Debunking the Myths about Kava

Kava has gotten a lot of attention over the years; both good and bad. In fact, it seems that few plants have gotten as much attention and debate as kava. With a history deeply rooted in the cultures of the Pacific Islands, kava has been used for centuries for its relaxation and stress reducing effects. However, as it’s gained popularity in North America and Europe, a cloud of misconceptions and myths have emerged, bringing into question its safety, efficacy and promoting fear around using it. 

After years of continued questions and additional research, it turns out that many of those myth were indeed just that. It seems that many of these ideas came from a lack of understanding how kava worked, and what it is.

In this articles, we talk about the three most common myths about kava and discuss where they came from and show evidence as to how they are untrue. 

Myth #1: It’s psychoactive and makes you drunk

This might be one of the most confusing myths about kava due to its effects when you use it. But it’s all in how it works in the body and brain. For some people, the effect you get from kava makes them feel “high”; that is it impacts how their mind feels. But this actually a feeling a euphoria and happiness. In fact, the research shows that there are no actual hallucinogenic properties in kava. The feelings you experience from kava come from how it acts on the gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, neurotransmitter system in the brain.

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that are responsible for sending signals from your brain to different parts of your body. The GABA system is an inhibitory system, which means it makes you feel relaxed and sedated when activated. Kavalactones act directly on the GABA system, increasing the amount of GABA in your brain, giving you the calming and refreshing effects kava is known for.

Research does suggest that different kava preparations can affect its potency.  For example, smaller doses leave you feeling calm, refreshed and social, while taking higher doses may give you feelings of euphoria, sedation and loss of fine motor skills. These higher doses are not recommended and can impair your ability to drive. So like alcohol, there is a limit to how much you should take before you’re impaired. However with kava, it takes much more to get to the point of not being able to drive than alcohol.  The ideal therapeutic doses are between 180-300mg kavalactones per day.

Myth #2: It can lead to addiction 

Another rumor going around is that kava is addictive. While there are historical cases where people have “craved” kava after using it, most of these date back to colonial times where there was a lack of understanding of kava and it was often being used with other things, like alcohol. 

If you aren’t familiar, there are two kinds of addiction; chemical addiction and behavioral addiction. Chemical addiction can lead to chemical changes in your brain that make it work differently. This is what happens in most drugs and alcohol. Behavioral addiction is more psychological and involves persistent, repetitive behaviors that you continue even when there is no benefit. There are no physical changes but the feeling or habit of doing something is what is addictive. 

As mentioned above, kava works on your neurotransmitter system. It causes a temporary increase in GABA, you feel the relaxing effects, then eventually kava wears off and your GABA levels return to normal.  Unlike alcohol and other substances, kava doesn’t change your brain structure. So there is no physical dependence like other drugs or alcohol.  

In fact, because the effects of kava are so similar to that of alcohol, it’s been used in several recovery programs in reducing alcohol and drug use.  However, while there is no chemical addiction, some people may become behaviorally addicted, that is they become addicted to how kava makes you feel,  if they use it too much. Like any substance or medication, it’s important to use kava responsibly and know the dose for your best experience. 

Myth #3: It causes liver damage

The most publicized myth of kava is probably that using it causes liver damage. This started back in the 1990s in western Europe when many people reported getting liver damage after taking an herbal kava supplement. There were even some deaths, which naturally caused alarm. This led to the EU banning kava in many countries based on those safety concerns.

However, after an in depth investigation by the World Health Organization, it turns out that kava itself wasn’t the issue. Unlike traditional kava that is pure kava, with not added ingredients excet for water, the kava used in many of the studies and clinics was a highly processed supplement form. There were unwanted ingredients or additives and some were even being used with other medications, or substances, which is a huge no-no in the kava world.

Unfortunately this myth about kava causing liver damage is still circulated by some skeptics. The reality is like other substances, kava needs to be taken with care and taking time to understanding how it affects you. The conclusion was that kava root is safe, especially if used traditionally, that is in a pure form as a beverage away from other substances. Afterall, it was used for centuries with no reports of liver disease or damage. We still don’t fully understand how kava interacts with other substances so like alcohol, it’s best not to mix.

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