What is Kava Extract?

Kava extract originates from the roots of the Piper methysticum plant. This tropical shrub is native to the Pacific Islands of Fiji, Vanuatu, and Tonga. The term "kava" comes from the Polynesian word "awa," which means bitter. 

Traditionally, the roots of the plant are ground into a powder. It is then mixed with water to create a beverage that plays a role in various cultural activities. Kava is renowned for its ability to promote a sense of well-being and relaxation, making it an integral part of these traditions.

Cultural Significance of Kava

In Pacific Island communities, kava holds a prestigious place in a wide range of social activities such as:

Social Gatherings: People often consume kava during community gatherings to enhance sociability and create a relaxed atmosphere. This practice is similar to how many cultures use tea or coffee for socializing. However, kava is unique because its calming effects help facilitate deeper connections between participants.

Religious Rituals: Kava plays a critical role in religious ceremonies to assist in achieving a higher state of consciousness among consumers. Participants believe this state brings them closer to a spiritual realm, making communicating with ancestors and deities easier.

Community Events: Kava drinking sessions frequently accompany important community decisions or play a role in conflict resolutions. The calming effects of kava promote clearer thinking and more harmonious interactions.

How Kava Works

The calming effects of kava primarily come from compounds called kavalactones. Kava contains 18 different kavalactones, varying concentrations depending on the plant's variety and the specific part of the root used. These compounds interact with the brain’s neurotransmitter systems. 

They affect receptors that regulate mood and stress, such as those associated with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. 

By influencing these neurotransmitters, kava can significantly reduce anxiety and promote relaxation without impairing cognitive function. This makes it an ideal drink for maintaining mental clarity while alleviating physical and mental tension.

Exploring the Basics of Kava

Kava stands out in the natural wellness space because of its unique properties. It promotes relaxation without impairing cognitive abilities. This quality has made kava a popular alternative to alcohol in social settings. Unlike alcohol, kava does not produce a next-day hangover. It also does not lower inhibitions. This allows individuals to relax and connect without the negative effects associated with alcoholic beverages.

How Kava Promotes Relaxation and Mental Clarity

Kava's effectiveness in reducing anxiety and stress stems from its impact on the brain's neurochemistry. It interacts with neurotransmitters that regulate mood and stress responses:

GABA Activation: Kava contains kavalactones, which directly affect the brain’s GABA receptors. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that reduces neuronal activity. By enhancing GABA’s effects, kava helps calm the nervous system. This leads to a reduction of anxiety and a sense of tranquility(1).

Dopamine Regulation: Some kavalactones also influence dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. This regulation helps maintain a good mood and mental clarity, contrasting with the depressant effects of alcohol(2).

Kava's Role in Social Relaxation

In many cultures, especially in the Pacific Islands, people traditionally consume kava in a communal setting. The ritual of preparing and drinking kava together strengthens social bonds. It also promotes a collective sense of peace and contentment. Here’s why it’s valued:

Social Lubricant Without Intoxication: Unlike alcohol, which can impair judgment and cognitive functions, kava enhances relaxation without the side effects of inebriation. This allows people to engage more genuinely and attentively in conversations, making kava a preferred choice for social gatherings.

Cultural Rituals and Modern Adaptations: While traditional kava ceremonies have a rich cultural significance, the adaptability of kava to modern social scenarios is noteworthy. Whether it is consumed during a quiet evening with friends or a larger community gathering, kava serves as a focal point. It brings people together in a relaxed environment.

Types of Kava Extracts

When choosing the right kava product, knowing the different types of kava extracts is important. Below are the most common types of kava extracts available:

Powdered Extracts

How They're Made: Manufacturers make powdered kava extracts by taking out active elements called kavalactones from the root of the kava plant. Solvents such as water or CO2 are typically used for this process. After extracting the compounds, they evaporate the solvent, leaving behind a concentrated powder. This method captures the essence of kava in a highly concentrated form.
Uses: The convenience of powdered extracts makes them a popular choice among kava users. They can be easily dissolved in drinks, sprinkled over food, or incorporated into recipes. This form is ideal for those seeking a quick and easy way to consume kava. It bypasses the traditional preparation process, which is more time-consuming and comprehensive.

