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What is Kava?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Kava or Piper methysticum is a small shrub with heart shaped leaves is native to the Pacific Islands. Its rhizome, or underground stem, and roots can be crushed to create a potent juice with mildly stimulant and psychoactive effects. Many Pacific Island cultures revere kava, and have their own unique traditions. Kava extract is also available in many health food stores, as some people believe that it can benefit people with stress, anxiety, or depression.

This bush has distinctive heart-shaped leaves and racemes or spikes of flowers, with dense woody stems. People traditionally gather the roots of the plant to produce kava drinks. In some regions, the roots are chewed and spat out, while other regions use grinding tools to press their kava. The pressing releases the bitter greenish juice; the finer the grind, the more juice is extracted.

The resulting liquid is also called kava, and it may also be known as kawa, kava kava, sakau, yaqona, awa, or 'ava. In the Pacific Islands, the drink is consumed socially in friendly groups, and guests may be offered it as a gesture of friendship and goodwill. Depending on the potency of the extract, people may experience mild euphoria or extreme intoxication. People who have consumed kava say that the drink is quite relaxing while being simultaneously stimulating, and they often feel a sense of immense clarity.

Numerous traditional island populations cultivate specific varietals of kava, some of which are extremely potent. In some regions, legislation has been put in place to control quality and consumption, out of concern for potentially deleterious health and social effects. In regions which produce extracts for commercial sale, dried kava may be used since it is easier to handle.

Like many herbal remedies, kava is difficult to study because it comes in varying strengths which make it hard to pin down safe dosages and effectiveness. It does appear to be potentially detrimental to the liver, so people with liver conditions should probably avoid it. It also seems to have at least mild sedative effects, and it is something to be considered in a treatment plan for insomnia or stress. As with other herbs, patients should always disclose kava use to medical professionals to avoid drug conflicts, and may want to consult a doctor before using it.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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