Kava-Kava is a plant from the Western Pacific also known as Piper methysticum, which means 'intoxicating pepper'. The effects of kava-kava can be relaxing, sedating, and euphoric. Kava-kava contains kavalactrones, the psychoactive substance responsible for these effects. They interact with the GABAA receptor, as is the case with Alcohol and GHB.

Introduction to Kava-Kava

Kava-Kava comes from the plant Piper methysticum, which means 'intoxicating pepper'. Use of kava-kava began with indigenous populations in the western Pacific and have spread throughout Europe and the America's as an herbal medicine. Kava-kava was the 25th most used herbal medicine in the world in 2002. Reports of liver toxicity of kava-kava may have led to a decline in use in recent years. (US National Institute of Health, 2003)
(photo by Forest and Kim Starr)

Using Kava-Kava

Traditionally, kava-kava root is ground up and soaked in water. The water extracts kavalactones from the kava-kava. It is these kavalactones that give kava-kava it's effects. Kavalactones are chemically considered a-pyrones. It's thought that the active kavalactones found in kava-kava include dihydrokawain, kawain, dihydromethysticin, methysticin, dihydroyangonin, and yangonin. The complete pharmacology of kavalactones is still being characterized and it's speculated that complex interactions may be seen when kava-kava is combined with other drugs. (Schelosky, 1995)

Ways of administration

Kava-kava is traditionally taken orally as a cold water-extracted tea, but pill form of kava-kava is available. Extracts of kava-kava are also widely sold.

Effects of Kava-Kava

Kava-kava is primarily known for it's anti-anxiety effects and has been used as a social lubricant among indigenous populations for centuries. (Pittler, 2000)

Kava-kava acts on neuronal voltage-dependent ion channels to decrease neuron firing. This action on neurons leads to kava-kava having anti-anxiety, muscle relaxant, anti-convulsant, and anesthetic properties.

Upon drinking a kava-kava tea, many people report a numbing effect on the mouth and throat. This effect has led to kava-kava being used for the treatment of sore-throats.

Combinations with Kava-Kava

Due to the complex pharmacological profile of the kavalactones, it is not recommended to combine kava-kava with other drugs. The kavalactones are primarily metabolized by the cytochrome P450 isozyme 2D6. Other drugs that are metabolized by the CYP 2D6 isozyme may interfere with the metabolism of kava-kava leading to possibly detrimental effects.

Different Uses for Kava-Kava

Kava-kava is used in ceremonies in Fiji where heads of state will drink kava-kava in a public setting. As an example see: Muddled Prince Drinks Potent Kava Juice

Kava-kava is also used as a social lubricant and anxiolytic (for it's anti-anxiety properties).

The dangers of Kava-Kava

When parts of the plant other than the root is taken, kava-kava can create potentially fatal damage to the liver. Extracts of kava-kava made with acetone or ethanol also seem to increase the likelihood of liver damaging effects. (Ernst, 2007)

Kava-kava also contains some kavalactones which are known MAOI's, or more specifically MAO-B inhibitors. The MAOI activity is relatively weak, but users should be aware of it. Kava-kava combined with drugs which increase synaptic serotonin do pose a potential risk for serotonin syndrome, a potentially fatal condition requiring immediate medical attention.

Growing Kava-Kava

Kava-kava grows in tropical and sub-tropical regions. In temperate regions, it should be grown indoors during the cold months. In temperate regions, it's really best to grow kava-kava in a greenhouse or conservatory where the temperature and humidity can be controlled. Kava-kava likes plenty of humidity. Kava-kava is a shrub which requires rich, nutrient dense soil. It's important for the soil to be loose, especially if the grower is looking to increase the root mass of the plant. Kava-kava requires regular watering, but should never be left in standing water.

Forms of Kava-Kava

Kava-kava is legal in many places, but may be regulated in others.
Kava-kava and kava-kava containing products are banned in Canada, France, Netherlands, and other places.

The UK and Australia both have restrictions on the sale, importation, and use of kava-kava.

One should check the laws in their locality regarding kava-kava.

United Nations


Kava-kava is legal and available in many forms in the USA.


History of Kava-Kava

Kava-kava has been used for many years in the pacific islands. Some sources say use of kava-kava dates back thousands of years. Kava is currently grown and used in many locations including Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii, and Samoa among others.

Kava-kava is traditionally prepared as a tea made from the root of the plant. The drink was traditionally used ceremonially by the social elites, namely tribal leaders. A typical preparation technique is to chew the root in order to break it up, then spit the chewed root into a large wooden bowl with clean water. It is said that the saliva acts to breakdown the kava-kava in such a way as to make the drink better tasting.

In more recent years, use of kava-kava has expanded to the general population. The drink made from kava-kava is now widespread in many areas of the pacific islands and replaces alcohol consumption in some localities. This has caused some legal trouble for kava users, as liquor industries have fought to make kava-kava illegal. The use of kava-kava as a replacement inebriant for alcohol cuts into the profits of liquor merchants.

In other places, such as Vanuatu, kava bars have opened and the drink is served commercially in much the same way a typical bar serves alcohol.

One should note here that the traditional preparation of kava-kava, by using only the roots and soaking them in water, eliminates the potential risk of liver damage from the use of kava-kava.

Popularity of Kava-kava over time

kava-kavakavapiper methysticum

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Cairney S., Maruff P., Clough AR. (2002) The neurobehavioural effects of kava. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 36(5) 657-62.

Ernst E. (2007) A re-evaluation of kava (Piper methysticum). Br J Clin Pharmacol. 64(4) 415-417.

Pittler MH., Ernst E. (2000) Efficacy of kava extract for treating anxiety: systematic review and metaanalysis. J Clin Psychopharmacol 20 84-9.

Schelosky L., Raffauf C., Jendroska K., and Poewe W. (1995) Kava and dopamine antagonism. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 58(5) 639–640

National Institute of Health - National Toxicology Program. (2003) Herbal Medicines Factsheet


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