So you’ve recently been introduced to kava. You’re intrigued. Maybe you’re looking to cut back on the amount of alcohol and coffee you drink. Or maybe you like the cultural history of the kava root. Whatever the reason is, you’re curious about the stories you’ve heard about it’s relaxing and calming effects. But you want to know how kava works. How do you get the same feelings of alcohol with negative after effects?
The feelings and effects you get from kava comes from how it interacts in the body.
What is the active ingredient in kava?
Kava is made up of kavalactones, which are little chemicals that interact with your brain. There are 18 different kavalactones that have been identified, however only 6 are responsible for 96% of the effects of how kava works.
Every type of kava is made of a certain number of kavalactones. This balance is what gives each type of kava their specific effect. These can be divided into two groups; either heady or heavy.
Heady kavas have more of an effect on the mind. They give you a feeling of mental relaxation and calm, along with a boost of talkativeness. They are best drunk during the day when you are socializing with friends and family.
Heavy kavas impact the body more than the mind. They give you a feeling of heaviness, like your limbs are weighed down and can leave you feeling sleepy and sedated. These, therefore, are best drunk at night when you are having a night in or getting ready for sleep.
How do Kavalactones work in the brain?
Research shows that kavalactones interact with neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the brain. Neurotransmitters are responsible for getting signals from the brain to the rest of your body. They control things like muscle function, heart rate, blood pressure, hormone levels, stress, memory and learning, to name a few. Some you may have heard of: serotonin, dopamine and endorphins.
The neurotransmitter that kava affects the most is called gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA for short. GABA is the body’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that they decrease communication between cells. It also is responsible for motor function and visual control along with regulating anxiety.
Kavacaltones act by increasing the amount of GABA the brain. And this is what gives us those wonderful feelings of calm and relaxation.
How long does it take for the effects to kick in
The time it takes for the effects to kick varies per person. The key factors are things like the strength of the kava, how much you drink, and if you are new to kava or more experienced. Generally, you’ll start to feel a calm and relaxing effect in 15-20 minutes. The feeling continues to build until about 2 hours where you’ll experience the peak effect of mild euphoria, increased talkativeness, muscle relaxation and sedation depending on the type you are using. Typically, kava works by affecting your mind first, due to the impact the kavalactones have on the brain, then your body responds after.
How long do kava’s effects last?
Similar to the time of effect, the length of the effect is also individual. If you drink high-quality kava, you can expect the effects to last anywhere from 1-6 hours. The effects of kava are like a bell curve. They start off slowly, build up to the peak, and then slowly wear off. This also demonstrates the brain effect; how GABA is increased gradually in your brain and then over time, as the kavalactones are processed through your body and your brain rebalance to normal levels.
What this all means
Put this all together you get an idea that kava works through a cascade of brain and body effects from when you take your first sip of kava to when you feel its calm wash over you.
For a more indepth read about the neuroscience of Kava, check our article here.
- Savage, K., Firth, J., Stough, C. & Sarris, J. GABA-modulating phytomedicines for anxiety: A systematic review of preclinical and clinical evidence. Phytother. Res. 32, 3–18 (2018).