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Kava Kava - What It Is, What It Tastes Like (Dirt,) And Why You Might Want To Try It Anyway

Updated on August 16, 2013

What It Is

If you suffer from anxiety or have ever done a little digging into natural alternatives to stress-related medication, chances are you've heard about kava kava. Also known as piper methysticum (Latin for "intoxicating pepper,") kava is a tall shrub that hails from the South Pacific Islands. For thousands of years, it has been used as a folk remedy for anxiety and insomnia, and as a ceremonial beverage. Specific cultures in which kava is commonly used include Polynesia, Hawaii, Vanuatu, Melanesia, as well as some parts of Micronesia and Australia.

The medicinal part of kava is the root, and the active ingredients have been identified as "kavalactones." Although now widely available around the world in various forms, including capsules, tablets, teas and liquid extracts, the traditional method of preparing the drink involved chewing, grinding, or pounding the root, and adding cold water. No flavoring is typically added. A strong kava drink will be typically followed a while later by a hot meal, so as to allow ample time for the psychoactive components to absorb into the bloodstream.

Ground Vanuatu Kava powder, ready to mix with water.
Ground Vanuatu Kava powder, ready to mix with water. | Source

Effects On The Mind And Body

The effects of kava are relaxation, without major sedation or loss of motor control, as well as an improved, more sociable mood. Many well-designed scientific studies have provided promising results regarding kava's use for anxiety relief, but It's not clear exactly how kava produces those effects. It is believed that the psychoactive components of kava affect levels of specific neurotransmitters in the brain, including norepinephrine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA,) and dopamine.

Some side effects of kava can include indigestion, skin rash, numbness in the mouth, drowsiness and visual disturbances. Kava can also lower blood pressure and interfere with blood clotting, and should not be combined with alcohol or other anxiety medications.

Three Samoan women prepare to make Kava.
Three Samoan women prepare to make Kava. | Source

Harmful To Your Liver?

The 1990s saw a boom in kava sales as an herbal supplement in Western countries, but there was also a sharp decline, starting in 2001, due to concerns about liver toxicity. This is now widely believed to have been caused by some manufacturers' use of both stems and leaves of the plant in their supplement preparations, in addition to the root. In addition, heavy use of the herb, either along with alcohol or with an existing liver condition, appears to cause weight loss, malnutrition, liver damage, and renal dysfunction. Due to these health concerns, kava is not as easily accessible as it once was in the United States, but it is still very easy to purchase at your local health food store or through online ordering. And, as it has been used for thousands of years, it appears that moderation is a key in terms of safety, as with many other foods or herbs.

Kava Cola, made in Vanuatu
Kava Cola, made in Vanuatu | Source

Tastes Like Dirt, But It Works

I have tried various over-the-counter herbal supplements designed to remedy anxiety and/or improve mood, and most of them have either not been effective at all, or simply have not been strong enough in my experience. Kava kava is an exception, as well as the supplement phenibut and the leaves of the kratom plant. However, I didn't realize the effectiveness of kava until I tried it in bulk powder form. I had taken many different brands of kava kava capsules and tablets, some quite expensive, but none of these ever had a discernible impact. I had also tried liquid kava extracts to no avail.

I ordered some bulk ground kava kava powder from a retailer on the internet and prepared a cold drink with it, using a nylon strainer (which I also purchased online.) I would grab a couple of handfuls of the ground up kava and place them in the strainer bag, and would immerse this in a large cup or bowl with plain water, After letting it sit for about 10-15 minutes, I would squeeze the kava within the strainer to get all of the active ingredients released into the liquid. It is necessary to squeeze pretty hard in order to get a solid potency. After straining the kava in this manner for about 10 minutes, I would have a few big gulps. The immediately noticeable sensation is a slight numbness in the mouth. The taste was never anything I would call pleasant, and even when I added copious amounts of stevia to sweeten the drink, I could not escape the feeling that I was drinking mud. "Earthy" would be a kind euphemism.

