In the realm of natural herbs and remedies, 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 myths about kava have emerged, bringing into question its safety, efficacy and instilling fear around using it.
After years of additional research and investigation, it turns out that most of those myths are in fact, myths. Or an issue that has been taken out of context due to the lack of understanding around what kava is and how it works. Here we discuss the three most common myths about kava and discuss where those 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 the effects that kava has 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. However, 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.1 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. 2
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.3 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
There is a misunderstanding that kava is addictive. While there are historical cases where people have “craved” kava after using it, many of those have been linked to using kava with other substances. 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. This is one of the myths about kava that has continued throughout history due to the strength of story.
There are two kinds of addiction; chemical addiction and behavioral addiction.4 Chemical addiction is what happens in most drugs and alcohol. The substance itself can lead to chemical changes in your brain that make it work differently. 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 was initially started back in the 1990s in western Europe when many people reported getting liver damage and some even dying after taking an herbal kava supplement. There were even some deaths, which naturally caused some alarm. This led to the EU banning kava in many countries based on those safety concerns.5
However, after an in depth investigation by the World Health Organization, it turns out that kava itself wasn’t the issue. It was recognized that kava has been used for thousands of years in the pacific islands with no history of any liver disease. And this issues was connected to kava supplements being used being impure or contaminated with other unwanted ingredients or being used with other medications, or substances that caused problems.6
Unfortunately this is one of the myths about kava that is still circulated by some skeptics. The reality is like other substances, kava needs to be taken with care and understanding how it affects you when used with other drugs or alcohol. 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. We still don’t fully understand how kava interacts with other substances so like alcohol, it’s best not to mix.