What Is Kava? 10 Must-Know Facts

by Dr. Edward Group DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM Published on , Last Updated on

Kava Root

A few years ago, my wife and I were on Hawaii’s big island and walking through a quaint shopping area when I noticed a small, hole-in-the-wall establishment that served kava. For the uninitiated, kava is a relaxing, non-alcoholic beverage made from the root of the kava plant, it’s popular in the Pacific islands. I’d heard of it but hadn’t tried it and figured it’d be a good opportunity. I walked up, paid $6 for a coconut shell of liquid that resembled dirty dishwater, and down the hatch it went. It didn’t take long before I was enveloped in a feeling of clear relaxation and realized why Polynesian culture appreciates it so much. Kava isn’t some big secret, but it’s not terribly mainstream on the mainland, so let’s take a look at the top 10 things you need to know about kava.

1. What is Kava?

Kava, also known as piper methysticum, kava kava, and ‘awa, is a small shrub native to the islands in the South Pacific. The root and stems are made into a non-alcoholic, psychoactive beverage that has been used socially and ceremonially for hundreds of years in Hawaii, Fiji, and Tonga. [1]

Kava is traditionally prepared by placing ground root and stem into a porous sack, submerging in water, and squeezing the juice into a large, carved, wooden bowl. Coconut half-shell cups are dipped and filled — punch bowl style. After drinking a cup or two a feeling of heightened attention combined with relaxation begins to come on. Although it is soothing, it is unlike alcohol in that thoughts remain clear. The flavor is largely inoffensive, but some find that it takes getting used to; it really depends on your preference for earthy flavors.

2. Kava as a Therapy for Anxiety

Kava has been marketed since the early 90’s as an herbal remedy for stress, anxiety, and insomnia; its popularity has grown ever since. [2] [3] [4] The excitement is justified, as the clinical evidence supporting its use is quite extensive. [5] Kava contains compounds known as kavalactones, they’re responsible for its psychoactive qualities. In the brain, they operate on non-opiate pathways to offer a natural and non-narcotic action against anxiety. [6] Some clinical research even suggests that they’re as good or even better than pharmaceutical drugs like benzodiazepines. [7]

According to Duke University Medical Center, kava is beneficial for anxiety and doesn’t produce dependency or negatively affect heart rate, blood pressure, or sexual function. [8] In a 75-participant, 6-week, double blind trial conducted by the University of Melbourne Department of Psychiatry, kava was found to reduce anxiety and, aside from a few reported instances of headache, was well tolerated. [9] It’s even been described as a promising candidate for future research into improving attention disorders. [10]

3. Kava May Remedy Menopausal Mood Swings

For many women (and men), menopause is a time when hormone levels go haywire and lead to mood swings. Although hormone replacement therapy and mind medicines are frequently used, many women prefer natural therapies. In this regard, menopausal women may find kava to be an excellent option. It is known to help psychological status without affecting the therapeutic action of estrogen — this is especially important when osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease are a concern. [11] [12]

In 2003, a clinical study reported that kava encouraged a healthier, pleasant mood among menopausal women. [13] Coincidentally, or perhaps not, research conducted earlier this year also found that kava significantly increases libido in women. [14]

4. There are Questions Surrounding Kava and Liver Health

If you start researching kava, warnings about liver damage are the first you’ll discover. This is a subject with much contention. While some suggest it is toxic to the liver, most research indicates there is little evidence to support this notion. [15] [16] [17] Both Ohio State University and the South Dakota State University College of Pharmacy conducted animal studies and found that not only was kava non-toxic to the liver, but may even protect the liver. [18] [19] One of the primary arguments is that liver damage from kava is unpredictable, dose-independent, and not reproducible; thus individual metabolic differences are more likely. [20]

5. Kava May Turn You Into a Fish

Well, not really, but one noted side effect of long-term, heavy, consistent consumption of kava is development of a scaly skin rash known as dermopathy. There are several hypotheses concerning its cause. Some speculate it may be the result of interference with cholesterol metabolism. [21] Niacin deficiency, which can cause skin changes, has also been examined but cleared as a potential cause. [22] Another idea is that certain metabolites bind to skin proteins and cause an immune response. [23] Regardless, it’s often only associated with heavy, prolonged use and is reversible when consumption stops. [24]

