Outside of the Pacific, kava tea is a bit of a mystery.
But the plant is often used in native countries as part of religious and cultural ceremonies, and those familiar with the drink recreationally celebrate it as an effective way to curb anxiety. It’s also claimed to make you feel relaxed and even a little numb.
Some controversial reports, however, also claim kava causes mild hallucinations and can even get you high.
As part of a Tech Insider reporting trip, I recently visited Hawaii — where kava (also called awa) is common. So I took the opportunity to conduct a recreational experiment in pharmacology.
What it’s like to drink kava tea
I visited a tiny kava bar that was tucked away in a corner of Kona on the big island of Hawaii, and I dragged along a few friends I made during a surfing lesson earlier in the day.
According to Kona Kava Farm, the tea is pretty simple to make. Just grind up the roots from a kava plant, add some water, and voila — relaxation in a cup.
We all ordered large sizes, started sipping, and waited to feel something.
The tea tasted pretty bitter, not unlike a strong cup of coffee. About halfway through the glass I could tell that I felt more relaxed. By the end of the cup I felt mellow and in a great mood — but I didn’t feel high and I definitely wasn’t hallucinating. So we decided to order another round and continue hanging out together.
I drank the second glass much slower than the first one. Something about kava fills you up; I didn’t feel hungry or thirsty the rest of the night.
By the end of the second glass I just felt incredibly relaxed. I was also in a fantastic mood. The most annoying, obnoxious person in the world could have sat down next to me, and I probably wouldn’t have minded. I didn’t opt for a third glass, since it seemed like the effects weren’t changing (that and I felt incredibly full).
The chemistry of kava
I’d already researched kava tea a little before the trip, but that night at my hotel I dug in some more.
I learned the key compound in kava that triggers relaxation is called kavain, and it’s similar to a sedative. It doesn’t affect the brain though. Instead, it acts like a muscle relaxer, so you’re mentally alert but physically loosened up.
But kava does have another active compound, called yangonin. This chemical is likely the one that makes some people compare it to marijuana, since it affects the same brain receptors as THC — the chemical responsible for marijuana’s psychological effects.
There’s also a third interesting compound, called desmethyoxyyangonin, which drives up dopamine levels in the brain. This can give the drinker the sensation of euphoria, which probably explained my unbelievably good mood.
As for the hallucination mystery surrounding kava? It sounds like some people might be confusing kava with ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic ceremonial drink from the Amazon basin.
Is kava tea bad for you?
Although it might seem brash to down a cup of body and mood-altering tea, there is some scientific research on kava tea as a legitimate means to help some people. Research published by Cochrane suggests it’s pretty effective at curbing social anxiety, at least compared to a placebo.
The important disclaimer here, though, is that kava has also been linked to liver damage and even fatal poisoning. (Although you’d probably have to drink a lot of kava, and regularly, for either of those things to happen.)
There’s also some discrepancy about what might cause the liver damage. Some think it’s caused by toxic alkaloids in the leaves and stems of the plant, which people can accidentally mix into the tea, according to research from South Dakota University.
Given this kind of preliminary research, it’s clear that we need more to understand kava’s benefits and risks — especially since kava tea is spreading like wildfire.
In fact, the very first kava bar in New York City just opened this summer, and who knows where the next ones will pop up.
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