What is Kava?

“You cannot hate with kava in you.” ~ Tom Harrison in his book “Savage Civilization” (1937) 

What is Kava?

Kava (Piper methysticum), is a tall evergreen shrub in the pepper family native to the South Pacific Islands. Traditionally, kava has been used as a ceremonial drink and is consumed to bring about a state of relaxation during rituals and social gatherings. These rituals were said to strengthen ties among groups, reaffirm status and enhance interaction with spirits.

Traditional Use

In the South Pacific Islands, kava is used in important ceremonies and social occasions, including weddings, funerals and graduations. Kava is also used in village meetings for conflict resolution and in the welcoming of newcomers. Kava is highly valued for its therapeutic qualities as a sedative, muscle relaxant, diuretic, as well as its anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia properties. 

There is some debate on the exact origin of kava but many experts think it was first grown in Vanuatu, a South Pacific Ocean nation made up of roughly 80 islands. Kava from Vanuatu is typically much stronger than kava varieties found in Fiji, Tonga, and Hawaii. 

In a traditional kava ceremony, such as in Samoa for example, people gather in a circle around a large bowl. The leader strains the kava liquid from the bowl into a cup, often a coconut shell, and then drinks from the cup and claps once. Then the next important person in the group drinks and claps. This continues until everyone has consumed kava.

In Fiji, kava is consumed at all times of day in both public and private settings. The drink is a form of welcome and is used in important socio-political events. 

Kava is typically prepared by mixing crushed kava root with water or coconut milk. Many say kava has a strong “earthy” taste. Kava actually means “bitter” in the Tongan language.

Therapeutic Use

The active compounds in kava are called kavalactones, which account for 3-20% of the root’s dry weight. So far, 18 different kavalactones have been isolated and identified. However, six of them — kavain, dihydrokavain, methysticin, dihydromethysticin, yangonin, and desmethoxyyangonin — have been found to be responsible for about 96% of the plant’s pharmacological activity. 

Research has shown that kavalactones may help reduce anxiety and pain and improve insomnia. Kavalactones appear to work by impacting the brain’s neurotransmitters, primarily GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which decreases nerve activity.


Kava may help with insomnia, often with fewer side effects than pharmaceutical drugs or over-the-counter sleep enhancers. It is believed that a specific type of kavalactone, called kevain, may be behind kava’s sedative effect.

In a pilot study of 24 patients struggling with stress-induced insomnia , researchers looked at the effectiveness of kava and valerian separately. Stress was measured in three areas: social, personal and life events. Insomnia was measured in three areas also: time to fall asleep, hours slept and waking mood. 

According to the findings, total stress severity was significantly relieved by both compounds individually, with no significant differences between them. There was also improvement with the combination, significantly in the case of insomnia.

“These results are considered to be extremely promising but further studies may be required to determine the relative roles of the two compounds for such indications,” write the authors.


Many people report that kava helps with anxiety. Research is also promising. In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study, researchers looked at the effectiveness of kava on patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). A total of 75 participants were enrolled in a 6-week trial of a kava extract versus placebo. The findings revealed a significant reduction in anxiety for the kava group compared with the placebo group. 

According to a 2002 review of seven clinical trials and 645 people, a kava extract was found to be an “effective symptomatic treatment option for anxiety.” Safety and tolerability were also good, with no drug-related adverse events, according to the authors.

The fact that kava helps with anxiety is welcome news for many people searching for a natural alternative to pharmaceutical anxiety medications, which can be wrought with side effects. While everyone experiences stress and anxiety to an extent, millions of Americans struggle with clinical levels of anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., impacting 40 million adults age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). 

Potential Side Effects

As with any substance, overdoing it can lead to problems. Long-term use can lead to dry scaly skin in some people. Some side effects of kava may include mouth numbness (common), drowsiness, headache and indigestion. It is recommended that alcohol use be avoided when consuming kava. 

Preparing Kava at Home

What You’ll Need:

  • Ground kava root. 
  • A strainer bag (A muslin bag, cheesecloth, or even an old T-shirt)
  • Warm to hot water (tap hot is perfect)
  • Bowl to prepare the kava in.

Directions: Traditional kava preparation involves steeping similar to how you would brew tea. First, measure out the right amount of kava root — 2-4 tablespoons per serving — and put it in your strainer bag. Tie up the bag and place it in your bowl. Measure out 8-12 ounces of hot water per serving, depending on how strong you want your tea. Next, pour the hot water directly into the bag with the kava powder. Steep for 5-10 minutes. 

Finally, knead and squeeze the kava root in the bag, pushing the water out into the bowl. Make sure no kava powder escapes from the bag. After 5-10 minutes of kneading, wring the straining bag tight to remove all liquid. The kava should look similar to chocolate milk.

Final Notes

Kava is becoming more mainstream now, and is commonly used as an alternative to alcohol. In a recent research article, Dr. Apo Aporosa from the University of Waikato, New Zealand, addresses the common myths of kava. Based on his research, he writes “Kava is not alcoholic; it is ‘nonfermented, non-alcoholic, nonopioid, [and] nonhallucinogenic’ (Norton and Ruze, 1994: 93), producing ‘a pleasant, warm, and cheerful, but lazy feeling, [making people] sociable, though not hilarious or loquacious; the reason is not obscured’ (Hocart, 1929: 59).”

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