Kava has a long, celebrated history of boosting health and well being. It’s been used in Pacific Island cultures to treat a variety of health conditions for generations to relax the body and calm the mind. As it gains popularity in other countries and we learn more about its health benefits, researchers and scientists also want to better understand the neuroscience of kava and how it works in our brain.
We now know that the effect of kava comes from its active ingredients, kavalactones, and the way they impact brain function.
About the brain
The first key component to understanding the neuroscience of kava, is kava’s effects on the brain. If you aren’t familiar, the brain is the most complicated and diverse organ in the body. It is the command center for all of your actions, thoughts, behaviors and movements. It’s made up of billions of brain cells called neurons. About 86 billion to be exact. And these neurons are responsible for communicating messages to different areas of your brain. There are three main parts to your brain: the cerebrum, the cerebellum and the brain stem.1
Neurons communicate through a variety of electrical and chemical signals. One major category is neurotransmitters. These little chemical messengers are responsible for communicating messages between brain cells and body.2 Some neurotransmitters you may have heard of are serotonin, dopamine, histamine and endorphins. All of them play crucial roles in our body and brain’s functioning, and if out of balance can lead us to develop different health conditions. For example, serotonin helps regulate mood, sleep patterns, anxiety, appetite and pain. If you are low in serotonin, you may experience depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.
The power of Kavalactones
The second key players are the active ingredients of kava. These are called kavalactones. They are small chemicals that play a major role in how kava makes us feel. We know of 18 different kavalactones but only six have been linked to 96% of kavas effects.3 These are:
- Methysticin (M)
- Dihydromethysticin (DHM)
- Kavain/kawain (K)
- Dihydrokavain/kawain (DKM)
- Demethoxyyangonin (DMY)
- Yangonin (Y)
The amazing thing about kavalactones is that they are all slightly different in chemical makeup and how they affect the brain. For example, DHM and DHK are known to have a stronger potency, often linked to unwanted psychoactive effects and last much longer than other varieties. On the other hand, kavain is known for its balanced, more calming effects and only lasts between 1 to 3 hours.
All forms of kava are made up of a combination of kavalactones, which is what gives them their two distinct qualities; heady and heavy. Heady kavas have more of a mental sensation, that is you mentally feel relaxed, more sociable and calm. These are great to consume during the day with friends and family. Heavy kavas on the other hand, affect your body more than your mind. You may feel physically heavier, and more sedated. These kavas are best to drunk at night when you are winding down for bed.
But how do kavalactone work in the brain?
The Combination of Neurotransmitters and Kavalactones
Research tells us that the kavalactones have a direct effect on neurotransmitters. More specifically, they act on the serotonin, dopamine and gamma-aminobutryic acid (commonly known as GABA) neurotransmitter system.4 GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is a well known therapeutic target in anxiety disorders. Its inhibitory nature is what leads to its calming and relaxing effects. Kava appears to change the GABA receptors, which impacts how much GABA is released and in turn how we feel. There are two types of GABA receptors: GABA-A and GABA-B. While these function slightly differently, they have the same overall calming effect.
While we still don’t know exactly how kava affects GABA receptors, research suggests a few potential pathways.5 Kava may increase the activity and number of GABA-A receptors. This means that more GABA would be able to bind to cells leading to the more relaxed and calming effects. Kava may block calcium channels, reducing the release of excitatory neurotransmitters that can lead to anxiety.
Kavain and dihydrokavain are the kavalactones that are abundant and have the most impact on the GABA receptors. So if you are looking for a calming and relaxing experience, drinking kavas with those to kavalactones is a good start.
Connecting it all together
Science talk aside, what does this mean? It means that, when we take a sip of kava, the kavalactones and other goodness goes into our stomachs, then is absorbed into our bloodstream. From there it travels through our bodies up into the brain where it may increase the number of GABA receptors and therefore more GABA is released into the brain. It may also block other excitatory pathways that can cause anxiety. This is what creates the euphoric, calming effect we expect from kava.
4. Volgin, A. et al. DARK Classics in Chemical Neuroscience: Kava. ACS Chem. Neurosci. 11, 3893–3904 (2020).5. 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).