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What is Kava and Where Does it Come From?

Kava has been gaining popularity over the last few years, gaining most of its interest from people who are looking to stop their alcohol use and the new sober curious movement. Kava isn’t something new, it’s been around for thousands of years.

Kava is an extract made from the ground roots of the plant. Its botanical name is Piper Methysticum. It is a member of the pepper family, including black pepper. Kava comes from the Polynesian word “awa” and literally means “intoxicating pepper”. There is estimated to be over 100 variations of the Kava plant. The root and stump of the plant is ground down and made into a natural, non-alcoholic beverage.

This plant is native to the Southwestern Pacific islands, mainly Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, and Hawaii. Islanders have used kava plants for social rituals, religious ceremonies, and medicinal purposes. Kava has been around for almost 3,000 years, but because South Pacific cultures told most of their history through story, it’s hard to tell when and where Kava really originated.

Kava Culture

Kava goes far beyond being a drink common to these islands. Kava is rooted in islander’s everyday lives and ceremonies as a long-standing part of their culture. It is known to be used in village meetings for conflict resolution, or as last attempts for feuding tribes to come to an amicable agreement. Kava is also given as peace offerings in conflict situations.

Through the centuries, kava has evolved from ceremonies to celebrations of weddings, birth, anniversaries, and funerals to reach a “higher level of consciousness.” Kava is also used for treating a variety of ailments including asthma, insomnia, fatigue, mood swings of menopause, and urinary infections. Now, drinking kava at the end of the day to relax and socialize with peers is just as common as drinking a glass of wine or beer is in the United States or Europe. Over just the last ten years, interest towards kava has been increasing worldwide. Many kava bars have opened throughout the United States. Florida, Hawaii, and California holding the highest concentration of them.

What are the Benefits of Drinking Kava?

When consumed, the effect of the active ingredients in the kava plant is psychological and physiological relaxation. Kava drinks help relax the mind and body. Kava induces a euphoric calmness, making it ideal for social situations. Kava helps fill the “Social Void” without an inebriating cost. People use Kava for all sorts of things such as: alternatives to alcohol for social relaxation, reduce stress and calm, lift mood and increase social ability, and as a natural sleep aid. When being compared to alcohol, kava doesn’t dehydrate your body or fill it with toxins that lead to headaches and hangovers. Kava is great for social relaxation, boosting your mood and making you more talkative while allowing you to remain coherent. This means no hangovers and no impaired mental clarity or cognitive abilities. Kava has none of the downsides of alcohol that can make people more aggressive or increase depression. Although, like alcohol, it is still recommended that you do not drive after consuming large amounts of kava.

Compared to other substances, kava is shown to be non-addictive. Drinking kava hasn’t reached a trend of becoming habit forming, meaning you don’t build a tolerance to it and having to drink more to feel the effects. This is because of the distinctive way kava affects the brain. Your body adapts to kava a bit differently, so, the beneficial effects of kava can be felt more when less is used on subsequent occasions.

How Does Kava Work?

The effects from the kava root are due to a combination of the main active ingredients in the plant, known as kavalactones or Kavapyrones. Kava reacts with similar receptors in your brain as alcohol, which is why many of the social effects overlap each other. Kavalactones react with GABA A receptors like benzodiazepines, but do not appear to bind to benzodiazepine receptors.

There are thought to be 18 different variations of kavalactones, with a large majority of active ingredients coming from just six. Each variety has a different relaxation effect. Some are more uplifting, used for daytime. Some are better for nighttime drinking and great for a natural sleep aid. Easily more explainable as strains.

Misconceptions Surrounding Kava

When you first put Kava into your search bar, there are some articles, blogs, and statements claiming the consumption of kava causes liver damage. These claims were first made in research done over 15 years ago in Switzerland and Germany that led to the plant being banned in those countries. The ban was lifted in 2015 after further research debunked these claims. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) concluded that the risk of liver damage from taking kava supplements is less than one in one million. The NIH database has cited 50 to 100 cases of kava related liver injuries mentioned in scientific literature. To put these numbers into perspective, consider how prescription drugs cause over 100,000 deaths per year in the U.S. alone.

An overlook of 85 studies done on kava safety shows that there wasn’t one single cause as to why kava toxicity happens. Looking at what is known from the studies, there is more than just kava to consider. It has been speculated that people who experienced kava toxicity, already had compromised livers. A good majority of people in the studies who reacted poorly to kava frequently consumed alcohol or took prescription drugs. According to one study, 64% of patients who experienced kava toxicity used up to 20 different drugs, supplements, or herbs, any of which could have interacted with the kava.

This is only part of the story. Some poor mannered manufacturers can be to blame here as well. It is known that some supplement manufacturers will take a lot of shortcuts when it comes to extraction processes. Traditionally kava is extracted by soaking only the root of the plant in water, but manufactures have been known to use alcohol or acetone to extract the kavalactones, kava’s main ingredients. Many manufacturers weren’t only using roots, but were also including the leaves, stems, and bark peelings. these parts of the plant separate from the root are known to contain alkaloids toxic to the liver. A Fijian kava dealer stated that stem peelings, which are considered a waste product, were purchased by pharmaceutical companies as a cheap source of kava extract.

The conclusion to be made about the claims of kava causing damage to the liver, is that they are widely based on early research that has since been debunked. It is also important to note past manufacturer’s mistakes. By further educating the public we will be able to bring a new light to kava as the peaceful drink that it can be.

*Note: These statements about Kava effects have not been evaluated by the FDA. This information and our products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Before starting a dietary supplement, it’s always wise to check with a medical doctor to find out which is the best kava variety for you. It is especially important for people who are: pregnant or breastfeeding, chronically ill, elderly, under 18, taking prescription or over-the-counter medicines. None of the information is intended to be an enticement to purchase and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. Herbal products contain phytochemicals that are not ordinarily found in typical food sources and may produce physiologic effects. Indiscriminate use of any herbal product is not recommended except under the direction of trained health care professionals. In addition, there may be drug interactions that may produce reactions or interfere with the efficacy of prescription medication.