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Why is Kava root popular? Everything you need to know

Kava Kava (Piper Methysticum)

What is Kava?

Kava Kava (Piper Methysticum) is a shrub plant from the pepper family which originates from islands in the South Pacific, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years for ceremonial and medicinal purposes. Hand-harvested kava roots and rootstock are peeled, cleaned with water, chopped up, and then sun-dried. The kava roots are then ground into a medium grind to be used in the preparation of the beverage.

The active ingredient in the plant is called kavalactones, which are concentrated in the roots and rootstock. There are over 20 kavalactones that have been identified, but there are 6 that occur predominately in kava. The level of kavalactones can be identified by a 6 digit number, its chemotype, in decreasing order of presence. Understanding the chemotype can help to determine the potential effects that particular kava will have when consumed. 

Why do people drink kava?

There are many reasons that people consume kava the world over. Traditionally in Oceania, kava was consumed for ceremonial and religious purposes. As knowledge of kava and its effects has spread from the pacific islander diaspora to travelers throughout the world, kava has been consumed more and more for social and anti-anxiety therapeutic effects. You may have noticed that a kava bar has opened up in your neighborhood, as so many have across the United States in the last several years from coast to coast. Many people’s first encounter with kava is at a bar such as these, where people congregate to drink kava, socialize and relieve stress, in an alcohol-free environment.
In kava bars, it is prepared in a tanoa (traditional method) or large buckets and then served in a coconut shell or similar cup.

Kava prepared in Fiji using traditional method and tanoa
Kava being prepared in the traditional method in a tanoa

How does kava make you feel?

Kava can have a variety of effects, depending upon the cultivar (strain) consumed and the amount consumed for a kava session. The main types of effects can be described as either heady, heavy, or balanced, as in a combination of both heady and heavy.

Heady refers to the more sociable or euphoric effects that can be felt when consuming these types of kava. The drinker tends to be more relaxed and sociable, while still being able to have clarity of thought.

Heavy refers to effects that impact the body, relaxation of the muscles, release of tension, and a heaviness to the body. For very heavy kava cultivars, this physical sedation effect could be described as having “couch lock.” Some kavas have an analgesic property that can cause temporary numbness in the mouth when consumed, similar to that of a small dose of novocaine from the dentist.

Balanced refers to kavas that have a combination of both heady and heavy effects that fall somewhere in between.

What does kava taste like?

Kava tea generally has an earthy taste, which some drinkers also describe as cashew-like, grassy, chalky, or peppery. Traditionally prepared kava tea (raw kava root powder brewed and manually extracted in water) is typically consumed quickly in 6 to 8-ounce “shells” or bilos (“bilo” is Fijian for “cup,” usually in the form of coconut shells), often with a piece of fruit, such as pineapple as a chaser.

Coconut bilo of kava tea with dry kava powder and kava strainer bag
Bilo of freshly prepared kava tea made using dry kava powder and strainer bag

Is kava tea safe to drink?

Yes, if consumed correctly and in moderation, kava is safe. Kava has been consumed for thousands of years by pacific islanders with a history of being safe to drink.

In the early 2000s, there were reports of cases where patients that experienced liver toxicity had consumed kava, along with other potential supplements. In 2002, the FDA issued guidelines for use of kava but did not ban kava in the United States. As a result of the same cases in question, Germany did ban the import of kava in 2002 which then reversed the ban in 2014, due to “lack of proof of safety issues with noble kava” according to Planta Medica.

The AAFP published that, “Short-term use of kava is recommended for patients with mild to moderate anxiety disorders who are not using alcohol or taking other medicines metabolized by the liver, but who wish to use “natural” remedies.”

They also stated that “Researchers concluded that liver toxicity is rare and idiosyncratic, with the majority of reported cases resulting from the combination of kava with other hepatoactive agents; the benefits of kava seem to outweigh its risks.”

Consumption of kava is not recommended for those who regularly consume alcohol, are pregnant or nursing, are under the age of 18, have a history of liver issues, or are on antidepressant medication. Please consult a qualified medical professional about the potential use of kava if you meet these conditions or have other concerns.