Liquid Extracts

How They're Made: Manufacturers create liquid kava extracts by soaking dried kava roots in a solvent such as water or glycerin. This method effectively extracts the kavalactones from the root.
After soaking, the solution is concentrated to increase its strength and potency. This process captures the therapeutic properties of kava in liquid form.
Uses: Liquid extracts are prized for their ease of use and versatility. They can be consumed directly or added to beverages like tea, smoothies, or water. This form of kava is particularly appealing because of its immediate effects and its ability to easily adjust dosages. It is suitable for both beginners and experienced users.

CO2 Extracts

How They're Made: CO2 extraction is a sophisticated process that uses carbon dioxide under high pressure and controlled temperatures to extract kavalactones. This method is renowned for its efficiency and the purity of its extract. In its supercritical state, CO2 acts as a solvent, dissolving the active compounds from the kava root. It does this without leaving the residue common to other extraction methods.
Uses: CO2 extracts are available in various forms, such as oils and pastes. They are valued for their potency and purity. Therapeutic and medicinal settings often favor these extracts due to their high concentration of active ingredients. They are commonly used in pain management, anxiety relief, and muscle relaxation treatments. You can apply CO2 extracts topically, encapsulate them for precise dosing, or mix them into beverages for quick absorption.

How to Use Kava Extracts

Kava extracts provide flexible usage options to meet various needs and preferences. Kava can easily be used every day for health benefits or to help with specific health issues. Here’s how to utilize kava extracts effectively:

As a Supplement

Forms: Kava extracts are available in capsules or tablets, providing a convenient and mess-free option for consumption.
Usage: Capsules and tablets enable precise dosing, ensuring the right amount of kava is dispensed to achieve the desired effects. This form is particularly beneficial for those who do not prefer the earthy, sometimes bitter flavor of the root.
Benefits: Taking kava as a supplement can be particularly effective for managing stress and anxiety. It allows for easy, consistent dosing throughout the day.

In Beverages

Forms: Liquid kava extracts are the most commonly used for this purpose, though powdered extracts can be dissolved into drinks also. 
Usage: Mix liquid or powdered kava extracts into a variety of beverages like tea, juice, or water. Adjust the amount depending on the desired strength and personal tolerance levels.
Benefits: Consuming kava in beverages allows for more gradual absorption, providing a longer-lasting calming effect. This method is also a more traditional way to enjoy kava, reflecting how it is consumed in Pacific Island cultures. 
Pacific Islanders typically prepare kava by mixing the ground root with water to create a communal drink. They often use kava in ceremonies and social gatherings to promote relaxation and social bonding.

For Topical Use

Forms: Kava extracts are also available for topical use in forms such as creams, balms, or ointments.
Usage: Apply the kava-infused product directly to the affected area. Be sure to test a small area first to ensure there is no allergic reaction, especially if applying it to sensitive skin.
Benefits: Topical application of kava extracts can be effective for local pain relief, muscle relaxation, and to reduce inflammation. This method is particularly useful for targeting specific areas of discomfort without producing systemic effects.

Tips for Safe and Effective Use

Start with a Low Dose: Begin by using a small amount to gauge the body’s potential reaction to kava. Figure out the ideal dose by starting low and then adjusting as needed.
Consult a Healthcare Provider: It is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before using kava. This is important when dealing with underlying health conditions or taking other medications. 
Quality Matters: Always purchase kava extracts from reputable sources. High-quality extracts from trusted sources are more likely to provide the desired effects and reduce the risk of contaminants.

Benefits of Kava and Kava Extracts

Kava extracts are renowned for their potent therapeutic effects on mental and physical health. Here’s a closer look at how kava can be beneficial beyond its well-known anti-anxiety properties:

Mental Health Benefits

Depression Symptoms: Kava is best known for its calming effects. However, research suggests it may also help alleviate symptoms of depression. Kavalactones in kava reduce anxiety and may also influence mood regulation. These compounds increase the activity of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. This boost provides a natural mood lift and helps restore emotional balance(1).
Stress Reduction: Beyond its acute calming effects, kava can contribute to long-term stress management. Regular consumption of kava may help lower physiological responses to stress such as cortisol production and promote less reactivity to environmental stressors. This can improve overall well-being and reduce the risk of stress-related health issues(2).

