What are the effects of kava?

Picture of Kavahana

Kava’s popularity is steadily growing in North America and globally. This earthy drink, deeply rooted in Pacific Island traditions, has been valued for centuries in various cultural and religious rituals, as well as for its health benefits like helping with sleep and anxiety.

Feeling Calm, Focused, and Social

Kava is most recognized for creating  feelings of relaxation, calm and clarity. It contains active ingredients called kavalactones, that target specific neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in the brain. Kavalactones specifically target the GABA system, which helps reduce brain activity giving you a calm and relaxed state. 

Kava’s effects are somewhat similar to alcohol, but without the side effects of a hangover. There is a socializing feeling that kava can give you, that has been helpful for people with social anxiety.

Recent studies highlight kava’s potential in treating anxiety and improving sleep, with some research suggesting it might be more effective than certain anti-anxiety medications.

The Unique Sensation of Numbness

First-time kava drinkers often experience a tingling, fuzzy sensation in their mouth and tongue, sometimes accompanied by numbness. This is also caused by kavalactone activity,  which can have different effects on the nervous system, ranging from relaxation to numbing sensations.

Kava has also been traditionally used as a topical numbing agent for minor injuries in some cultures.

Onset of Kava’s Effects

The time it takes for kava to take effect varies from person to person. It’s influenced by factors like how strong the drink is, the amount consumed, and the individual’s size and experience with kava.

Generally, the calming effects start to be felt within 15-20 minutes, reaching a peak at around 2 hours. This peak can include mild euphoria, increased sociability, muscle relaxation, and sedation, depending on the kava type.

The effects typically begin in the brain, due to kavalactones’ impact, followed by a bodily response.

Duration of Kava’s Effects

The duration of kava’s effects also varies individually. High-quality kava can produce effects lasting between 1-6 hours.

The progression of these effects resembles a bell curve: starting slowly, peaking, and then gradually diminishing.

This pattern reflects how GABA levels in the brain are initially increased by kava and then return to normal as the body processes the kavalactones.

The reverse tolerance

One thing that makes kava particularly unique is its “reverse tolerance”. Unlike alcohol and other drugs where you need to increase your dose to get the same effects, kava works in the opposite way; you need less the more you use. 

While we don’t know exactly why this happens, it’s thought that it comes from the way kavalactones act on the nervous system, making the body adapt to kava and  becoming more sensitive to its effects. 

Kava dermopathy

This may be a lesser known side effect of kava but not any less important to know about. For those who use kava regularly or heavily, there is a common skin reaction called kava dermopathy. This is a reversible, non-harmful condition that can be healed by taking a pause in kava use. 

It presents as powdery, dry starting at your head and torso, moving down to your legs and feet. I can progress to scaly patches and when you stop drinking kava, triggers a mass peeling and exfoliation leaving clear, beautiful skin in its place. 

While it can be scary at first, it may actually have benefits for your skin as this was once a way that pacific islanders treated certain skin conditions. However, you are unlikely to experience it if you are just using a light to moderate amount of kava.

Food for thought

As with any substance, it’s critical to give your body time to get used to kava and for you to understand your limits and the effects that it has for you personally. You can try different forms like traditional, and instant. And you can experiment with making it with water, juice or coconut milk. They key is to be mindful about your experience and let the effects of kava come to you.

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What are the effects of kava?


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