Everything You Need to Know About Kava
What is kava?
Kava-kava (or simply “kava”) is a shrub native to the Pacific islands with a centuries-long history of social and medicinal use. The roots of the plant are ground into a powder and mixed into a beverage, which produces numerous positive mental and physical effects thanks to the plant’s active ingredients known as “kavalactones.” These effects include a sense of calmness, reduced muscle tension, and mild euphoria. Many people find kava an ideal alcohol substitute, especially since it does not reduce mental clarity, dehydrate the body, or lead to hangovers. However, because of the sedation that can occur, it is not recommended to drive after consuming it.
Kava is found in many grocery and health food stores in the form of teas, capsules, and extracts. Some kava experts caution against using these commercial forms for various reasons—for instance, commercial manufacturers may extract the wrong portions of the plant, such as the above-ground root portion, which contain toxic alkaloids and less of the beneficial kavalactones. Also, boiling water when preparing the commercial teas modifies and destroys kavalactones, producing a much weaker effect. For these reasons, the best introduction to kava is to purchase the ground root from an online vendor and prepare it yourself.
There are several options for preparation. The first and traditional method is to place the kava root in a straining bag, steep it in warm (not hot) water for several minutes, and then spend an additional ten minutes kneading and squeezing the bag until the water turns murky brown (the water will also have a strong, unmistakable odor). To experience the pleasant effects right away, the water is typically chugged and not sipped.
This ten-minute kneading process can be rather tedious (plus, if done frequently, it can dry out the skin). There are other options for those with less patience. Most online vendors sell micronized kava powder in addition to the ground root. This kava that has been prepared according to the recipe above and then dehydrated, resulting in a very fine powder that can be added to any beverage and drank instantly. Finally, there is a product called Aluball, created by a company called Kavafied. This is simply a ball with mesh screens that can be taken apart and filled with kava root. When the ball is put back together and shaken in a bottle filled with water, the root particles filter through the screen, in a much more time-efficient process than the traditional method.
People researching kava may stumble onto claims that it has been linked to liver damage. These cases are extremely few, and it is generally accepted by the scientific community now that the studies those claims date from were incomplete or flawed (for example, involving drug users who may have had preexisting liver damage). However, you should research the claims thoroughly and review the scientific literature if you have concerns about health.
If there is one downside to drinking kava, it is the taste. Kava has a muddy, earthy taste that is unfortunately hard to mask. The best method is to mix it with juice and drink it quickly—but most drinkers would agree that the aftereffects are worth it.