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What Is Kava?

Kava is a depressant substance that produces a mild sedative effect on the user. Traditionally, people make it into a drink by adding cold water or coconut milk to the ground roots of a pepper plant called Piper methysticum.

Historically, this drink has longstanding cultural, ceremonial and medicinal uses in the Pacific Islands. In the 1990s, kava became popular in the United States in beverage and supplement forms due to its relaxing and intoxicating properties.

History of Kava

Piper methysticum grows throughout the Pacific Islands. Known by many different indigenous names within the Pacific region, it is commonly called kava outside of that area. The plant likely originated in Vanuatu, which has the most varieties of these plants. Centuries ago, ocean explorers brought it with them on their travels to other islands. As the kava plant spread throughout the islands, new varieties appeared, resulting in more than 100 kava cultivars today.

Ceremonial Uses

Drinking a kava beverage became a prominent part of ceremonial traditions in the Pacific islands, making it an important component of the area’s cultural heritage. Each island has unique practices that involve this local substance. It is often present when making agreements, welcoming visitors or attending events like weddings or funerals.

People of the islands believe kava connects them with spiritual power, creating a direct way to bring divine energy to important events and ceremonies. Historically, community elders drank kava to get spiritual guidance from their ancestors. Locally, residents still consume traditional kava drinks both ceremonially and socially.

Kava Folklore

Many ancient tales, myths and rituals center around kava. In Hawaii, legend says it is the food of the gods, brought to the area by the divinities Kane and Kanaloa. In Tonga, they tell the tale of a couple who honored the King by sacrificing their daughter, Kava. Later, two plants began to grow on her grave. One was sugar cane. The second, they named kava after their daughter.

In Vanuatu, ancient lore relays the story of two orphans, a brother and a sister. After the sister died at the hands of a stranger, a kava plant grew from her grave. The young man was distraught and despondent, sitting at her graveside, mourning each day for a year. One day, he witnessed a mouse eat the plant’s roots and die. Consumed with grief, he decided to eat them too. However, he did not die. He instead felt peaceful, released from the agony of his suffering.

In Fiji, legend tells the tale of the snake god, Degei. Degei raised two humans, teaching them how to live and maintain balance with nature. When the two were old enough to care for themselves, he gifted them two plants, vuga and kava, to give them a way to remain connected with the gods.

Many Names

Kava or kava kava is the Tongan name for the Piper methysticum plant. Some other island words for this root substance include:

  • ‘Awa in Hawaii
  • Ava in Somoa
  • Yaqona or grog in Fiji
  • Sakau in Pohnpei
  • Malok or malogu in Vanuatu
  • Wati in New Guinea

Photo credit: wikipedia.org

Characteristics of the Kava Plant

The kava plant is a tall, tropical, evergreen shrub belonging to the pepper family or Piperaceae. These plants grow an average of 6 feet in height, with heart-shaped leaves up to 10 inches in diameter. These large, yellow-green leaves grow densely on the branches. Greenish-white male flowers grow up to 6 inches long where the stem and branches meet. Female flowers are rare and do not produce fruit, making the propagation of the plant entirely dependent on humans.

Growing Kava

Kava plants grow best in damp, shady areas with abundant rainfall. They do not thrive if there is too much direct sunlight but require warm temperatures between 68 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. They need loose soil to ensure adequate airflow for proper plant growth.

These plants require 3-5 years of growth in humid areas before harvesting. During this time, the stalks become thick, and additional stalks may sprout from the stem. The active ingredient in the roots also fully develops as the plant grows. However, due to a limited root system, kava plants can suffer nutrient stress if not harvested at the right time. Leaving them in the soil for too many years can make them susceptible to disease.

Knowing the Roots

The roots of kava cultivars have two sections that vary in length. They can grow 6 feet in height and measure 1-2 feet in thickness. The crown root is big and thick, and the lateral root is small and thin. Lateral roots are brown and rough on the outside with yellow flesh inside. These plant parts have the highest concentration of active compounds, or kavalactones.

Harvesting the plants requires cutting the stems above the first node. It is vital to take care when digging up the roots to keep them intact, preserving the desired qualities of the herb. After harvesting, farmers wash, peel, cut and sort the roots, as each part has different kavalactone content. They then dry the plant parts and keep them in moisture-proof containers as they can reabsorb moisture over time.

