Kava Kava is a traditional herbal remedy derived from the leaves of the Piper Methysticum native to the Western Pacific. The active ingredient of the plant, known as Kavalactones, potentiate the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. GABA soothes chemical stress reactions in the brain by preventing over-firing of nerves. Kava Kava acts in a similar fashion by binding to GABA receptors.
It is most frequently taken to relieve stress and anxiety. Its calming effects can make chaotic, over-excited thoughts easier to manage. Kava Kava also has physical analgesic effects, and creates a state of full-body relaxation. The release of stressful thoughts can improve mental focus and generate feelings of peaceful confidence.
Kava (Piper methysticum) is an herb that’s native the South Pacific islands. It’s traditionally been used in the islands as a hypnotic, psychotropic, and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety).
Kava continues to have a central place in everyday life in the islands where its grown. It’s used as a ceremonial beverage in Fiji where it’s commonly given to the Head of State.
Kava root contains a collection of 6 bioactive compounds called Kavalactones (Kavapyrones); including Kawain, Dihydrokavain, Methysticin, Dihydromethysticin, Yangonin, and Desmethoxyyangonin. Kava also contains small amounts of other alkaloids, flavonoids and glutathione.
The presence of Glutathione seems to reduce the toxicity of some other Kavalactones. Standardized extracts are important in deciding on what Kava supplement to buy to ensure reliability and safety.
The main compounds in Kava readily cross the blood-brain barrier. And reaches your brain in about 45 minutes after taking the supplement.
How does Kava work in the Brain?
Kava boosts brain health and function in several ways. But two in particular stand out.
Kava boosts cognition
1. Kava relaxes the muscles and mind, but it doesn’t affect cognition the way other antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs do.
After a review of 10 clinical studies of Kava, scientists at Australia’s Brain Sciences Institute at Melbourne University found Kava did not negatively affect cognition. In fact, some studies on Kava showed it “significantly improved visual attention and working memory processes”.
The research team stated that Kava’s “enhanced cognition may be attributed to the ability of Kava to inhibit re-uptake of noradrenaline in the pre-frontal cortex”.
Kava relieves anxiety
2. Several clinical studies have shown that Kava relieves anxiety.
California’s Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation took a look at 24 studies of Kava and other herbal medicines for anxiety. And there was substantial evidence that kava relieved not only anxiety, but also restlessness and insomnia.
They even looked at animal studies that showed Kava has anxiolytic effects “but not sedative or mental impairing” effects “which are typical side effects caused by bBenzodiazepines”.
How things go bad:
Chronic stress, anxiety, loss of neuroreceptors and neurotransmitters can damage your brain. And one of the ways this manifests is memory loss.
It comes as no surprise that people with memory loss experience higher rates of anxiety and depression. As verified in one Australian research study.
↓ Chronic stress reduces memory capacity
↓ Bioavailability of neurotransmitters decline
↓ Number of neuroreceptors decline
↑ Increase in anxiety destroys quality of life
Under conditions of chronic stress your brain loses the capacity to transmit signals between neurons efficiently. Memory, cognition, and decision-making all suffer as a result.
Kava to the rescue
Kava has a long and proven record of medicinal therapeutic value. Much of the clinical evidence supports the use of Kava in treatment of anxiety.
Unlike benzodiazepines, Kava does not have similar sedative and mental impairing effects. And Kava seems to provide this calming effect by increasing the number of GABA-a receptors.
Kava extracts have also been seen to bind to GABA, dopamine, serotonin and opiate receptors as well. This implies that more of each neurotransmitter is available to the brain since their associated receptors are blocked or inhibited by Kava.
Kava extracts have also shown antidepressant effects. Some of the trials demonstrating this effect on depression also noted that Kava raised no safety concerns at the doses and duration studied. Unlike some well-known pharmaceutical antidepressants.
