What is Kava? A Guide to its Benefits, Effects, & Origins

What is Kava? A Guide to its Benefits, Effects, & Origins

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Within the plant kingdom, there are a plethora of species beyond cannabis known to offer a sense of relaxation and connectedness. One that has recently caught the attention of curious minds in the mainland United States is kava. 

Despite its rich and extensive history, this shrub’s growing presence in mainstream culture has brought about a surge of questions from prospective enthusiasts. Fortunately, this article will cover everything you need to know about kava to prepare you for your first experience.

Let’s begin.

What is Kava?

Kava Kava leaves

Kava (Piper methysticum) is a shrub native to the South Pacific Islands, where societies have cultivated it for various cultural practices. Its rootstock is usually harvested, ground into a milky pulp, and then filtered to make a beverage with a wide range of relaxing psychoactive properties.

Today, it is common to find this sacred drink served in kava bars. However, the plant has also been used to make other products, such as capsules, powdered root extracts, mixed drinks, and even decadent chocolates.

The Origins of Kava

the South Pacific Islands

"Kava” is derived from Tongan and Marquesan and translates literally to "bitter." It is synonymous with both the perennial shrub and beverage native to and often prepared in the South Pacific Islands, including: 
  • Hawaii
  • Fiji
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Pohnpei
  • Samoa
  • Tonga
  • Vanuatu
The history of kava dates back centuries, as natives have embraced it in both medicinal rituals and social gatherings.

Today, there are around 150 known cultivars of kava, most of which are still grown in the Pacific Islands. However, kava plantations are also developing within the contiguous United States with its recent spike in interest and demand. 

What are the Benefits of Kava? 

Unfortunately, due to Food and Drug Administration regulations, we cannot discuss any potential medicinal benefits of kava.

Browsing online, you may notice brands labeling products as "herbal supplements," "dietary supplements," or even "muscle relaxants." However, the FDA has not verified such claims. We recommend talking to a medical professional if you are curious about kava or its potential side effects.

What Does Kava Feel Like?

When it comes to any psychoactive plant, everyone’s experience will be different. However, one universal effect of consuming kava is a tingly, numbing sensation on the tongue. Enthusiasts have also reported feeling: 
  • Stimulated
  • Gently euphoric 
  • Clearer
  • Talkative
  • Carefree
Therefore, kava's effects are often compared to those of alcohol, with less acuteness and no hangover. One notable reason for this is that the "active ingredients" in kava, called "kavalactones," may potentiate the activity of GABA-A receptors. In comparison, alcohol mimics the effects of GABA in the brain. For those unfamiliar, GABA is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger in the brain) that can reduce a cell's ability to make, send, or receive messages from other cells. 

There are currently 18 known kavalactones. Six have been identified as “major kavalactones” and include: 
  • Methysticin
  • Dihydromethysticin
  • Kavain
  • Dihydrokavain
  • Yangonin 
  • Desmethoxyyangonin
Besides potentiating GABA-A receptors, a study conducted in 2012 found that yangonin can bind with CB1 receptors. The research suggests that this interaction may reduce anxiety. Interestingly, THC also binds to these receptors, which brings about the pain-modulating effects of cannabis. 

Is Kava Legal?

As of this writing, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) does not recognize kava as a controlled substance, nor do any state governments. That means if you're 21 or older, you can legally enjoy kava and have it delivered to your home. 

You should be safe traveling with kava products domestically via an airline if the medium complies with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) standards. However, we do not recommend traveling abroad with kava products.

What Does Kava Taste Like?

As its name suggests, kava (translating literally to “bitter”) has a strong, pungent taste.  However, don't let this discourage you if you want to try it. 

While some individuals may prefer to develop an acquired taste for kava’s natural flavor, there are plenty of ways to enjoy it that are friendlier to your tastebuds. Various products, from beverages to edibles, have masked its bitterness nicely with complementary ingredients. 

For example, dark chocolate's deep, earthy undertones not only cancel out the sharpness of kava but also add a source of fiber and antioxidants. Together, they make a sweet treat that retains the Pacific root’s relaxing effects. 

Is Kava Safe?

When consumed in moderation, kava poses very little threat of physical danger. But before trying it, there are some recommendations you should consider:
  • Ask your doctor before trying kava products
  • Do not consume kava if you are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Do not consume kava if you have liver problems or experienced liver damage
  • Do not mix kava with alcohol
  • Avoid driving or operating heavy machinery after consuming kava
Like any other psychoactive plant, it's best to start with small amounts when trying kava. This way, you can gauge how kava affects you in a prudential and incremental manner to find what amount is right for you and delivers the best effects. 

Final Thoughts 

Increasingly, plants like kava and cannabis are coming to light in our ever-busy society because they help us hit the pause button and reclaim a sense of presence.

Kava is a tried and traditional path of finding relaxation, feeling grounded, and developing connections with others.  Connoisseurs might find this Pacific root an excellent addition to their palette for inner and outer discovery (especially when combined with cannabis). 

We hope this article served you as a first stepping stone into a broader range of experiences and sensations. Until next time, happy exploring and mind your mind. 

FDA Disclaimer: The statements made regarding these products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The efficacy of these products has not been confirmed by FDA-approved research. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. All information presented here is not meant as a substitute for or alternative to information from health care practitioners. Please consult your healthcare professional about potential interactions or other possible complications before using any product. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires this notice.

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