We all need sleep, whether we want to admit it or not. It is a critical part of our lives that allows our brains and bodies to recover. It is when new brain cells connect to things we’ve learned and allow our physical bodies to rest.
But what if you have trouble sleeping?
What is insomnia?
Difficulty falling and staying asleep is a disorder called insomnia. There are two classifications: Short term (acute) and long term (chronic). Short term insomnia usually only lasts for a couple of days. It can affect 30%-50% of people and is usually caused by a specific event like illness, jet lag or stress.
Chronic insomnia is a bigger issue. It can occur as often as three days a week and stay on that pattern for three months or longer. Primary insomnia isn’t linked to a known cause, whereas secondary insomnia can be caused by a medication, medical condition or substance like drinking coffee too late in the day.
Occasional sleepiness is common. It’s when the issue happens more frequently or lasts longer than a few months that you may want to investigate.
How is insomnia treated?
The challenge with insomnia and sleep issues in general is that they can be related to other conditions or life events. This makes treating insomnia difficult. Some take sleeping pills and medications. Others work on having a healthy and calming sleep hygiene routine that may include meditation and being off of screens at a certain time. And then there’s the herbal approach.
Plants like valerian root and chamomile have long been known to help with sleep disorders. While doses and effectiveness may vary, slightly, there is a general support for these in the integrative sleep community.
But what about kava?
How kava can help with sleep
For those that are less familiar, kava is a drink that comes from the South Pacific. It’s made from the dried roots of the pepper plant that are ground into a powder and steeped in water to make a tea-like drink. It’s known for its calming, social effects and has been used for centuries in religious and cultural ceremonies and as a way to bring people together.
Kava has been gaining popularity in the US and other western countries, as a way to help treat anxiety. This has sparked questions about other health and mental benefits kava could have, like insomnia. While research specifically looking into kava for sleep is sparse, we know that some of the active ingredients in kava, called kavalactones, give more of a tiring effect than others. The kavalactone, kavain, has been shown to significantly improve sleep in a mouse model of insomnia.
This also introduces the two different categories of kava; heady and heavy. These categories depend on the specific types and quantities of kavalactones you’re drinking.
Heady kavas affect the mind more than the body. They give us clarity, boost our desire to be social, and provide a sort of mental calm and focus. Because of this, they are best drunk earlier in the day when you are getting ready to meet up with friends or go to work. They also only last a few hours so are usually out of your system by the time you are ready to go to bed.
Heavy kavas on the other hand, have more of a body effect. They make you feel heavy and weighed down, tired and relaxed. These are best when you drink them right before bed as their effects are more conducive to sleep and not socializing or creative work. They also can take longer to take effect and last longer than heady kavas.
How anxiety plays a role
Another rationale to kava’s benefits in sleep relates to how it helps reduce stress and anxiety. Anxiety can cause symptoms like racing thoughts, stress, and over thinking all of which can have a negative impact when we are trying to fall asleep. If we can decrease our feelings of anxiety, it seems natural that our sleep difficulties may also improve.
Kava directly works on important brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemical messengers 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 in the brain. And this is what gives us those wonderful feelings of calm and relaxation. GABA is also connected to sleep. Many sleep supplements work by increasing levels of GABA in the brain (like kava).
While more research needs to be done to investigate how kava directly benefits sleep, it is a promising tool based on what we already know about how kava works in the brain. Plus, reports from both the islands and more recent users are indicators for its benefits.
Things to keep in mind if you are new to kava, is to start off slowly to learn how your body responds. Like many natural products, there are many individual differences from person to person that can impact how we feel kava. For more on that, check out our mini guide to choosing the best kava for you.