Does kava make you drunk?

In one of our recent posts, we de-bunked some of the myths around kava. We wanted to dive into one of those with a bit more detail.

Does kava make you drunk?

The messaging can be confusing. It’s often compared to alcohol in terms of the effects it has; it makes you more calm and social like alcohol does, and is taken as a way to relax and unwind in a similar way as alcohol is. So it makes sense to think that kava can make you drunk too. 

But that is the magic of kava… it doesn’t. 

The biggest difference is in how it works in the brain. Kava is made up of kavalactones, these are the active ingredients in kava. There are many different kinds and they have slightly different effects. In fact there are over 100 different kavalactones, but six are most commonly found in the kava we drink. And how they make you feel, depends on which ones are present and the concentration of it in the kava you’re drinking. 

Some people report feeling something like being “high”, but those are actually feelings of deep relaxation and well-being. In fact, research shows that there are no actual hallucinogenic or psychoactive properties in kava. The feelings of deep relaxation and well-being you experience from kava come from how it acts on the gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, neurotransmitter system in the brain. 

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that communicate 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 calm when activated. Kavalactones act directly on the GABA system. This increases the amount of GABA in your brain, giving you the calming and refreshing effects kava is known for.

When it comes to alcohol, it’s double trouble for the brain. It both boosts GABA (the inhibitory activity) and also decreases the excitatory brain chemicals. This means that there are two ways brain activity is being lowered when you drink alcohol. And this double whammy of effects is what leads to slurred speech, imbalance, delayed thinking and the other cognitive issues we get when we drink beer, wine and spirits. Research shows us that alcohol also affects the emotional centers of the brain and your emotional regulation. Specifically, one study reports alcohol can lower your ability to read and process emotions correctly. This may be why we often see anger and aggression alongside drinking.

While you can’t get drunk from kava, research does suggest that different kava preparations can affect its potency. Smaller doses can leave you feeling calm, refreshed and social, while drinking higher doses may give you feelings of well-being, fatigue, and loss of fine motor skills. These higher doses are not recommended and can impair your ability to drive. So like alcohol, it’s important to know your limit and how it affects you before you feel impaired. That being said, it takes a lot more to get to the point of not being able to drive than alcohol.

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