Kava is made up of chemicals called kavalactones. These are the active components that act on the brain, and have the neuroprotective properties of kava. There are six that are known to be the most involved with kavas beneficial effects:
- Methysticin (M)
- Dihydromethysticin (DHM)
- Kavain/kawain (K)
- Dihydrokavain/kawain (DKM)
- Demethoxyyangonin (DMY)
- Yangonin (Y)
Each has slightly different properties and when put into certain combinations has two distinct effects; Heady and heavy. Heady kavas affect your mind more than your body, whereas heavy kavas have a stronger effect on your body. 1
The neuroprotective properties of GABA
While the effect of kavalactones on the GABA system is well known, research also suggests they have other neuroprotective effects beyond that. There seem to be three main ways kavalactones are neuroprotective.
The first is by interrupting inflammatory pathways. While it’s a natural response to pain and injury, chronic inflammation, that is inflammation that is continuous, can have significant health implications. Chronic inflammation can come from environmental factors like stress, germs, and chemicals or from physical injury and disease. In this case, the p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase, or 38 MAPK, is triggered when there is stress and inflammation in the body. When 38 MAPK is around, another molecule called NF-kB (nuclear factor-kappaB) is activated, which increases levels of inflammation. Kavalactones interfere with this pathway by controlling the levels of 38 MAPK when there is too much stress and preventing Nf-kB causing more inflammation. 2 In the brain, inflammation has been linked to neurodegenerative conditions like Alzhiemer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease.
Kavalcatones also work by decreasing levels of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is caused by too many damage-causing molecules in cells. This can be from eating high fat and processed food, sugar, pollution, certain medications, and drinking alcohol. Research suggests that kavalactones can impact the oxidative stress pathway by triggering a molecule called Nrf2 which protects cells from the damage of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is another contributing factor to brain aging disease.
Certain kavalactones act in different ways. For example, kavain may affect the pathways of monoamine oxidases (MOAs), which are key targets in treating mental health and neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.3 MOAs are important metabolic components that keep neurotransmitters in balance and amino acids. It has a role in stimulating oxidative stress that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.4 Kavain acts by inhibiting MOAs, lowering levels of oxidative stress and inflammation protecting the brain from the aging process.
What this means for us long term
We are always getting older. That is the unfortunate truth. And particularly applies to our brains. Many people don’t think about how what we eat, our environment or stress levels affect our brain health. It’s easy to forget when so much of what our brain does happens automatically.
Our brains, like our bodies, naturally age. There are some cases where we are more at risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases. Being sure that we are supporting our brains by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress is essential for protecing our brains. And the neuroprotective properties of kava especially drinking it regularly drinking kava can help with that.