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Is Kava a Safe Stress Reducer?

This ancient-drink-turned-extract has come under scrutiny. See if its risks are worth its anxiety relief.

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Is Kava a Safe Stress Reducer?

I recently spent time in Hawaii on vacation where I discovered my first Kava bar. 

I was walking along the market streets of Kona on the Big Island and ventured inward a bit, when I happened across a small outdoor café—a pleasant place called Kanaka Kava. Behind the bar was a friendly hip-looking guy in his 20s, looking cool stirring a brownish liquid in a large wooden bowl. Imagine a salad bowl for 20 people—that’s how big this thing was—large enough to hold 6 gallons of fluid. Behind him stood a variety of smaller bowls that turned out to be coconut shells, all handsomely decorated. One had a small red heart lacquered into it; another had carved spider webs all around the sides. These were bowls of regulars who came to drink kava from their own personalized cups.

Courtesy of Jim NicolaiKanaka Kava in Hawaii
Kava Bar

I bought a coconut cup myself for five bucks— I wanted to be a regular.

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I’ve read about Kava, prescribed as a mild reliever of stress and anxiety. I’ve even tried an extract of it in liquid form during my training as an Integrative Medicine fellow. I remember it numbing my lips and tongue, while providing a subtle but satisfying feeling of calm.

I’d never had it fresh as a beverage.

Kava has been used in traditional Polynesian cultures as a ceremonial drink for over 3,000 years. It is made from the root of a species of pepper plant known as Awa (Piper methysticum—or intoxicating pepper). To make fresh Kava, the root of the plant is harvested, then washed and pulverized. The resulting powdery mash is then strained repeatedly through a cloth while being mixed with fresh water. This mixing intensifies the extraction and the taste.

My first drink of Kava was wonderfully interesting. Right off the bat, I noticed a mild tingling of my lips and tongue. It tasted earthy and vegetal. Some people say it tastes like dirt—by no means bad dirt. Unfortunately, I wasn’t taught how to drink it according to tradition—all down in one slurp while holding the shell with two hands, followed by clapping twice to release the sacred kapu, which ends the ceremony. Unbeknownst to me, I found myself sipping it with no clapping.

Now I know.

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I definitely felt a deliciously subtle feeling of calm without any effects of intoxication. It was very nice and gave me an ease that lasted into the night. I slept marvelously.

Kava fell out of favor as a supplement a decade ago as reports suggested a link between certain extracts of kava and potential liver damage. Remember, Kava has been used as a water-based beverage for thousands of years in the South Pacific islands without reported liver problems. So what’s the difference? How can one cause liver toxicity and one not? Maybe they are not the same thing.

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