6. Kava May Offer Therapeutic Support for Addiction

Substance abuse is a large and expensive problem in the United States and the chemistry of craving has become a focus within addiction research. Within this realm, kava may have significant value. Kava contains compounds known as kavapyrones that bind to brain locations associated with addiction and cravings. Although preliminary and exploratory, some clinical studies have shown that kava may be able to reduce drug cravings. Hopefully future investigations will continue to examine these potential benefits! [25]

7. Kava Shouldn’t Be Mixed With Prescription Drugs

This isn’t exclusive to kava, it applies to all herbal therapies. Your body is an ongoing chemistry experiment, and everything you consume can affect it. The metabolizing enzymes that process food and nutritional supplements are the same that metabolize prescription drugs and interactions can occur. If you’re taking prescriptions, talk to your prescribing doctor before starting supplemental therapies, including kava. [26]

The South Dakota State University College of Pharmacy warns that kavalactones inhibit several enzymes and block certain receptors and uptake channels. While this is not inherently a problem, it can be if taken with drugs that are metabolized by those enzymes or have similar pharmacological properties. [27]

8. Think Twice About Concentrated Extracts

As explained before, traditional kava preparation involves extracting the active compounds with water; it’s very similar to making tea. Some companies, however, have taken the chemistry a step further and offer concentrated extracts that are produced using harsh solvents such as acetone or methanol. Although some studies suggest that extracts are mostly void of toxic effects, others have raised the idea that perhaps extracts are what cause liver damage. [28] Solvents may react with kava to produce harmful, reactive metabolites. [23] Additionally, not only does water extract the kavalactones, but it also extracts glutathione — a compound that promotes liver health. [29] Besides, water is the traditional preparation medium and it’s more efficient at extracting the beneficial kavalactones. [30]

9. Some Folks are Tarnishing Kava’s Image

Unfortunately, there is always a seedy side of society that has to pervert the holistic use of herbs like kava. It can’t just be left alone and appreciated in its traditional form — some unscrupulous dregs always have to gunk it up. For example, the University of California San Francisco School of Pharmacy discovered a number of questionable online merchants whose marketing efforts have completely discarded the traditional attitudes regarding kava and simply promote it as a “legal alternative” to illegal drugs. [31] Certain brands of “herbal ecstasy” have included kava in the formula. [32] More recently, the antithesis to energy drinks, known as “relaxation drinks” have become available. They contain ingredients such as melatonin, valerian, kava, and tryptophan, which is fine… except that they’re lamely advertised as smooth, cool sedatives in a can. [33] To really top off the ridiculousness, some “bust enhancing” products even contain kava! (In case you’re wondering, they don’t work.) [34]

10. Be Safe — Don’t Drive

Concerns have been raised over the effect of sedatives — prescription and herbal — on driving ability. It’s a valid concern, safety is extremely important and kava does elicit a certain physically tranquilizing effect. To assess the situation, researchers at the University of Melbourne conducted a driving simulation experiment with 22 adults who were given a “small” serving of kava. Although no impairing effects were observed, researchers cautioned that “small” is relative and the conclusion was, by no means, conclusive; additional research is required before an all-out safety rating can be assessed. The best idea? Play it safe, if you’re going to enjoy kava, don’t drive. [35]

Supplementing With Kava

Kava isn’t found at many retail locations outside the Pacific islands, but it can be found online. If you give it a try, I recommend finding fresh ingredients and fixing a traditional preparation. I haven’t had much luck with dehydrated mixes and powders, but others might have had better experiences. Have you tried kava? What’d you think? Please leave a comment below and share your experience with us!