Once I tried kava in the manner listed above, I realized that it was a bona fide remedy for anxiety and did have some mood-elevating properties. The feeling it brings is best described as a pleasant, very mild, almost alcohol-like euphoria, but without the loss of control or cognitive awareness. While the preparation method listed above yielded the most potent kava drinks, it was also a somewhat messy and time-consuming activity. Kava is also available online in several other forms, including as a thick, highly concentrated paste, and also as an instant kava drink mix, which is sweetened and does not require any straining - you just add water or your liquid of choice, and enjoy! There is even a Kava Cola soft drink, which, unfortunately, is currently only available in Vanuatu. While the instant kava drink mixes were the most palatable way I have found to drink kava, they are not as potent and are more expensive. I experimented adding the kava mix to soy milk and coconut water as well. I was able to make some decent-tasting drinks, but honestly, if the kava had no anxiety-relieving effects, there's no way I would drink the stuff for the taste alone.

I haven't had kava for several months now. While it is effective when ingested properly (i.e. absolutely no capsules or tablets,) the preparation is somewhat tedious, time consuming and can be messy. Also, I was never able to get my kava drinks to be "delicious" by ANY stretch of the imagination. And it's not exactly cheap either. For a pound of premium ground kava root, it will probably cost between $25-$30. One can probably get about 8-10 potent servings for that amount. It's definitely a once-in-a-while indulgence for me. I'm sure there are much better recipes out there than I was ever able to come up with, and if you suffer from anxiety, are looking for an alternative to alcohol, or are just curious about what all the buzz on kava kava is about, it is definitely worth a try! Bottoms up!


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    • SoundNFury profile image

      Michael Valencia 2 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      @sockii - cool, I'll look into some Gourmet Hawaiian kava! Thanks for the tip.

    • sockii profile image

      Nicole Pellegrini 2 years ago from New Jersey

      I haven't tried kratom before but I have heard of it (and done some research). I'm a little wary of the possibility of physical addiction to it, which kava doesn't seem to possess. I like the instant kava as it mixes well with milk or coconut milk to go down a little easier, and seems to be close to the potency of traditional preparation. Gourmet Hawaiian Kava has some really quality stuff, including some samplers of different varieties to see which ones agree with you the most.

    • SoundNFury profile image

      Michael Valencia 2 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      @sockii - it definitely helps with anxiety. I have tried from a few different sellers, but might try the one you mention (the type.) Thanks for the website info, I'll also take a look at what they have to say! I would also recommend trying kratom if you have never heard of it. It also helps with mood, anxiety and depression. At least for me.

    • sockii profile image

      Nicole Pellegrini 2 years ago from New Jersey

      Nice article on kava. I'm a recent convert to kava drinking and it really is a miracle cure for those of us plagued by general anxiety. I mostly use instant noble kava from a reputable dealer (not the stuff that's on Amazon, there's a lot of discussion online about why many of the products there may be questionable.) The TrueKava website has a lot of information comparing different brands.

      For me, while it is a bit pricey (for the good stuff), it's still cheaper than other ways to try to "self-medicate" (like alcohol) and does wonders for me mentally and physically.

    • munsemj profile image

      munsemj 2 years ago

      It's too bad so many are deterred from kava's benefits due to the taste. It's funny to see it first hand in Vanuatu where indigenous people who have drank the root their entire lives still cringe at the gulp and spit or immediately grab for some fruit to wash the taste from their mouths. I have noticed recently there's been a kava drink to hit the market overcoming this dirt water taste

    • SoundNFury profile image

      Michael Valencia 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Thanks for reading :) Yeah, it all depends on how much effort you put into making it tasty, and it is effective for getting a relaxing little euphoric buzz for a while.

    • profile image

      Southernmapart 4 years ago

      Thanks for taking some of the mystery out of kava kava. Despite its potential, I'll be skipping the mouth-numbing spice.

    • SoundNFury profile image

      Michael Valencia 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      The thing I have had most trouble with is the taste. Chocolate coconut water or soy milk really help with this, but it's just not something that I would drink every day. The side effects have never occurred to me, so maybe I should point out that they are uncommon. Except for the mouth numbness, that's when you know you have potent kava! Thanks for commenting!

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      Mazelbear 5 years ago

      Sounds interesting but really not the worth of trying given the side effects. I had never heard of it.