One aspect of humanity that I think deserves more praise is our seemingly innate ability to find different ways to alter our states of consciousness. No matter where in the world you are or what time period you are in, you will find that people have always been drawn to intoxicants. There is documented use of cannabis, psilocybin, opium, tobacco, coca and so many other herbs dating back to over 10,000 years.
Despite centuries of recorded drug use, most of these substances and compounds are banned today. With the exception of alcohol and cannabis in some areas, the options for a legal but fulfilling high are quite limited. However, there is a lesser-known substance that ticks all the boxes: it’s psychoactive, completely legal, safe, and growing in popularity. The product in question: Kava.
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What is Kava?
Kava, or Kava Kava (Piper methysticum), is a type of pepper plant native to the South Pacific. It is medicinal, non-addictive and has a very good safety profile. It grows in tropical climates and can reach a height of 6 feet with large, heart-shaped leaves. The root of the plant is used to make the intoxicating drink for which it is infamous.
Also known as asava chili or “intoxicating pepper,” kava has been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments, including pain, mental disorders, rheumatism, infections, insomnia, and migraines. It is also used ceremonially in some regions like Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa and Hawaii.
Traditionally it is consumed as a drink, as it has been for centuries; but now you can find it in different forms such as powders and supplements. In the early 2000s, kava was briefly banned in the EU, following a now refuted study claiming that kava could damage the liver. The ban also affected the use of kava statewide, although it was never officially banned here. The EU eventually repealed the ban as well, and the only country where it remains illegal is Poland.
The top of the kava
When you first try kava, you’ll immediately notice its unique flavor, which is a combination of bitter, spicy and earthy – described as tasting like “muddy water”. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but like alcohol, people don’t usually sip kava. It is often taken in doses until the desired level of intoxication is reached.
Kava can be used medicinally or recreationally, depending on the dose and strain (there are over 100 known varieties). It can help with anxiety, make users feel relaxed, happy, carefree, lightheaded, and euphoric, and some people even report mild hallucinations at higher doses of some strains. Some people say it makes them feel “drunk”, but without the confusion and sickness associated with alcohol.
The active ingredients in Kava that are responsible for these effects are called Kavalactones. These sticky, insoluble molecules pass through the bloodstream, causing it to act as a muscle relaxant; and they also bind to receptors in the limbic system, which is the area of our brain most associated with regulating emotions and behavior. Kavain is the most notable kavalactone, and is usually the most concentrated in the root of the plant.
Legality and medical benefits
In the United States, kava is legal and regulated as a dietary supplement. It’s actually one of the few legal intoxicants in almost every country in the world (with the exception of Poland, as noted above). Due to the above and disputed study of 2002 claiming that Kava could cause liver damage (it does not), some local municipalities have passed laws to restrict its possession and distribution.
To clarify the liver damage angle a bit more. The EU reported that it had recorded 30 deaths (never) which may were caused by Kava, but could not prove a direct link to it. Conversely, cirrhosis of the liver, which is a form of late scarring of the liver resulting from excessive damage, is responsible for around 170,000 deaths in Europe each year. In total, 49.5% of cirrhosis deaths are alcohol-related. But of course, go ahead and banish Kava instead of alcohol (eyeroll).
On a more positive note, a handful of studies indicate that the kavalactones in kava can be used to treat a myriad of different health conditions. It is most often used as a natural remedy for anxiety, and a decent amount of research exists to back up this use. Specifically, a 2013 clinical study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology found that kava had “significantly reduced symptoms in people diagnosed with general anxiety disorder.”
Additionally, kava is natural and safe, especially compared to other recreational and prescription drugs, many of which are synthetic with high levels of toxicity. An overdose of kava is relatively unknown, and the long-term effects (good or bad) have not been sufficiently documented, although some regular users report gastrointestinal issues. On the other hand, anecdotal evidence suggests that kava is effective in treating addiction issues, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and more.
“Drinking kava in moderation produces no noticeable side effects,” says kava expert Dr. Vincent Lebot, based in Vanuatu, a Pacific island nation in the South Pacific Ocean. “The drink can be very diluted and hardly any effect will be produced, or it can be very strong, and it is recommended to stay at home and not to drive.”
What types of Kava products are there?
When it comes to Kava products, there are several to choose from. Nowadays, kava root powder is the most popular, as it is made from dried and powdered kava root without any further processing. It is as close to natural as possible and its powdered form makes it very versatile when it comes to producing products. In the same vein, a similar product is instant kava powder, which is designed to be added to hot water and made into a drink, although additional ingredients may be added.
Another common and convenient way to take your kava is in capsules. They offer simplicity, consistency and discretion, as they can be kept in a purse or pocket and taken at any time. Kava tinctures are somewhat similar, in that they are discreet and easy to use and dose. They consist of kavalactone extract mixed with water and a small amount of alcohol or glycerin, often taken sublingually.
And last but not least are prepared kava drinks. Taste-wise, it’s about as close to traditional as you’re going to find. The reason this option is less popular than powder comes down to price. Kava powders are much more affordable and can often be purchased in bulk. Now, don’t confuse this with “kava tea”. I have found that most companies that claim to add kava to their tea do so simply as a marketing tool.
The fact is that the active ingredients in kava are fat soluble and not water soluble, which means that steeping a kava infused tea bag will not remove as many of the active compounds as beverages made from milk or another kind of big. Kava drinks are made with kavalactone extracts, flavorings, stabilizing agents, and in some cases other herbs and supplements.
If you’ve come this far and are curious to try Kava for yourself, then don’t hesitate, give it a try! You can consult this list of suppliers, which I personally found very useful. Since kava is federally legal, it is much easier to obtain than other substances. You can order it online and have it delivered anywhere in the United States. Add to that, there’s a growing number of kava bars popping up in some of America’s biggest cities, so if you’re near one, it might be worth stopping by to check it out. When it comes to natural, legal highs, you won’t find much that compares to kava.
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Disclaimer: Hello, I am a researcher and writer. I am neither a doctor, nor a lawyer, nor a businessman. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions expressed are my own. I do not give advice to anyone, and while I am more than happy to discuss topics, if anyone has another question or concern they should seek advice from a competent professional.
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