Kava has also been shown to boost cognition and attention. In one study researchers stated that Kava’s “enhanced cognition may be attributed to the ability of kava to inhibit re-uptake of noradrenaline in the pre-frontal cortex…”
And finally, Kava also prevents and may even treat several types of cancer. Research shows for example that one of the components of Kava, Flavokawain B reduces prostate tumor growth and inhibits cancer
And that’s just one of many examples of how different components of Kava can fight cancer in the lung, bladder and other organs.
How does Kava feel?
This can be a little complicated so stay with me. Any particular preparation of Kava will contain up to 18 different Kavalactones. Each will have some type of psychoactive effect in your brain.
And to complicate things even more, there are several distinct strains of Kava grown in Hawaii and the South Pacific today. All with their own unique profiles of Kavalactones and as a result, their own subtle differences in effect.
In general, supplementing with Kava (Piper Methysticum) can make you feel relaxed, enhancing calmness and lowering anxiety while promoting sociability.
Higher doses can generate feelings of gentle euphoria, with greater sedation and mild motor impairment.
Many neurohackers say that at lower doses, Kava’s effects are a little like those generated by alcohol and certain kinds of anti-anxiety medications. Some users say it works as well as popping a Xanax.
You should experience an increase in focus along with a sense of calm. And even though Kava works well as a sleep aid, taking it during the day shouldn’t make you drowsy.The Research
Kava has a lot of clinical research to back up its reputation as a nootropic. Research studies have been noted throughout this article.
Here are two more:
Kava as an anti-anxiety therapy
A study at the University of Melbourne, revealed that Kava could be an alternative treatment for those suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
In this 6-week placebo-controlled, double-blind trial, 75 patients with clinically diagnosed GAD were given Kava or a placebo.
Participants were given Kava extract tablets twice per day for a total dose of 120 mg Kavalactones for the first 3 weeks. In cases of non-response, the dose was increased to a double-dose twice per day for the 2nd three weeks of the trial.
γ-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) and noradrenaline transporter polymorphisms were analyzed as potential Pharmacogenetic markers of response. Reduction in anxiety was measured using the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale (HAMA) as the primary outcome.
Kava was well-tolerated. And results showed no significant differences in liver function. One interesting observation during this study was that subjects who had genetic differences in GABA transporters modified their response to Kava.
At the conclusion of this trial, 26% of the Kava group were considered in remission for their anxiety symptoms compared to the placebo group. Overall, all participants who received Kava, showed a significant reduction in anxiety levels.
And one additional finding of this study was that Kava increased the female participants sex drive.
Kava enhances cognitive performance
Researchers conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with healthy volunteers. The purpose of the trial was to investigate the effects of Kava on emotions and cognitive performance.
One group was given a single dose of Kava extract (300 mg). And that single dose led to an increase in “cheerfulness”, improved accuracy and speed in task performance, increased visual attention and a boost in short-term memory.
Kava Root vs. Kratom
The research team compared the effects of Kava to conventional benzodiazepine-type anxiolytics which tend to impair cognitive performance. The team concluded Kava is a potent anxiolytic agent which can boost cognitive function.
While we have learned a lot about kava, kratom is a similar herb with many of the same effects. Kava and kratom are often compared since they both exude feelings of relaxation, but kratom is known more for boosting energy or calming the mind while kava is more known for its intoxicating, euphoric feelings. Both grow in Southeastern Asia, and while kava comes from the root of the plant, kratom comes from the leaves and are often made into a tea referred to as kava tea or kratom tea.
Because they have different mechanisms of action, using both together has been found to offer more potent effects, particularly since both:
- Induce euphoria
- Promote feelings of contentment
- Improve alertness
- Reduce stress
Here’s how the two stack up:
- Mildly intoxicating
- Improves mood, eases anxiety and boosts sociability
- Influences GABA receptors
- Stimulates Dopamine receptors
- Comes from the root of the plant
- Works as a stimulant in small doses and a sedative in high doses
- Induces feelings of calm
- Stimulates the mu and delta opioid receptors
- Influences Serotonin and Norepinephrine receptors
- Comes from the leaves of the plant
In the South Pacific, whole Kava root are chewed for their medicinal value.
Kava is also available in liquid form, as tinctures, and standardized extracts as capsules or tablets.