Breaking news: weed, hot yoga, and Netflix aren’t the only ways to relax. Kava root might just give your usual go-tos a run for their money. (Well, maybe our usual go-tos, anyway.) Kava kava is a bitter, spicy beverage made from the pulverized roots of the Piper methysticum plant, a species of pepper bush from the Pacific Islands. After the plant is harvested and dried, the root is mashed or ground and mixed with water. The pulverized root is strained away, leaving only a mouth-numbing liquid with mild psychoactive effects. So, on to the next question—where do you buy kava?
An Introduction to Kava
Kava is a plant with many names—sakau, kawa, ‘awa, kava kava, yagona, just to name a few. Throughout the Pacific Islands, kava bars are nearly as commonplace as coffee shops are in Los Angeles. People of all types enjoy sipping on the relaxing beverage after a long day, for special occasions, or while simply catching up with some old friends. In the 1980s, kava was introduced to Aboriginal communities in Northern Australia as an alternative to alcohol; the habit has stuck around ever since.
The active chemical constituents in kava are called kavalactones—and six of them are thought to produce the root’s psychoactive effects. Kavalactones act on receptors in the central nervous system, which, in turn, slows response time in the brain, muscles, and limbs, as well as causing mild sensations of numbness. For this reason, many people use kava as an anxiety aid. The experienced effects of kava are often described as similar to cannabis. Only, kava contains different chemical compounds and may be more likely to cause uncomfortable side effects in high doses.
Different Kinds of Kava
When it comes to kava, variety matters. There are over 200 different varieties of Piper methysticum, some cultivated and many wild. Yet, only one variety dominates the world markets: noble kava. But, other kava varieties may be a little too potent for regular consumption. In 2002, in fact, the island of Vanuatu banned the export of any kava apart from the noble variety. Noble kava is safe enough to drink in moderation.
What is Noble Kava?
Noble kava is cultivated for recreational use in several Pacific Island countries. This variety contains kavalactones and other synergistic compounds, but it is mild enough to drink in moderation. Typically, roots from the noble kava plant are peeled and dried before being made into a drink.
What is Two-Day Kava?
Tu dei kava (two-day kava) is another popular cultivar across the Pacific Islands. This variety contains higher concentrations of kavalactones and alkaloids than noble kava. But, it’s also associated with headache and other side effects. This kava variety has stronger psychoactive effects and is sometimes used medicinally within island cultures.
Types of Kava Products
Unless you live in the Pacific Islands, chances are you’re buying imported kava. Kava root is one of the fastest-growing export markets from the Pacific Islands. Outside of Oceana, kava root powder is one of the most common preparations of the plant. You can mix this dried powder into water or coconut milk to make your own kava at home.
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Kava made its global debut in the 1990s, backed by a wave of interest in the plant’s potential therapeutic benefits. But, traditional ways of enjoying the drink didn’t quite catch on outside of the islands. Instead, new kava products hit pharmacy shelves and new-age boutiques. News spread of the plant’s mild psychoactive effects and importers were quick to meet demands for kava extracts, capsules, and other medical products.
And then, by the early 2000s, kava’s momentum came to an abrupt halt. In 2002, kava capsules, kava tinctures, and other products were withdrawn from the market across Europe and Canada. Poland banned all kava imports and kava possession. The United States Food and Drug Administration issued a consumer advisory about kava products.
The allegations were serious: At worst, kava caused severe liver damage or potential liver failure. More often than not, however, kava inspired intense bouts of nausea, and caused a horrible skin rash. Yet, here’s where things get interesting—Pacific Islanders have enjoyed kava for over 2,000 years. Aboriginal Australians for over 30 years. And reports of liver failure? Sparse by comparison.
Some studies that looked at rates of liver failure in Aboriginal Australians, who are heavy kava drinkers showed evidence of skin rash and early signs of liver stress in some chronic kava consumers. But, other clinical observation research that followed Aboriginal communities in North Australia for over 20 years found no cases of liver failure that could be attributed to kava, despite heavy, protracted consumption. Although, the research did confirm that there are other side effects correlated with heavy kava consumption, like skin rash.
Outside of Oceana, kava root powder is one of the most common preparations of the plant. You can mix this dried powder into water or coconut milk to make your own kava at home.
So, why were so many falling ill from kava in the West? Well, quantity and concentration may be part of the answer. The traditional way to prepare kava uses the whole dried root and water. However, in the 1990s, kava preparation became a lot more technical. Supplements and medical products were often made by extracting kava compounds, which removes them from the root and enables consumers to take very concentrated doses of kavalactones.
In a 2016 report, the World Health Organization (WHO) summarized over two decades of research on the health effects of kava. The WHO found that kava extracts and medical products are correlated with greater health risks than traditionally prepared kava, based on the available evidence at the time.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that traditionally-prepared kava is safer. The report states:
“The health concerns identified following the use of kava medicinal products have raised questions regarding the safety of kava consumption in all its forms, including the traditional water-based beverage.”