References (35)
  1. Shimoda LM, Park C, Stokes AJ, Gomes HH, Turner H. Pacific island 'Awa (Kava) extracts, but not isolated kavalactones, promote proinflammatory responses in model mast cells. Phytother Res. 2012 Dec;26(12):1934-41. doi: 10.1002/ptr.4652. Epub 2012 Apr 4.
  2. O'Sullivan HM, Lum K. The poisoning of 'awa: the non-traditional use of an ancient remedy. Pac Health Dialog. 2004 Sep;11(2):211-5.
  3. Baker JD. Tradition and toxicity: evidential cultures in the kava safety debate. Soc Stud Sci. 2011 Jun;41(3):361-84.
  4. Stacy S. Relaxation drinks and their use in adolescents. J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2011 Dec;21(6):605-10. doi: 10.1089/cap.2011.0026. Epub 2011 Dec 2.
  5. Larzelere MM, Campbell JS, Robertson M. Complementary and alternative medicine usage for behavioral health indications. Prim Care. 2010 Jun;37(2):213-36. doi: 10.1016/j.pop.2010.02.002.
  6. Sarris J, LaPorte E, Schweitzer I. Kava: a comprehensive review of efficacy, safety, and psychopharmacology. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2011 Jan;45(1):27-35. doi: 10.3109/00048674.2010.522554. Epub 2010 Nov 15.
  7. [No authors listed] Piper methysticum (kava kava). Altern Med Rev. 1998 Dec;3(6):458-60.
  8. Connor KM, Davidson JR, Churchill LE. Adverse-effect profile of kava. CNS Spectr. 2001 Oct;6(10):848, 850-3.
  9. Sarris J, Stough C, Bousman CA, Wahid ZT, Murray G, Teschke R, Savage KM, Dowell A, Ng C, Schweitzer I. Kava in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2013 Oct;33(5):643-8. doi: 10.1097/JCP.0b013e318291be67.
  10. Sarris J, Kean J, Schweitzer I, Lake J. Complementary medicines (herbal and nutritional products) in the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): a systematic review of the evidence. Complement Ther Med. 2011 Aug;19(4):216-27. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2011.06.007. Epub 2011 Jul 26.
  11. Geller SE, Studee L. Botanical and dietary supplements for mood and anxiety in menopausal women. Menopause. 2007 May-Jun;14(3 Pt 1):541-9.
  12. De Leo V, La Marca A, Lanzetta D, Palazzi S, Torricelli M, Facchini C, Morgante G. [Assessment of the association of Kava-Kava extract and hormone replacement therapy in the treatment of postmenopause anxiety]. Minerva Ginecol. 2000 Jun;52(6):263-7.
  13. Cagnacci A, Arangino S, Renzi A, Zanni AL, Malmusi S, Volpe A. Kava-Kava administration reduces anxiety in perimenopausal women. Maturitas. 2003 Feb 25;44(2):103-9.
  14. Sarris J, Stough C, Teschke R, Wahid ZT, Bousman CA, Murray G, Savage KM, Mouatt P, Ng C, Schweitzer I. Kava for the Treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder RCT: Analysis of Adverse Reactions, Liver Function, Addiction, and Sexual Effects. Phytother Res. 2013 Nov;27(11):1723-8. doi: 10.1002/ptr.4916. Epub 2013 Jan 24.
  15. Rowe A, Ramzan I. Are mould hepatotoxins responsible for kava hepatotoxicity? Phytother Res. 2012 Nov;26(11):1768-70. doi: 10.1002/ptr.4620. Epub 2012 Feb 8.
  16. Teschke R, Lebot V. Proposal for a kava quality standardization code. Food Chem Toxicol. 2011 Oct;49(10):2503-16. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2011.06.075. Epub 2011 Jul 3.
  17. Grace RF. Kava drinking in Vanuatu--a hospital based survey. Pac Health Dialog. 2003 Sep;10(2):41-4.
  18. Singh YN, Devkota AK. Aqueous kava extracts do not affect liver function tests in rats. Planta Med. 2003 Jun;69(6):496-9.
  19. DiSilvestro RA, Zhang W, DiSilvestro DJ. Kava feeding in rats does not cause liver injury nor enhance galactosamine-induced hepatitis. Food Chem Toxicol. 2007 Jul;45(7):1293-300. Epub 2007 Jan 26.
  20. Teschke R, Sarris J, Lebot V. Contaminant hepatotoxins as culprits for kava hepatotoxicity--fact or fiction? Phytother Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):472-4. doi: 10.1002/ptr.4729. Epub 2012 May 14.
  21. Norton SA, Ruze P. Kava dermopathy. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1994 Jul;31(1):89-97.
  22. Ruze P. Kava-induced dermopathy: a niacin deficiency? Lancet. 1990 Jun 16;335(8703):1442-5.
  23. Olsen LR, Grillo MP, Skonberg C. Constituents in kava extracts potentially involved in hepatotoxicity: a review. Chem Res Toxicol. 2011 Jul 18;24(7):992-1002. doi: 10.1021/tx100412m. Epub 2011 May 3.
  24. Gounder R. Kava consumption and its health effects. Pac Health Dialog. 2006 Sep;13(2):131-5.
  25. Steiner GG. Kava as an anticraving agent: preliminary data. Pac Health Dialog. 2001 Sep;8(2):335-9.
  26. Bressler R. Herb-drug interactions: interactions between kava and prescription medications. Geriatrics. 2005 Sep;60(9):24-5.
  27. Singh YN. Potential for interaction of kava and St. John's wort with drugs. J Ethnopharmacol. 2005 Aug 22;100(1-2):108-13.
  28. Teschke R, Gaus W, Loew D. Kava extracts: safety and risks including rare hepatotoxicity. Phytomedicine. 2003;10(5):440-6.
  29. Whitton PA, Lau A, Salisbury A, Whitehouse J, Evans CS. Kava lactones and the kava-kava controversy. Phytochemistry. 2003 Oct;64(3):673-9.
  30. Kubátová A, Miller DJ, Hawthorne SB. Comparison of subcritical water and organic solvents for extracting kava lactones from kava root. J Chromatogr A. 2001 Jul 20;923(1-2):187-94.
  31. Dennehy CE, Tsourounis C, Miller AE. Evaluation of herbal dietary supplements marketed on the internet for recreational use. Ann Pharmacother. 2005 Oct;39(10):1634-9. Epub 2005 Sep 13.
  32. Yates KM, O'Connor A, Horsley CA. "Herbal Ecstasy": a case series of adverse reactions. N Z Med J. 2000 Jul 28;113(1114):315-7.
  33. Stacy S. Relaxation drinks and their use in adolescents. J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2011 Dec;21(6):605-10. doi: 10.1089/cap.2011.0026. Epub 2011 Dec 2.
  34. Fugh-Berman A. "Bust enhancing" herbal products. Obstet Gynecol. 2003 Jun;101(6):1345-9.
  35. Sarris J, Laporte E, Scholey A, King R, Pipingas A, Schweitzer I, Stough C. Does a medicinal dose of kava impair driving? A randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study. Traffic Inj Prev. 2013;14(1):13-7. doi: 10.1080/15389588.2012.682233.

