What Is Kava? A Guide to the Risks, Benefits, and Uses of Kava

Takeaway: Kava has proven to be a powerful herbal supplement with many different medicinal and recreational uses. For many years, people have used kava for depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, chronic pain, and even just for fun. However, there is some controversy surrounding whether or not kava is safe to use because of its potential effects on the liver. More research needs to be done to determine whether or not it actually affects the liver, but this isn’t the only issue. With kava’s rise in popularity, a more dangerous plant-based substance called kratom has risen as well. When deciding on whether or not kava is right for you, make sure to take all of this into consideration.

kava extract

What is kava? Kava is the hottest new herbal supplement on the market. It’s popping up everywhere you look from bars to grocery stores. Users have nothing but good things to say about kava: it’s all the good parts of alcohol without all the bad parts, it relieves anxiety and depression, it’s a non-addictive pain reliever, and it helps you deal with opiate addiction. These are some big claims, so naturally many are skeptical. There must be some drawback to kava, right?

With this guide, we will explore the truth behind all of these claims, how kava can be used, and what are the real risks of kava. Then, you’ll be able to decide for yourself whether or not you’ll make a visit to your newest neighborhood kava bar.

What is Kava?

Kava is a tropical evergreen shrub that has heart-shaped leaves and woody stems. Its scientific name is Piper methysticum, belonging to the pepper family. Traditionally, kava is used by Pacific cultures as a drink during rituals and social gatherings. To ingest it, they grind the kava roots into a paste, mix it with water and strain it. Kava’s active ingredient is kavalactones, which makes up about 3-20% of the root’s dry weight.

There are several forms of kava supplements:

  • Kava tea
  • Kava tinctures or liquid
  • Kava capsules

Kava Effects

Kava’s active ingredient, kavalactones, seems to affect neurotransmitters in the brain. One of the primary neurotransmitters that it effects is gamma-aminobutyric, or GABA, which is the reason for the many benefits of kava. Kava’s active ingredient has been shown to have several beneficial effects on:

  • Anxiety Relief
  • Antidepressant
  • Anti-Convulsant
  • Neuron Protection
  • Pain Relief
  • Lowered Risk of Cancer

How Long Does Kava Take to Kick In?

It’s hard to predict precisely how long it will take for you to feel the effects of kava after taking it. This will depend on your body, how it reacts, how much you drink, etc. Generally, most people who take kava start feeling the relaxing sensation of kava hit them after 15 to 20 minutes. Of course, this will also depend on how many servings of kava that you ingest within a short period of time. While it’s not as strong as alcohol, you should still be careful and monitor how much kava you’re taking.

What Does Kava Feel Like?

Kava has the powerful ability to relax overall body tension in those who take it. Once kava takes effect, it makes the user feel calmer, happier, and even slightly euphoric. The amount of time that kava drink’s effects last varies depending on the variety and strength. Generally, the uplifting effects can last anywhere between 1 to 3 hours, while the stress relieving and relaxing effects usually last longer, and eventually make you drowsy.

Is Kava Safe?

One of the hottest topics when it comes to kava is whether or not it’s safe to take. According to medical professionals, the safest dosage you should take of kavalactones daily shouldn’t exceed 250mg. It’s generally accepted that an effective dose can be between 70mg and 250mg.

The most controversial issue with kava is whether or not it causes substantial liver damage. The United States’ FDA has warned about the risk of liver damage associated with products containing kava. It’s also been banned and restricted in many countries, including Germany, Switzerland, France, Canada, and the UK.

The reason why kava may affect the liver is that the liver enzymes that break down kava also break down other drugs. This means that kava can tie up those enzymes, preventing them from breaking down other drugs. Doing this will cause the drugs to build up and harm the liver.

The general rule is that if you don’t have a liver injury or you’re not taking medications that affect the liver; it’s safe to use in the short term (one or two months). It’s also best to make sure that the kava your taking is derived from the root because other parts of the kava plant can be harmful to the liver.

Kava for Anxiety

kava for anxiety

As opposed to regularly prescribed anxiety medication, kava is a presumably safe, natural remedy that doesn’t have the same unwanted side effects and addictive qualities.

The first study done on anxiety for kava was done in 1997. The conclusions of the study show a significant decrease in the severity of the participant’s perceived anxiety. It also noted no side effects related to withdrawal or dependency.

Another review of 11 studies concluded that kava extract is also an effective treatment for anxiety. Additionally, another review reported that kava could be used as an alternative to certain anxiety drugs and other antidepressants.

Kava for Sleep

kava for sleep

Kava has been used commonly as a safe, natural alternative to sleep medications, which tend to become habit-forming and result in physical dependence.

One study included 24 participants and concluded that kava was able to reduce stress and insomnia. However, this study’s placebo process was flawed because it wasn’t double-blind. Thankfully, another better quality study found kava to be more effective than a placebo at improving sleep quality and reducing anxiety.

