
“…many active kavalactones have half lives of approximately 9 hours” ↩