The WHO states that dosages of 240-440g kava powder per week are more likely to contribute to side effects, like potential liver damage, even when kava is prepared the traditional way.
Buy Kava Capsules
We’ve come a long way since 2002. Now, reports like the aforementioned report from the WHO have confirmed that kava appears safe to consume in low to moderate doses. In the United States, kava capsules can be found on pharmacy shelves and in natural health boutiques. However, medical researchers suggest that a daily dosage of kavalactones should not exceed 250 milligrams, and only for acute or intermittent use. Further, it’s recommended to buy kava capsules that are made using noble kava root only, not any other parts of the plant.
Buy Kava Tinctures
Apart from capsules, tinctures are another common way to consume kava. Yet, like capsules, tinctures are not without controversy. A tincture is made using alcohol as a solvent. Kavalactones extracted from the plant’s roots dissolve into the alcohol, making a concentrated extract. But, the verdict is still out on whether or not these concentrated tinctures are more likely to cause side effects.
Regarding dosage, the general recommendation from medical professionals is the same for tinctures as for capsules: A daily dosage of kavalactones should not exceed 250 milligrams for acute or intermittent use. It’s also recommended to buy kava capsules that are made using noble kava root only, not any other parts of the plant.
Buy Kava Tea
Kava root is a frequent ingredient in herbal teas, usually accompanied by other flavorful and potentially synergistic herbs. Kava tea blends purchased at the grocery are quite different from traditional kava—these blends typically contain small amounts of kava, often not enough to produce the mouth-numbing effects of traditionally prepared kava. It’s helpful to check that the dosage of kavalactones in a tea does not exceed 250 milligrams.
Where to Buy Kava Root
By 2018, nearly every country in Europe, North America, and Australia had lifted their bans on kava possession and traditional use. Although, medical products made with kava are still either banned or heavily regulated in several countries. The United States is not one of them. Kava products can be sold online and in stores in the U.S., making kava very easy to access and find.
Buying kava in Canada, however, might be a smidge more difficult. Kava products made from whole kava root can be sold in Canada. Although, Health Canada still regulates five kava compounds that may be linked to liver damage when extracted and used in medical products. Although, it’s always recommended to check laws in your region before purchasing kava.
Buy Kava in Stores
There are no restrictions for buying kava in the United States. Kava lattes can be purchased in swanky coffee shops. Kava capsules at big retail chains like Wal-Mart and Target. Kava tea blends right alongside the Earl Grey. But, the majority of these products are quite different from the traditional kava preparations.
Regarding dosage, the general recommendation from medical professionals is the same for tinctures as for capsules: A daily dosage of kavalactones should not exceed 250 milligrams for acute or intermittent use.
A natural food or health store may be more likely places to buy ground noble kava root in person. Ground kava root powder can be mixed into water or other water-based drinks, as a more traditional preparation. Calling ahead to ask about available kava products may be a wise idea. In the United States, kava supplements and extracts are often easier to find than ground kava root, despite the fact that the former may be more likely to produce side effects.
Buy Kava Online
If you have a knack for research, one of the better places to buy kava root is online—so long as you purchase from a reputable vendor. Kava products that are made using the leaves and stems of kava plants may be more likely to cause liver damage. Products made from two-day or wild kava may also be more problematic; researchers are still a little unsure about its safety.
Where Can I Buy Kava Tea?
In the United States, you can buy kava tea blends in major supermarkets and natural food stores. But, those hoping to try more authentic kava preparations may have better luck online. Kava tea is easy to make at home using noble kava root; simply purchase it from a reputable vendor, fill your own tea bag, and steep it with water in the comfort of your own home. (Just don’t forget to look at the kavalactone content!)
What to Look For Before You Buy Kava
So, we know that we can find kava online, but how do we know that we’re getting the good stuff? The WHO offers some helpful advice.
The WHO recommends noble kava over any other variety. As mentioned above, noble kava is the most common recreational kava variety. It’s thought to produce enough kavalactones to inspire an anxiolytic effect. Yet, it’s also not as potent as wild or two-day kava.
Just say no to seeds, stems, and leaves. Peeled roots are the safest part of the kava plant to consume. According to the WHO, kava products contaminated with stems and leaves may be more likely to cause side effects. Buying products made from whole kava root may also be preferable over kava extracts and other processed products—well, if you’re concerned about potential side effects, at least.
At the time of writing, kava extracts and medical products are more associated with serious side effects than traditionally prepared kava, most likely due to the overall concentration of kavalactones and other compounds in processed kava products. The WHO recommends sticking to a low dosage.
Kavalactone content may be one of the most important things to pay attention to when purchasing kava products, especially extracts and capsules. Based on current evidence, consuming more than 250 milligrams of kavalactones per day may increase the likelihood of developing side effects, including potential liver damage.