Kava’s sleep aid effects may actually stem from its effects on anxiety. This is because stress-induced insomnia is a common side effect of anxiety, so kava may be treating the anxiety and aiding in sleep because it’s a symptom.

Although kava does have the ability to make you drowsy according to research, it doesn’t affect your driving ability like alcohol can.

Kava and Alcohol

kava and alcohol

Because kava has some similar effects to alcohol, without many of the detrimental side effects, it’s become a popular drink to serve at bars. However, it’s also become popular to drink kava and alcohol together; this can potentially be dangerous. Mixing kava and alcohol can result in intensifying the effects of both substances.

Similar to kava, alcohol also affects your liver; although alcohol has much stronger of a detrimental effect. Kava acts as a depressant and aphrodisiac, so it’s not recommended to drink it while drinking alcohol because it may be dangerous to advance the effect of both on your body and your liver.

Kava for Pain and Opiate Withdrawal

Kavalactones, which is the active ingredient of kava, has been known to have pain-killing, anti-convulsant, and neuroprotective properties. Human and laboratory studies have even shown that kavalactones have an anti-inflammatory and analgesic effect, which can target several different types of pain.

The extract of kava has been used to significantly reduce chronic nociceptive pain, which is a type of pain that’s felt when nerve cells are stimulated by harm to the body. It’s also been shown to reduce orofacial pain, which is chronic pain that’s localized to above the neck, below the center of the eyes, and in front of the ears.

Many also use kava for opiate withdrawal, because it has powerful calming effects that may counteract the withdrawal symptoms. It’s for this reason that many also use kava for benzo withdrawal.

Kava vs. Kratom

As kava has increased in popularity, it’s caused another plant to gain residual popularity: kratom. Many confuse kratom and kava because they do have several similar qualities. However, there are also a plethora of differences that are important to know because kratom can actually be much more dangerous than kava ever has been.

Kratom is a tropical evergreen tree with the scientific name mitragyna speciosa, which is in the coffee family. Native to southeast Asia, this plant is traditionally chewed in raw leaf form by workers. They do this to stave off exhaustion, relieve pain, and enhance mood.


  • Preparation: Both kava and kratom can be chewed to gain their effects. They also can be crushed and mixed with water to create a drink or tea. Another similarity is that they can both be found in pill or capsule form.
  • Effects: Both kava and kratom have stimulant and sedative effects, which makes them both commonly consumed for recreational relaxation. They’re also both commonly used to treat physical and psychological conditions because of their effects.


  • Pharmacology:
    • Kratom’s active ingredient is alkaloid, which interacts with the opioid systems in the brain. These systems play key roles in controlling how our bodies respond to pain. However, it acts the same way that morphine and other opiates do, making kratom worryingly addictive.
    • Kava, on the other hand, contains kavalactones as its active ingredient. Kavalactones interact with the limbic system and aren’t addictive, making it much safer to use than kratom.
  • Legality:
    • Kratom’s legality is currently being decided on, as the United States is trying to figure out whether or not it’s unsafe enough to be banned. Thailand had already outlawed kratom in 1943, and it is also prohibited in Malaysia.
    • Kava has been banned in a few countries, but Germany and Switzerland’s bans were lifted in 2015 after further research was done into its effect on the liver. It was concluded that it’s safe to consume. Kava is also legal in the United States and is currently categorized as a herbal supplement.

What Kava Product Should I Buy?

what does kava feel like

There are several different types of kava products and varieties to choose from. Choosing what is best for you comes down to how you want to consume it and what the effect you’d like to take from it is.

  • Medium Grind Kava Root: This type of kava is the most traditional that you can buy. The kava root has been ground in a similar way to coffee and is prepared in the same traditional way using a muslin cloth. To turn the grounds into a drink, you knead and strain it to make kava tea. This variety is the strongest and least-expensive type.
  • Micronized/Instant Kava: This kava product has been processed into an extremely fine powder that is much more concentrated. It also takes a lot less preparation: measure out the desired serving size and stir into any drink.
  • Kava Concentrate: The easiest way to take kava is through kava concentrate, which is a flavored cordial made with kava extract. To prepare this drink, all you have to do is add the drops to water. This product’s lower potency and easier access make it ideal for first-time kava users.
  • Tudei Kava: This kava variety has been linked to several unfortunate side effects, such as nausea and lethargy. For this reason, tudei kava has been banned in several countries. If you buy cheap kava from a non-reputable seller, you may be buying tudei kava, which should be avoided entirely.
  • Noble Kava: This is the type of kava that everyone knows, providing all of the good benefits that make it famous. When trying to buy kava products, be sure that you’re buying lab-tested noble kava so you can avoid the less-than-pleasant tudei variety.

On top of these varieties, there’s another level of variation: heady, heavy and balanced. Heady kava makes you feel euphoric and energetic, making it ideal for drinking during the day. Heavy kava has a stronger relaxation effect on your muscles and body, making you feel tired. Balanced kava means that it has the best of both worlds, making it suitable to drink any time of the day.


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