†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. Global Healing Center does not dispense medical advice, prescribe, or diagnose illness. The views and nutritional advice expressed by Global Healing Center are not intended to be a substitute for conventional medical service. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.

  • Sheri Bell Coats

    Is there a brand that you recommend Dr.Group?

  • ghc_health

    No, I have only had it freshly prepared and I haven’t seen many favorable reviews for capsules or instant powders. I’m still searching for a favorite and can’t share one at this time but I do know that organic and direct from the farm is the only way to go.

  • SteveT

    I have been drinking it on and off for over 10 years. I like the effects.the feeling of being boolaad, is very interesting and as well calming. Recently I moved to Colombia and there is not a kava culture here, yet!

  • Gabriel C

    I love Kava so so very much! And I’m actually opening a Kava bar (Nakamal) in Greenville SC. This article helps shine a light on such a glorious plant! Please like us on Facebook, The Kava Konnection – we are trying to gain as much support as possible from the Kava Kommunity 🙂

  • Gabriel C

    I 100% agree with your comment, Global Healing Center. Extracts in capsule and alcohol tinctured forms can be quite iffy. The best is to go with a reliable powdered root vendor or straight from the source. The only problem with the latter is quality control. Sourcing directly from farmers in Fiji and Vanuatu can be potentially dangerous do to looser quality control standards. That would be the only reason I would suggest going with a pre-established powdered root vendor:

  • Vili

    Come to FIJI and Experience first Hand the True Effects of Kava and Its Significance in the Culture and Traditions…In All of the Pacific,Kava drinkers who have tried Fijian Kava say that it is the Best…don’t believe me, u can ask any Polynesian,Melanesian,Micronesian or whoever who has tried it in comparison to Kava found in all other Pacific Island Nations.Come to Fiji and also find out some Dark Secrets of Kava that would blow your mind away LOL…In Fiji,Kava is our Life:).No need pay a Ridiculous amount to drink kava.With just a few bags as ur peace offering to any Kava Bar,you’re considered as part of the Family already and Respected. Thats how much Kava means to us:)

  • George

    i got tons of kava bags ready to sell in walnut creek ca from the lands of Tonga, call 9259320929 10$ a bag.

