Psychedelics,
Smart Drugs,
29 MINS

#149: Kava: from Ceremonial Drink to Modern Mood-Booster

October 07, 2016

Kava comes from the roots of Piper methysticum, a plant that is a member of the pepper family.  It’s a traditional drink in many Polynesian cultures.  It’s a social drink that could be seen as a South Pacific version of alcohol.

Unlike alcohol, however, there’s no negative cognitive impact.  In fact, many people report their mind feels more alert after taking kava.

Dr. Jerome Sarris, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, talks to us about why you should take kava, what’s going on in your brain, and a surprising benefit.

The Benefits of Kava

One of the major therapeutic uses of kava is as a treatment for generalized anxiety disorder.  A large percentage of people with anxiety will experience reduced anxiety after taking kava.

If you’re not struggling with anxiety, kava boosts your mood above baseline.  You’ll feel more relaxed, content, and loquacious.  Dr. Sarris says it’s generally a very pleasant experience.

These effects sound a lot like those of alcohol, but there’s an important difference:  kava doesn’t negatively affect cognitive ability, unlike alcohol.

Kava also has an analgesic effect, relieving pain and relaxing muscles.

And there’s a final, slightly salacious benefit — studies indicate that kava seems to increase women’s sex drive.  Of course, as Dr. Sarris points out, this is a common sense finding.  If you’re feeling anxious and stress, no matter your gender, your sex drive is going to plummet.  If you can reduce anxiety, you’re more likely to feel “in the mood.”

How Kava Works

Coming from a plant, kava contains a huge number of substances.  The major active compounds you should know about are the kavalactonesKavain seems to particularly responsible for the analgesic properties of kava.

What’s happening in your brain?  Kava is a reuptake inhibit of noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine) in the prefrontal cortex.  That’s why it doesn’t impede cognition, and you actually feel more alert and “buzzy” mentally.

It also has a strong gabaergic effect, which is responsible for making users feel more relaxed and decreasing anxiety.

How to Take Kava

There are two ways to take kava:  in a pill or in a drink.  Most people taking kava for therapeutic purposes take it as a pill, since the drink tends to be very bitter.

Dr. Sarris recommend taking 60-120mg of kavalactones twice a day.  You can take a higher one-off dose as a pain killer, but you should not take more than 250mg kavalactones per day.

Want to try kava?  Dr. Sarris recommends looking for capsules standardized to 50-60% of kavalactones.  Bonus points if it’s Fijian kava, since they are considered to be of high quality.

Who Should Not Take Kava?

Kava is generally very safe.  Unlike substances like alcohol, kava has no physical addiction potential, since it has no dopaminergic effects.  That’s not to say that psychological addiction isn’t possible, however.

Most people should be able to try kava and see if they like the effects.  However, some people should avoid kava.  Don’t take kava if:

  • You have severe depression
  • You’re taking alcohol or benzodiazepine at the same time
  • You have pre-existing liver issues

You may have heard about potential liver damage caused by kava.  We still don’t know why kava may cause liver damage.  The good news is that only a handful of people who take kava will develop liver damage.  It could be due to poor quality kava or some genetic predisposition.

Whatever the reason, to be on the safe side, avoid kava if you have any problems with your liver.

PS:  Another way to feel happier?  Join our weekly newsletter!

Read Full Transcript
Show Notes
  • 00:00:23

    Plant-based ceremonial drink kava

  • 00:01:16

    This Week in Neuroscience: Study identifies brain areas altered during hypnotic trances

  • 00:04:00

    The audience interaction section

  • 00:05:49

    What is kava?

  • 00:07:11

    Intro to Dr. Jerome Sarris

  • 00:07:39

    How kava is used

  • 00:08:56

    Kava versus and antidepressants and psychological techniques

  • 00:09:36

    Is liver damage a worry?

  • 00:11:06

    Kava’s mechanism of action

  • 00:12:09

    Why would someone want to take kava in pill form rather than in drink form?

  • 00:12:40

    Dose-dependant inebriation

  • 00:13:24

    Acute effects

  • 00:15:46

    How well-known is kava?

  • 00:16:27

    Who should and shouldn’t use kava?

  • 00:17:27

    Kava versus alcohol

  • 00:20:18

    Anxiety levels and kava use

  • 00:21:44

    Increase in female sex drive

  • 00:22:31

    Dr Sarris’ current research

  • 00:25:13

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Walking with coffee: Why does it spill?

4 comments

  1. Omar S says:

    Any good websites to purchase high quality Kava? Thanks and love the podcast!

    1. Michelle Silbernagel says:

      Hi Omar,

      We asked Dr. Sarris if he recommended any particular products and responded that since he is based in Australia, specific products are difficult to recommend. However, he did provide general suggestions that should help guide you when shopping.
      Choose products that are standardised to 50-60% of kavalactones. Price also can be an indicator as to quality (not always though). Fijian cultivars can be considered to be of high quality (all “noble” cultivars). Finally, Dr. Sarris suggested speaking to a professional for advice on which products may be of higher quality. Hope this helps!

  2. Edward Johnston says:

    Dr. Sarris has done some wonderful work in kava (‘awa here in Hawai’i) research, his past papers have interested me. I am surprised he is recommending kavalactone products, although I think I understand his rationale. Nevertheless fragmented kava is not the tried and true kava beverage of Pacific Islands culture. Kava beverage consists of water or coconut water mixed with the ground up kava root/stump mixture (fresh or dry) and strained. Pacific Islanders have consumed this daily as a drink, not as a supplement, for millenniums. It is a rich, complex mixture of nutritional compounds. The fact that some of the active compounds are kavalactones which have pharmacological effects does not contradict Kava beverage as a beverage, not a drug or supplement. Kava beverage has 15 amino acids, sugars and starch, minerals—Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium, Sodium, and Iron. Kava also contains cinnamic acid. Research has shown that kava beverage has complex calcium mobilizing abilities not found in the OTC kava capsules/extracts.

  3. Having read many of Dr. Sarris’ studies/papers on kava ability to help curb anxiety– his writing is an inspiration. I am surprised to see that here he recommends extracts/standardized kava capsules. Kava beverage consists of water or coconut water mixed with the ground up kava root/stump mixture (fresh or dry) and strained. Pacific Islanders have consumed this daily as a drink, not as a supplement, for millenniums. It is a rich, complex mixture of nutritional compounds. True that some of the active compounds are kavalactones which have pharmacological effects. Kava beverage also has 15 amino acids, sugars and starch, minerals—Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium, Sodium, and Iron. Kava also contains cinnamic acid. Research has early shown that kava beverage has complex calcium mobilizing abilities not found in the OTC kava/kavalactones capsules. Kava is best taken in its traditional form, not a fragment of just kavalactones.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to top