Attributes of Consuming Kava

Kava roots have a pungent, peppery smell that many people find unpleasant. Unfortunately, the taste of kava is no better than the smell. While different cultivars vary in flavor, they all have a bitter, earthy taste that many describe as dirt or mud. A higher concentration of lateral roots in the drink gives it a more unpleasant taste, as the stump roots are milder in flavor. However, the lateral roots are desirable since they contain more kavalactones, the psychoactive ingredients that give kava its calming appeal.

Brownish-gray in color, this drink does not have great visual charm, either. After mixing water with the powdered or ground kava roots, the beverage resembles a muddy puddle. People do not consume kava for its aesthetic or taste. The appeal is entirely in the effects it has on the user. People often mix fruit juices into kava drinks to disguise the acrid flavor or chase the beverages with non-alcoholic ginger beer or fresh fruits.

Effects of Kava Use

When drinking kava, the active compounds in the roots work similarly to a central nervous system depressant, impacting neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. Higher doses of kava can increase dopamine levels, creating a pleasurable sensation. Known as the hormone that makes you feel good, dopamine carries messages between the nerve cells in the brain and the rest of the body. Kava also seems to act as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, creating a sedation effect on the user.

Positive Impacts

A cup of this beverage has a psychoactive, sedating effect that is noticeable immediately when the lips and mouth go numb. It relaxes muscles, relieves stress and elevates mood. Most people report experiencing euphoria, likening its effects to those of alcohol or benzodiazepines. However, while kava impacts the brain, it typically does not negatively affect cognitive functioning. Most users say they remain clear-headed but calm after drinking kava in small doses.

Negative Effects

The mood-boosting effects of kava root depend on the amount someone uses and other factors, such as weight, time of day and food intake. It is essential to use the correct dose, as increasing the intensity of the sedation can lead to potential complications and adverse effects. Taking high doses of kava for a long time can cause a dermatological condition, resulting in yellow, dry, scaly skin. There is also a link between kava use and severe, sometimes fatal, liver damage, although the exact causality is unclear. Due to the possibility of liver harm, many countries regulate kava.

Other side effects may include an intoxicated-like state, gastrointestinal upset and dizziness. Additionally, too much kava or long-term toxicity can result in the following:

  • Breathing difficulty
  • Headaches
  • Impaired motor skills
  • Excess sleepiness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sore, red eyes

Possible Uses of Kava

Studies show that kava has potential uses for treating generalized anxiety, stress, pain and stress-induced insomnia. In the proper doses, the calming effects of this substance can help reduce anxious feelings and improve rest and respite.

Anxiety

Kava’s neurochemical effects of increasing dopamine levels and sensitivity to GABA neurotransmitters facilitate a feeling of calm and well-being. The benefits for those with anxiety seem comparable to the tranquilizers often used in treatment. Multiple trials indicate that kava may be an effective treatment option for generalized anxiety disorder, but its use needs additional research.

The kavalactone levels used in controlled trials were significantly higher than those traditionally consumed by people in the Pacific Islands. Due to the larger doses, some participants experienced stomachaches, headaches, drowsiness and nausea.

Pain

The muscle relaxant properties of kava provide pain relief with fewer cognitive side effects than benzodiazepines. The analgesic properties of kava produce a depressant effect on the body. By suppressing overactive nerves, users experience a sense of relaxation mentally and physically. Some studies indicate that kava may also have anti-inflammatory properties, offering further pain relief.

Other Conditions

Research with animals indicates that kava may have antispasmodic and anticonvulsant uses. It has diuretic properties that may help treat conditions that affect the urinary tract. It can also sometimes be helpful as an assistant with withdrawal from pain relievers and other drugs.

Taking This Substance Safely

Although kava is natural, it is vital only to use it under the supervision of a medical professional. Due to the variance of potency, strains and preparation techniques, it is impossible to determine a standard safe amount. Although rare, evidence suggests a link to liver damage, making it unsafe for people with liver diseases, such as hepatitis or cirrhosis. People taking medications that affect the liver should also avoid kava use.

Everyone’s bodies are different, making medical supervision necessary to maintain good mental and physical health. Skilled doctors or health care workers can assess an individual’s unique concerns and needs. They can determine whether kava is a good choice and monitor dosing, use and side effects.

Understanding Reverse Tolerance

Drinking kava in its traditional form has a reverse tolerance, meaning that tolerance to its effects decreases over time. With most other substances, users develop an increased tolerance to the active ingredients, making them likely to use more significant amounts over time. When you try kava the first time, you may not notice its effects, but with continued use, you will feel the impact more and more.

