What are kavalactones and how do they work?

Kava is a drink the comes from the pacific islands. It’s been used for centuries in cultural and religious ceremonies as well as for it’s medicinal purposes. It’s known for it’s calming and social effects, similar to those you get when drinking alcohol. The major difference is that that you don’t hung over from kava.

It comes from the root of a specific pepper plant. The roots are harvested, dried and ground into a powder. Traditionally kava has been drunk as a tea. The powder is steeped and massaged in warm water creating and earthy, delicious beverage.

There are different types of kava depending on where it comes from. Each island’s kava is slightly different than the others due to the geographic and climate differences in each place.

But how does it work exactly? What gives it those relaxing effects?

These come from the active ingredients called kavalactones.

What are kavalactones and how do they work?

Kavalactones are little chemicals that directly interact with your brain. There are 18 different kavalactones that have been identified, however only 6 are responsible for 96% of the effects of kava. 

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. 

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 in the brain. And this is what gives us those wonderful feelings of calm and relaxation.  

What this all means

Put this all together and you get 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.

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