Kava, also known as ‘kava kava’, is a casual term for ‘piper methysticum’, which means ‘intoxicating pepper’ in Latin.
That’s actually a pretty accurate name too, as this is essentially a plant that people turn into an intoxicating drink. Much like alcohol, in fact…
In many ways, kava can be considered ‘the alcohol of Fiji’ and is an important part of their culture, used in many ceremonies. Recently though, it has also been gaining popularity over here in the West as both an anxiolytic and cure for social anxiety and a potential alternative to alcohol. In fact, the latter option has become so popular that there is now even a bar in NYC dedicated to consuming kava, called ‘Kavasutra’.
But what exactly does kava do to you? Is it really anything like alcohol? And more importantly perhaps, is it safe?
What Is in Kava?
The key active ingredients in kava are the kavalactones. These have a number of different effects on the body and brain and most specifically it seems that kava works via potentiation of GABA receptor activity. In other words, it increases the effect of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain. For those not familiar with GABA, this is essentially the main ‘inhibitory’ neurotransmitter and is responsible for decreasing the activity of neurons and the firing of action potentials. Simply put, it gradually decreases activity throughout the brain.
In fact, this is very similar to the way in which alcohol works. Alcohol also increases GABA and thereby shuts down various areas of the brain – starting with the higher-order brain functions. GABA has this same effect, though is somewhat less potent.
Something else that sets GABA apart from alcohol is that it reduces the reuptake of norepinephrine and dopamine. These are neurotransmitters associated with alertness and stress. This creates an interesting effect and makes kava quite unusual in its ability to reduce brain activity and make you feel calmer, while at the same time increasing alertness. Dopamine appears to be increased specifically in the nucleus accumbens brain area of rats.
On top of this, kava also acts via agonism of the CB1 receptor. This in turn may lead to feelings of euphoria, seeing as the CB1 receptors are also what’s affected by THC – the active ingredient in cannabis. Again however, the effects are much milder as compared with those brought on by smoking pot.
Finally, kava is also a potent anaesthetic. It can be applied to the skin directly in order to numb pain and is even consumed as a treatment for toothache.
What Does Using Kava Feel Like?
So with all that in mind, what does it actually feel like to drink kava?
Reports from users online are very much in-line with what you would expect, knowing the mechanisms of action of the drink.
The first thing that people notice is the somewhat ‘muddy’ and bitter flavor. Kava kava is definitely an ‘acquired’ taste and not something that most people will love right away!
The next thing people tend to note is that it causes a lot of numbness around the mouth. The strength of this effect varies from person to person, but some report that it is strong enough to make eating difficult even! The anaesthetic effect actually continues as the kava passes through the body and this can then lead to feelings of nausea – though you do eventually get used to that.
In terms of the cognitive effects, kava gradually reduces stress and creates a feeling of calm. This is what makes it useful as a potential anxiolytic for social anxiety – and it actually works similarly to benzodiazepines.
At the same time, people also describe a mild sense of euphoria and of feeling generally chatty and happy. One person said he wouldn’t want to drive because he would be too relaxed and giggly for it to be safe.
During all this though, you may also notice sounds and your other senses seemingly being more acute. And finally, you’ll start to feel sleepy and you may notice your eyes drooping and your muscles feeling weak and ‘rubbery’.
Is Kava Safe?
So is kava safe to use?
That all depends on who you ask. There have been some reports (68) of kava being hepatotoxic, meaning that it causes liver damage.
Then again, further analysis of these studies revealed that in all the cases reported, the patients were already at high risk of liver damage and were alcoholic or had used other drugs. In fact, this has caused several countries including Germany and Canada to ban kava and then overturn those laws.
Either way, the incidence of liver damage is very low and when you compare this to alcohol, kava comes off well. Likewise, kava is also less likely to cause a range of other issues – such as aggression, Korsakov’s syndrome or addiction.
But then again, kava is also relatively little known here in the West with far fewer studies. And right now, the main way to get kava is to buy online which is always risky. There’s no regulation either and ultimately it is wisest to watch and wait.
However, it’s certainly interesting to know that there is a potential alternative to alcohol out there. And it also makes you think: if alcohol were discovered today, it would almost certainly be banned!