What is Kava?

What is Kava?

Kava (Piper methysticum) is a tropical plant species from the Pacific Islands. Various forms of kava can be found in Fiji, Vanuatu, The Solomon Islands, Samoa, Hawaii, Tonga and others. 

Traditionally, kava has been used for its calming and euphoric effects during ceremonies, family gatherings, funerals, and celebrations. Today, kava is also used to support sleep, anxiety, depression, and muscle tension. 

It’s also a popular alternative option to alcohol. It provides a similar carefree state of mind, but without intoxication. 

Kava is typically sold as a dried, pounded powder made up of the lateral roots and basal stump of the plant. The powder is placed in a strainer bag and kneaded in water until ready. 

Kava has an earthy, bitter taste, and is best to drink quickly, not something to sip on gradually. Not many people drink kava for its taste! 

Depending on the type of kava, the effects can be heavy (relax your body and muscles) or heady (uplifting, euphoric) . Kavas can also be balanced, which combines the two. 

With some kava types, it can take up to 30min for the effects to be felt after drinking. Other types may have an immediate effect. 

Kava is also renowned for reverse tolerance. That is, many first time drinkers do not feel the effects of Kava until they have drunk it several times. So if you don't feel anything the first time, don't give up!

What are Kavalactones?

The effects experienced when consuming kava are due to the active chemical components collectively called kavalactones.

The varying effects different kavas produce is due to the levels of each type of kavalactone. It is interesting to check the chemotype of a kava before drinking so as to estimate the quality of the effects. 

The physiological effects of kava are usually viewed as an important characteristic of kava quality. 

There are six major kavalactones and a numbering system has been devised to identify them: 

• 1= desmethoxy yangonin
• 2= dihydro kavain
• 3= yangonin
• 4= kavain
• 5= dihydromethysticin
• 6= methysticin

Heavy Kava
This is used to describe kava that makes you feel very relaxed and heavy. You may feel like sinking into your couch as your body relaxes.

Heavy kavas tend to have longer-lasting effects than balanced or heady kava and have a greater impact on the body than the mind. Heavy kavas are preferred by people wanting to reach deeper levels of relaxation and to assist with better quality sleep.

These kavas are generally higher in kalavactones (2) and (6). 

Heady Kava
Heady kavas have more of an effect on the mind, with uplifting and euphoric effects and a feeling of calm contentment and wellbeing. Some are even mildly stimulating on the mind, promoting a feeling of focus and concentration.

Headier cultivars are less sedative, making them better as a social beverage at parties or events and are the best types of kava to support creative work.

In general, heady kavas are highest in kalavactones (4) and (3).

Balanced Kava
Balanced kavas are what you might expect — they’re a middle ground between being heady and heavy. Often a balanced kava will start out heady, then ease into a more heavy, body relaxing feel. 

Kava Chemotypes

A kava chemotype code is made up of six numbers — each corresponding to one of the six major kavalactones listed above. A kava chemotype signifies the order of kavalactones starting with the highest concentration. The first three numbers of a chemotype are the most important, usually making up 70% of the total kavalactones.

Below is a table showing the general properties for each kavalactone type. This is by no means definitive however as different combinations of kavalactones can also alter the affect. 

Code Kavalactone Effect Profile
1 Desmethoxyyangonin (DMY) • Muscle relaxant
2 Dihydrokavain (DHK) • Strong sedative
• Anti-anxiety (Anxiolytic)
• Nausea & vomiting (Emetic)
• Pain-killing (Analgesic)
3 Yangonin (Y) • Anti-anxiety (Anxiolytic)
4 Kavain (K) • Muscle relaxant
• Anti-anxiety (Anxiolytic)
• Euphoria and Headiness
5 Dihydromethysticin (DHM) • Strong sedative
• Loss of muscle coordination (Ataxia)
• Neuroprotective
• Muscle relaxant
• Nausea & vomiting (Emetic)
• Anti-anxiety (Anxiolytic)
• Very long-lasting (up to two days)
6 Methysticin (M) • Neuroprotective
• Sedative

An example of a balanced kava is our Fiji Loa Waka which has a chemotype of 463251.