Addictive Qualities of Kava

The Food and Drug Administration does not classify kava as an addictive substance. However, the effects on the brain are similar to addictive drugs and alcohol. Kava impacts the brain’s receptors, and the resulting euphoric feelings may lead to dependence.

Neurotransmitters

Addictive substances cause an unusually high surge of chemical levels in the brain’s reward centers. These spikes in endorphins and dopamine create a powerful desire to repeat the behavior and overuse the drugs. Because people consider kava a socially acceptable, natural supplement, it can seem like an effective way to calm nerves and stay relaxed without drugs or alcohol. However, kava acts upon these same neurotransmitters, making it a candidate for possible addiction.

Possible Concerns

Those looking for an escape may turn to kava for respite, but there are many risks and undesirable effects when people use high concentrations of this substance for long periods. Although some suggest kava use as a helpful solution for addicts going through withdrawal, replacing one drug with another is typically not the best route to sobriety. Seeking professional help for addiction that includes medical care, emotional support and cognitive behavioral therapy is a better solution for long-term success in overcoming addiction.

While considered non-addictive, some individuals may develop a habit of dependence on the elated moods associated with taking kava. People can become attached to using this herb to self-medicate and avoid confronting their issues head-on.

Abuse of Kava

Substance abuse occurs when someone has a habit that results in ensuing distress or a pattern of problems. It is present when people use drugs, alcohol, herbs, food or activities differently from their intended uses. The calming effects of this substance improve mood and can cause some kava drinkers to abuse it, attempting to amplify the outcomes. They may want to create more sedation or feel the effects quicker.

Kava affects the limbic system, which plays a role in behavior and emotions. This system has a substantial implication for drug abuse. Both the activated reward receptors in the brain during use and the cravings and dissatisfaction during withdrawal contribute to a possible dependence. Although there is a lack of evidence showing that using kava is addictive, any substance that acts on your brain’s pleasure receptors can inspire excessive use. Disproportionate use can lead to psychological and physical dependence on the sedating kavalactones.

Signs of Kava Abuse

When someone has the compulsion to consume kava or develops a fear of not having it available, these are symptoms of an addiction issue. Although kava may not create a physical dependency, it can be habit-forming, leading to a psychological addiction. Some things that can indicate abuse of this substance include:

  • Increasing doses or frequency regularly
  • Scheduling other activities around kava use
  • Experiencing adverse consequences but continuing use
  • Obsessing about the need to take the substance
  • Turning down social opportunities to use kava
  • Mixing kava with other drugs or alcohol
Symptoms of Withdrawal

When someone develops a long-term dependence on kava, suddenly quitting may lead to physical withdrawal symptoms, such as:

  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Apathy
  • High blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
Risks of Kava

The World Health Organization states that kava presents a low level of health risk, but there are still concerns. If used long-term or in large amounts, people may experience the following:

  • Decreased muscle control
  • Severe weight loss
  • Depression
  • Malnutrition
  • Liver toxicity
  • Respiratory issues
  • Mood swings
Kava Interactions

People sometimes combine kava with other substances to try to enhance the effects. This practice can be dangerous as kava has known interactions with 265 medications and alcohol. Although risky, it is common for users to drink alcohol and kava together as it boosts the impacts of both substances.

The half-life of kava is 9 hours, meaning it stays in the body for up to 18 hours. When individuals have muscle relaxants, alcohol, other sedatives or painkillers in their systems, taking kava can result in serious side effects. Because this substance potentiates the effects of barbiturates, benzodiazepines and alcohol, it can lead to shortness of breath, impaired vision, reduced cognitive abilities and stomach cramps when taken with other central nervous system depressants.

Kava Has Many Unknowns

Although there are promising studies regarding using kava to treat anxiety and pain, researchers still do not fully understand how it works on the brain and body. The drug’s effects are primarily favorable when taken correctly in the proper doses. However, the potential for liver damage, drug interactions and possible addiction and abuse make it a risky treatment option at this time. Additionally, due to kava’s effects on dopamine levels in your brain, it can become an addicting habit.

We Offer Support

If you or a loved one exhibits warnings of kava abuse, seeking professional assistance provides the emotional and physical support necessary to overcome addiction. Our holistic approach treats your mental, physical, social and spiritual health. Contact Clean Recovery Centers today to learn how we can aid your path to wellness.

Sources:

  • https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/kava
  • https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/piper-methysticum
  • https://www.poison.org/articles/kava
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4630875/
  • https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21437989/
  • https://entheology.com/kava-kava/food-of-the-gods-the-role-of-kava-in-hawaiian-myth-and-legend/
  • https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/herb/kava-kava

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