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  • Nanette Lemmon

    I am so thankful for all 10 of the facts that were covered. I was looking for some calming tea. My local supermarket had a Kava tea. I was intrigued. After I had my first cup, I read the box and saw all of the warnings. I was astonished! I reread the ingredients and muscle tested for it.

    I have health issues. I drink it after a stressful day (2-3 times a week) with NO problems. My anxiety eases and therefore I feel like I can relax. No negative side effects. No sleepiness. No drugged feeling, just peace.

    Thanks for the article.

  • Heather Gordeev

    I visited your establishment tonight and must say I am incredibly grateful to have been introduced to such an incredible experience. Thank you so much!

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  • anupam das

    So awesome, kava love, I would go if I lived there. Get people off the real liver damaging alcohol!

  • Kdellosa

    I have tried two brands of tea of kava. Yogi and Buddha Teas. I did not find much help with the Yogi tea because kava was not a main ingredient and it was mixed with a bunch of other stuff. The Buddha Teas brand I have recently discovered. It is organic and the only ingredient is Kava Kava Root. I can’t compare it to the fresh stuff however I love the calmness it brings me. It is amazing. I have serious anxiety and having a cup of this tea helps me greatly with my anxiety. It’s better than taking a pill because I know I didn’t have to put chemicals in my body to be able to feel calm. I would recommend this to anyone who has anxiety or stress. It’s a relief!

  • Melissa

    Hi! I enjoyed your article, and just had a question or two..
    I suffer from GAD and PTSD, and despise taking chemicals. In an effort to completely come off them (I’m only on one now), I’ve been searching for natural remedies.
    I’ve come across Serelax, which contains 100mg of kava per dose.
    How does that compare with what’s in the teas? Is that a safe daily dosage?
    I’m a little wary of it yet.. thanks for any replies.

  • Laura Pavlak

    Tried it at Kava Kasa in Grand Rapids, MI. They just opened 12/01/16 and found it to be very calming, and enjoyed the good feeling it gave to me. I would recommend this, or at least give it a try. Very enjoyable!

  • Katie

    My job is super stressful and my anxiety is barely manageable. I did some research about kava kava and went and bought the NOW brand capsules at my local Coop. However, after reading this and the comments I am weary. Do I return the capsules? Would passionflower be a safer option? I am also on birth control pills so that’s why I’m a littler nervous too. I bought Yogi tea with kava so I’ll try that but I would love feedback on the capsules. Thank you in advance!

  • Ruvendra

    Hi Folks, I feel compelled to write from my own anecdotal experience and observations. I’m 58 years now and grew up in the Fiji Islands. I have seen people drink kava on a daily basis. I drink kava at least once a week, which is like 2 tablespoons of unprocessed pure kava powder.I have not come across any negative side effects. However those who drink daily and excessively do suffer from lack of productivity due to late night drinking sessions. Kava needs to be prepared in the traditional method and the kava itself should not be processed with chemicals, which is most important.

  • Anonymous

    I used Yogi Kava Stress Relief Tea to quit smoking cigarettes in 2008, after 12 years of smoking a pack a day. I haven’t gone back. I stopped drinking it after awhile and have now started back. It helps my anxiety.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, the Yogi tea is great! I drink it for anxiety at work also!

  • hollyshobbies

    I recently read that some unreliable manufacturers use the stems in their product and that is where the liver problems come from.
    There is a local tea shop in Pittsburgh that serves it. I think that I may try some soon.

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  • Natashya

    I am thankful for the information. Today I had my first 1/2 teaspoon of powdered kava kava extreact from bulk supplement. I’m using in to help me quite alcohol addiction. Don’t feel any way in particular, relaxed I guess, but I won’t drive for a while till I’m used to it. Thanks for the information.

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