Physical Health Benefits

Anti-inflammatory Properties: Kava has shown potential anti-inflammatory effects. These properties stem from kavalactones that inhibit pathways in the immune system known to cause inflammation(3). Kava aids in reducing general inflammation in the body and treating conditions like arthritis. 
Muscle Relaxation and Pain Relief: Kava can help relieve muscle tension and pain by relaxing muscles and reducing spasms. Kavalactones in kava interacts with the body's central nervous system, enhancing the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
This neurotransmitter inhibits nerve transmission, leading to muscle relaxation and reduced spasms. This effect is particularly valuable for individuals suffering from conditions like fibromyalgia or for those recovering from physical injuries(4).
Neuroprotective Effects: Emerging research suggests that kava may have neuroprotective properties. Kavalactones in kava act as antioxidants, protecting brain cells against damage from oxidative stress. By reducing oxidative stress, kava helps preserve brain cell function.
This protection may slow the progression of neurological disorders. Researchers are still investigating this aspect of kava. However, it shows potential as a supportive treatment for neurodegenerative diseases(1)(2).

 

Safety and Side Effects

Kava is becoming more popular for its calming effects. It's important to know about its safety and possible side effects. Here’s a detailed look at these aspects:

Conditions of Use:

Individuals with pre-existing liver conditions or those who are pregnant or breastfeeding should use kava with caution. Anyone considering kava should first consult a healthcare provider. This step is crucial, especially for those on medications affecting liver enzymes, or those with other health concerns.

Side Effects

Common Side Effects: While kava is well-tolerated by most users, some may experience mild side effects such as:

Drowsiness

Upset stomach

Headache

These side effects are typically mild, and can often be mitigated by adjusting the dosage or discontinuing use if necessary.

Allergic Reactions: As with any supplement, there is a potential for allergic reactions. Symptoms could include itchiness, rash, or difficulty breathing, requiring immediate medical attention.

 

Dosage and Administration

Understanding the correct dosages for kava extracts is crucial for safe and effective use. Here are some guidelines and best practices:

General Dosage: Start with a lower dose to assess individual response. For powdered kava extracts, a typical starting dose could be 100-200 mg of kavalactones. Adjust this dose based on personal tolerance and effectiveness.
Liquid Extracts: Dosages for liquid forms can vary depending on the concentration of the extract. Start with the amount recommended on the product label, usually a few drops or a teaspoon. Adjust as needed.

 

Best Practices

Avoid Alcohol: Do not combine kava with alcohol. Both substances can have sedative effects and may increase stress on the liver.

Monitor with Other Medications: Be cautious when combining kava with other medications, particularly those metabolized by the liver. Consult a healthcare professional to ensure there would be no interactions that could lead to adverse effects.
Quality and Source: Always choose high-quality kava products from reputable sources. Search for products that specify they are made from "noble" kava varieties, which are considered safer and more effective. Consuming kava in moderation is crucial to avoid potential side effects and ensure safety. Start with small doses and increase gradually to find the right amount for you.

Sources

1. Savage KM, Stough CK, Byrne GJ, Scholey A, Bousman C, Murphy J, Macdonald P, Suo C, Hughes M, Thomas S, Teschke R, Xing C, Sarris J. Kava for the treatment of generalised anxiety disorder (K-GAD): study protocol for a randomised controlled trial. Trials. 2015 Nov 2;16:493. doi: 10.1186/s13063-015-0986-5. PMID: 26527536; PMCID: PMC4630875.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26527536/

2. Savage K, Sarris J, Hughes M, Bousman CA, Rossell S, Scholey A, Stough C, Suo C. Neuroimaging Insights: Kava's (Piper methysticum) Effect on Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex GABA in Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Nutrients. 2023 Oct 28;15(21):4586. doi: 10.3390/nu15214586. PMID: 37960239; PMCID: PMC10649338.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37960239/

3. Ooi SL, Henderson P, Pak SC. Kava for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A Review of Current Evidence. J Altern Complement Med. 2018 Aug;24(8):770-780. doi: 10.1089/acm.2018.0001. Epub 2018 Apr 11. PMID: 29641222.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29641222/

4. Bian T, Corral P, Wang Y, Botello J, Kingston R, Daniels T, Salloum RG, Johnston E, Huo Z, Lu J, Liu AC, Xing C. Kava as a Clinical Nutrient: Promises and Challenges. Nutrients. 2020 Oct 5;12(10):3044. doi: 10.3390/nu12103044. PMID: 33027883; PMCID: PMC7600512.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33027883/